If you are someone who follows a defined spiritual path (Catholic, Hari Krishna, Sufi, Baha’i), you will have adopted a set of values and spiritual practices that you believe are true and useful. This does not mean that you have stopped thinking for yourself. But it does entail that you choose to abide by those principles, with mindfulness and intelligence, no doubt.
Quite naturally when we are trying to follow a spiritual path properly, we utilise our conscience to decipher right from wrong. Having a conscience is vital: it is a distinguishing feature of being human. One example of when I rely on my conscience relates to the Baha’i Fast and being sick.
Baha’is fast for 19 days each year, refraining from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. Why do we do this? Abdu’l-Baha has said that fasting “is conducive to the spiritual development of the individual”1 for it is “the cause of awakening and mindfulness and conducive to protection and preservation from tests”.2
However, there are a number of instances that exempt Baha’is from fasting, such as old age, pregnancy and illness. And those who are sick are not only exempt but are told that they shouldn’t fast. Of obligatory prayer and fasting, Baha’u’llah says:
It is … in a state of health that their virtue can be realized. In time of ill-health it is not permissible to observe these obligations.3
My understanding is that fasting is not meant to be dangerous or harmful to you or those around you and if you’re sick, you need to eat, drink and rest in order to recuperate.
These words also make it clear that it is not really a matter of personal choice or conscience to fast or not to fast when sick, for Baha’u’llah says it is “not permissible”. So even if my conscience tells me to fast when I’m sick, if I follow the counsels of Baha’u’llah, I will not fast. This provides a challenge when, out of a love for Baha’u’llah, I may wish to fast regardless of being sick; however, couldn’t we say that devotion to Baha’u’llah is to abide by His injunction not to fast if sick?
At times during my years as a Baha’i I have tried to fast even when I was sick but always went through an inner struggle about this. Mentally I could see that Baha’u’llah didn’t want me to fast, but in my heart, I couldn’t. Perhaps it was the fear of God that made me continue fasting. Now I finally have the love, trust in God and certitude of His love for me that I can comfortably follow such counsels and not feel like I’m letting God down. It took a leap of faith to overcome the fear of upsetting God by trusting that God loves me. Why does God not want me to fast when sick? Because He cares about my physical and spiritual well-being. Therefore, to fast when sick (especially seriously ill) would be fanatical and would go against His wishes for me.
That being said, it is not always easy to say at what point one is sick? Is it when I have a fever? Is it when I’m bed-ridden? Should I fast when I have the beginning of a cold or should I stop fasting in order that I can try to fight the cold? Or is a cold not severe enough of an illness to stop fasting for? These are the questions I continue to struggle with. These are questions that must be answered by the individual’s conscience. So, in following a defined spiritual path there can be things that are rather black and white that we need to do and that require only surrender. But on the other hand, there are things that are more ambiguous, which do require the reason and conscience of the individual. I think it’s important that our conscience doesn’t become fanatical and start imposing austerities on ourselves that are counter-productive.
In the end, it’s probably a matter of conscience, purity of motive and loving obedience. Fasting is between the individual and God so that means we don’t need to justify why we are or aren’t fasting to anyone else. On the one hand, we don’t want to be too lax with ourselves, but on the other hand, we shouldn’t be too severe either. If I fast when I am clearly sick, despite the injunction not to, then I am trying to write my own book of laws instead of following the one lovingly written for me.