The Baha’i Fast falls during the month of Ala–the last month of the Baha’i calendar. During these 19 days, Baha’is abstain from food and drink between sunrise and sunset. While this abstention from food and drink is a test of one’s will and discipline, the Fast is not just about abstaining from food. The Fast is, primarily, a spiritual practice.
4 Ways the Baha’i Fast Prepares Me for the New Year
The month of Loftiness (which is also the period of the Baha’i Fast) is the final month in the Baha’i calendar year. Loftiness means to be elevated in character and spirit; to have noble ideals—to rise to great height. The Baha’i month of Loftiness culminates at sunset the day before Spring Equinox in Tehran, the birth place of Baha’u’llah. In the northern hemisphere, this is the time when the invisible work that has been happening below ground all winter is visibly manifested as tiny buds along tree branches and the green tips of early spring flowers pressing skyward. Just as the natural world where I live prepares to emerge from what outwardly appears to be a period of dormancy, I observe the Baha’i Fast—a time of prayer, reflection, and heightened awareness of my spiritual reality and purpose. Outwardly it involves hardship and sacrifice. I abstain from consuming food and drink from sunrise to sunset, and from indulging personal desires that I know are not conducive to spiritual growth. During the month of Loftiness, I also actively engage in acts of devotion that will help me to better serve my family and community in the new year.
To me the month of Loftiness and the Baha’i Fast are inextricably intertwined and mutually complementary. There are innumerable ways in which the last month of the Baha’i year prepares us for another year of service ahead. Here are four that stick out to me:
1. It reminds me that discipline is a muscle that only gets stronger with consistent practice
Just like physical strength, spiritual qualities can be strengthened with practice. Baha’u’llah describes the Fast with these words: “Thou hast endowed every hour of these days with a special virtue, inscrutable to all except Thee.” 1 I personally think that every moment of every day is special in its own right, but the Founder of the Baha’i Faith literally tells me that this is the case during the month of Loftiness. I try to be very aware of this fact as I move through every moment of my day—especially the times of day that can be harder, like when the alarm goes off in the dark and my brain starts rationalizing skipping breakfast and catching up on sleep! While being mindful that every hour is endowed with a special virtue may not make my bleary-eyed stumble to the kitchen any more graceful, it does challenge me to ask myself whether I really want to be consciously forgoing an opportunity for learning and spiritual growth that only comes around once a year to sleep. Ultimately, the choice is mine. But being a humble human, I find turning to the Writings for the reminder of the many blessings that can be mine this month if I “flee from sleep” in my eagerness to approach God’s presence and partake of His bounty. 2
2. It invites me to look at why I’m here, and for how long
The month of Loftiness, by the very virtue of its name, reminds me that I was placed on this planet with a noble and distinctive purpose, and that I only have a limited time in which to fulfil it. As I’m reminded every day when I recite the Short Obligatory Prayer, I was created to know God and to worship Him, and to develop the spiritual qualities that I will need in the next world. I’m a spiritual being having a brief physical experience. It can be easy to forget that I do not have an indefinite period of time in which to accomplish what I was put here to do; to get preoccupied with the transitory things of the material world. The short duration of the month of Loftiness is both an incentive and an opportunity for me to practice making the most of a limited period of time. It’s an invitation to re-focus my energy intensely on what matters most. As Baha’u’llah says,
Thou hast bidden all men to observe the Fast, that through it they may purify their souls and rid themselves of all attachment to anyone but Thee. 3
The Fast calls me to establish new patterns of behaviour that I can, if I am diligent and conscientious, continue to practice for the rest of the year.
3. It protects & keeps me healthy
We are told in the Baha’i Writings that we should accustom ourselves to hardship because challenging times help us to grow in ways that may not immediately be evident. Winter is outwardly harsh, but it also provides the natural world with the conditions conducive to growth and the time to rest and rejuvenate before another full season of life. Likewise, as Baha’u’llah writes,“[e]ven though outwardly the Fast is difficult and toilsome, yet inwardly it is bounty and tranquility.” 4 It is also a time for healing. I know that the physical act of fasting is beneficial for my body—allowing it to detox and cleanse, which results in renewed energy and vigour. The Baha’i Fast adds to these physical benefits the opportunity for personal reflection; the chance to look back at my choices over the previous year, to call myself to account, and to make adjustments where need be. As Baha’u’llah far more eloquently puts it, “fasting is the supreme remedy and the most great healing for the disease of self and passion.” 5 As I learn to adapt to going without food and water from sunrise to sunset for 19 days, I’m reminded of my humility and resilience—both qualities that will serve me well as I embark on the journey of the new year, and the tests and triumphs that it will inevitably bring.
4. It challenges me to actively contribute
The collective act of over 8 million people scattered all across the globe rising before sunrise to pray and meditate, abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, and filling the daylight hours with prayer, reflection and acts of service releases a powerful regenerative energy that is hard to describe. So many people from such diverse backgrounds and cultures focusing our efforts on spiritual rejuvenation creates a heightened sense of our fundamental oneness. In addition, for those of us who have the privilege of never otherwise experiencing extended periods of hunger or thirst, the month of Loftiness and the Baha’i Fast give us a glimpse of what many of our brothers and sisters across the planet live with every day of their lives. Baha’u’llah explains:
All praise be unto God, Who hath revealed the law of obligatory prayer as a reminder to His servants, and enjoined on them the Fast that those possessed of means may become apprised of the woes and sufferings of the destitute. 6
It can be hard to feel empathy for suffering that we have not personally experienced. Choosing to fast for 19 days cannot be compared to a lifetime of hunger or starvation, but experiencing hunger personally—for however brief a period of time—does nurture in me a greater degree of compassion for those who are living with far less. And more importantly, as someone who enjoys the privilege of plenty, it reminds me that I have a responsibility for actively changing the systems and attitudes that perpetuate inequality. In so doing the act of fasting encourages me to actively contribute to building unity in the global family of which I am a part.
I know each of us experiences the month of Loftiness in ways that are unique to us. What is special about the month of Loftiness to you? I’d love to read your reflections in the comments section below this post.
Footnotes & Citations
Baha’u’llah, Prayers and Meditations by Baha’u’llah, US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1987, p. 143[↩]
Ariana Salvo was born in the United States, and spent sixteen years of her childhood on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. She moved to Prince Edward Island to do her master’s degree in Island Studies, fell in love with the tightly knit community, and has never left. When not writing, she can be found exploring art at galleries around the world, flower farming, traveling to remote islands, hiking and taking photos of the wild natural landscapes of Canada’s eastern shore, teaching English to international students and reading historical fiction with a good cup of tea.