Throughout the world and over the course of history, wholly unrelated cultures have adopted similar rituals. Fasting represents one such common practice. The purpose of fasting normally reveals itself through religious rites, where the practice often appears in different forms.
In Buddhism, during fasting periods, monks and nuns restrict their diets to one meal per day, while adhering to more restrictive monthly fasting days. In Islam, a form of intermittent fasting takes place during the entire month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar year. Ramadan restricts periodic fasting to the period lasting from dawn until dusk.
Evolution of Spiritual Fasting
Traditionally, cultures imposed fasting practices in advance of important religious festivals. For example, fasting might precede a visit from an Egyptian pharaoh, or in advance of high holidays, or in sacrifice for a visit to the oracle in Delphi.
During Hildegard von Bingen’s lifetime in the Middle Ages, fasting played a prominent role in daily life. At that time, over 150 fasting days marked the calendar each year. Failure to meet the obligations accompanying spiritual fasting periods often meant harsh punishment.
Lent persists as a prominent legacy of fasting tradition in the Catholic faith. We observe Lent for the 40 days preceding Easter, starting on Ash Wednesday. The formal doctrine calling for fasting and abstinence during Lent was adopted in 1966, restricting meat on Fridays, while enforcing spiritual fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Fasting as a way to let go of superfluous things
The purpose of fasting distills our primary needs by way of purification, reorientation, and deliberate concentration on personal needs. Today, many of us associate fasting with weight loss. As a corollary, the thought of fasting recalls painful pangs of hunger.
To the contrary, the purpose of fasting, particularly spiritual fasting transcends the superficial benefits to our appearance. Rather the purpose of fasting contributes to our holistic sense of well-being. Among the many forms of fasting, the practice itself appeals universally.
Hildegard’s Gentle Fasting Regimen
We credit Hildegard of Bingen with several forms of fasting, which predate what we know today as intermittent or periodic fasting. Apart from the form of fasting, Hildegard saw the practice generally to free not only the body, but also the soul and spirit from waste and excess ballast.
Counter to the common association of fasting with starvation, Hildegard’s fasting guidelines eschew the punishment of painful hunger during fasting. Among the many concepts emphasized in Hildegard nutrition, she believed that “when man starves, the soul suffers.” Hildegard’s ancient nutritional treatment derives from her concept of balance or discretio, meaning the right measure in all things.
The purpose of fasting for our times
Along with the progress we’ve made in easing our lives, modernity has abandoned certain forms of simplicity. While life may appear easier in some respects, the persistent demands of modern communication adds stress (see our post on digital detox). Similarly, the food we eat remains available in abundance, but often with unwanted processing and modification.
Fasting represents a means to relieve our organs and thus alleviate the burdens we place on our systems. The most common health conditions today include adult-onset diabetes, high blood pressure, arthrosis, arthritis, rheumatism, gout, allergies, gastrointestinal diseases or migraine.
Consciously withdrawing food helps the organism metabolize and excrete many of the toxins that contribute to failing health. In traditional German medicine, we consider fasting “an operation without a knife”.
Breaking bad cycles and adopting new habits
The purpose of fasting according to Hildegard of Bingen deserves special recognition, not just because she ranked among the first to document centuries of formal fasting practice. Hildegard’s approach to fasting starts with the intent to cleanse, thereby strengthening body, mind, and spirit and ends with an adoption of nourishing life habits.
In the course of a Hildegard fast, we work to correct for our past, by cleansing the body of existing toxins. At the same time, we strengthen our condition by adopting food as medicine implementing preventative remedies, using age-old herbs or spices.
The Nature of Healing
Ideally, we come out of a fast feeling great, and having made progress in adjusting our eating habits. We know of Hildegard as a firm believer in the mantra that “man is what he eats”. Hildegard fasting helps modify eating habits while giving life more meaning through self-discipline.
According to Hildegard, “nature cleanses itself of all bad things, so does man”.
The transition to a healthier life begins in the mind. You are worth it, and you have the power to improve the health and quality of your life. Once we accept that responsibility, we improve our potential to make a change, and certainly to embrace fasting according to Hildegard.
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