The Perennial Spirituality

It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself to deal with difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs. In the midst of peace the soldier carries out manoeuvres, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes. This was the aim of the men who once every month pretended they were poor, bringing themselves face to face with want, to prevent their ever being terrified by a situation which they had frequently rehearsed...........
          That makeshift bed must be a real makeshift bed, and the same applies to your clothes, and your bread must be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes more, so that it is a genuine trial and not an amusement. At the end of it, believe me, Lucilius, you will revel in being sated for a penny, and will come to see that security from care is not dependent on fortune – for even when she is angry she will always let us have what is enough for our needs..........
          So, my dear Luilius, start following these men’s practice and appoint certain days on which to give up everything and make yourself at home with next to nothing. Start cultivating a relationship with poverty......I am not, mind you, against your possessing riches, but I want to ensure that you possess them without tremors; and this you will achieve in one way, by convincing yourself that you can live a happy life even without them, and by always regarding them as being on the point of vanishing.

From the Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca.
(Letters from a Stoic, pages 67-9, slightly adapted)

Earlier this year I decided I needed to lose some weight. It wasn’t vanity that provoked my concern: when one gets to 70 one is not really bothered about one’s sexual appeal. No, it was financial prudence. I found that I was outgrowing my garments, particularly my trousers. I’ve had (or I’ve pretended to have!) a 36 inch waist for many years, but I was finding it a bit of a struggle to get into my 36 inch waist trousers, especially into the trousers of the suit I bought at ridiculous expense when I was President of the denomination. So, it was either lose a bit of weight or shell out on some new clothes.
          Over the years I’d tried a lot of diets, none successfully. I gave up far too easily and any weight I’d lost was soon regained. However, I’d heard of the 5-2 diet and it seemed reasonably painless, so I decided to give it a try. It’s based on a simple principle: you eat as normal for five days of the week, but on two days you ‘fast’, restricting your calorie intake to about 700. This is about a third of what one would normally eat. So, on ‘fast’ days I eat a bowl of porridge made with water as breakfast, a tin of soup – without bread - for lunch, and a calorie counted ready-meal for dinner. No milk, no bread, no butter, no cheese, no alcohol, no cakes, no biscuits, no sweets. And I’ve stuck to it, by and large, for nine months. There have been times when I’ve had to change my days – my usual fasting days are Mondays and Thursdays, but sometimes if we’ve been going away or if people have been coming round for a meal, I’ve changed to Wednesday or Friday, but I’ve kept to the regime and I’m pretty satisfied with the results. I’ve lost over a stone and I can get into my trousers with ease. I’ve got about another stone to lose and I hope to accomplish this by the end of the year.
          But, of course, it’s not exactly fasting. 700 calories is a reasonable amount of food, and very many people in the world survive on less. And Muslims, during Ramadan, don’t eat, or even drink water, throughout the daylight hours, and when Ramadan occurs in the summer – as it did this year – observing it is particularly demanding.
          But my ‘fasting’ does involve a change in routine and it does mean that one gets some minor pangs of hunger during the day, and one does long for a slice of bread and butter or a biscuit or a piece of cake. But it is do-able and what’s more, strangely, it’s quite enjoyable. For a start, there’s a real sense of achievement at the end of a ‘fast’ day, and some slightly increased awareness of what hunger means for so many. There is pride that one has been able to resist temptation, and there’s also the anticipation of proper eating - unmonitored, guilt-free eating - which one can indulge in on the next day. As I go to bed on a ‘fast’ day I think, ‘Tomorrow morning I can enjoy a cup of coffee with milk in it as soon as I get up, and porridge made with milk for breakfast, and a sandwich made with real bread spread with real butter for lunch and one of Morag’s spectacular creations for dinner, and maybe even a glass of cider.’ And I do enjoy these things. I enjoy them in a way that I rarely enjoyed them at other times when I ate and drank as I pleased. Things taste better after a ‘fast’. My simple, and, let’s face it, not terribly arduous ‘fasting’ has actually increased my enjoyment of food.
          The extract from the Stoic philosopher Seneca, express a very important and very simple psychological truth: when we deprive ourselves of something for a while, we enjoy it all the more when we take it up again. And the reverse is also true: we become used to things; the edge comes off their appeal; what we used to think of as wonderful, soon becomes commonplace. ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world’, says Hamlet, in his most famous soliloquy. How often do we feel like that? How often are we disappointed by something we thought would transform our lives for the better? A new car, a bigger house, an exotic holiday, a better job; the things we crave rarely, if ever, live up to our expectations. We are never really satisfied. ‘I want it all, and I want it now,’ sang Freddie Mercury in 1989. It has almost become a mantra for our time. And at Christmas time we’ll be hearing, ‘I wish it could be Christmas every day’ blaring out at us in supermarkets, on the radio, on television. But, as Shakespeare tells us in Henry IV Part 2,

         If all the year were playing holidays
          To sport would be as tedious as to work.
          But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
          And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.

          We’re all familiar with Brian Keenan’s reaction when he was being kept as a hostage for four and a half years by Islamic Jihad in Beirut and was presented with a bowl of fruit:
          But wait. My eyes are almost burned by what I see. There’s a bowl in front of me that wasn’t there before. A brown button bowl and in it some apricots, some small oranges, some nuts, cherries, a banana. The fruits, the colours, mesmerise me in a quiet rapture that spins through my head. I am entranced by colour. I lift an orange into the flat filthy palm of my hand and feel and smell and lick it. The colour orange, the colour, the colour, my God the colour orange. Before me is a feast of colour. I feel myself begin to dance, slowly, I am intoxicated by colour. I feel the colour in a quiet somnambulant rage. Such wonder, such absolute wonder in such an insignificant fruit. (From An Evil Cradling)

‘To rest unsatisfied amid great wealth/Is in the nature of all human beings’, writes Aeschylus in his play, Agamemnon, written in the middle of the 6th century BCE. It’s a common problem, a universal phenomenon, observed and written about since the dawn of time. And fasting has been practised as a remedy for this very human characteristic. Fasting makes us appreciate things more, it makes us realise that contentment comes through contrast not through indulgence. In July of this year, the writer Jeanette Winterton, wrote an article in the Guardian describing her experience of a supervised eleven-day fast. She began it with these words:

'Earlier this year, feeling tired and stressed, and disturbed by our culture of over-consumption, I decided to try fasting – a practice going back millennia. The results were surprising and now I can’t wait to do it again.'


In the great religions of the world, fasting is routinely practised and systematically observed. Ramadan for Muslims, Lent and Advent for Christians are the two we are most familiar with, but Buddhists and Hindus fast, too, and so do the Jews. Jews fast throughout the twenty-four hours of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, not even cleaning their teeth lest they swallow a drop of water. Some years ago, Mormon missionaries visited me and I politely offered them a drink – water or fruit juice, because they don’t drink alcohol, tea, or coffee - and I asked them if they would like a sandwich. They declined everything and eventually admitted that they were fasting that day. They considered their meeting with me so important that they undertook to go without food or drink for the whole day, offering it to God as a kind of prayer for a successful conversion. I wasn’t converted, of course, but I was certainly impressed.
          From the age of seven I received communion in the Catholic Church. In those days – the early fifties – one had to fast from midnight before receiving communion, so on Sunday morning I would attend church without breakfast and without even a drink of water and would never eat breakfast until about eleven o’clock. The purpose of the fast was to add solemnity to the occasion, to underline its significance and importance.
          The New Testament mentions fasting on numerous occasions. Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights before embarking on his public ministry, and in the Sermon on the Mount his disciples are instructed to do their fasting, like they are to do their praying, in private, without drawing attention to it.
          It seems that the secular world is catching up with the religious world. In a recent report from the National Institute of Ageing in Baltimore, fasting was shown to have physical and mental benefits. Apparently, it helps protect against brain disease, heart disease, diabetes and can help with certain types of cancer. It can also help to foster mental clarity. I recently saw a programme in which the Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, was talking about Dolly Parton. He had asked her how had she been able to write so many splendid songs. She told him that she retires to her lonely shack in the mountains, fasts for a few days, and then begins to write.
          If fasting is such an important factor in the religious traditions of the world – as a contributor to psychological health, as a kind of prayer, as a means of expressing solidarity with the poor, as self-discipline - why do we Unitarians ignore it? Of course, one can say, ‘Unitarians are free to practise fasting if they want to, we just don’t require it, or recommend it.’ That’s true, but not only do we not require it, we don’t even mention it! When was the last time you read about, or heard a sermon about, or entered into a conversation about fasting? We ignore it because it isn’t something we can argue about. We like religious ‘ideas’; like the Athenians of old we like to spend our time ‘doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas’. (Acts 17). We have ‘itching ears’, as Paul wrote in his 2nd Letter to Timothy. ‘That was interesting,’ we say at the end of a sermon. It’s almost the highest praise we can give a preacher.
          But I’m becoming a little weary of religious ‘ideas’. I’ve had enough of argument. I don’t want to enter into debate. For the time being, at least, I don’t want to hear another sermon inviting me to ‘think’ about some deep metaphysical question. I don’t particularly want to hear about my civic responsibilities, about global warming, feminism, gay rights, gay marriage, euthanasia, assisted suicide, fracking, abortion, and all the other right-on social and political causes that we Guardian-reading liberals seem to espouse (and all of which I’ve preached about at one time or another over the past twenty years). I don’t want to hear another sermon on world religions, paganism or atheism. I don’t want another history lesson telling me about the glories of our Unitarian past, or the persecutions we suffered, or the great men and women we have produced.
          What I want at this time of my life is encouragement and support in living a spiritual life. Now I don’t want to spend hours discussing what ‘spiritual life’ means. I know what it means for me, and I suspect you know it too. It means reflection, self-examination, reappraisal of my goals and priorities, re-reading the world, increasing my sensitivity to life, opening myself up to ‘otherness’, to beauty, and feeding my imagination, connecting with God. I want to be able to say with Emily Dickinson, ‘To live is so startling it leaves but little time for other occupations’. And this is what all churches and religions worth the name have provided for their adherents. And they’ve done it in remarkably similar ways. When you strip away the creeds and beliefs – which are always contentious, always provoking disagreement, and argument and hatred and division - you can find a series of practices such as meditation, liturgy, yoga, fasting, pilgrimage, special days and special seasons, special times and special prayers, all of which are designed to help us live the spiritual life, and all of which we Unitarians have spent the last four hundred years or so discarding. Rev Sue Woolley asked on her blog a few weeks ago, ‘Are we a philosophy or a religion?’ It’s a good question. I think we have tended to be more philosophical than religious in recent times, and I think we need to discover – or re-discover – what we might call the Perennial Spirituality, the ways and means the religious systems of the world have developed to help us to live our lives at depth.
          And never has such a re-discovery been more important. We are living in a culture which can only treat the spiritual malaise which seems to be endemic within it by means of chemicals. In 2014 there were fifty-five million prescriptions for anti-depressants issued in Britain. This is a terrifying figure. And, ironically, the anti-depressant capital of Britain is Blackpool. Blackpool, which, as Stanley Holloway told us many years ago in his famous monologue, used to be ‘noted for fresh-air and fun’. Well now it’s famous for Prozac and misery.
          Recently, I attended St. Giles church in Pontefract with an Anglican friend. It was a lovely service, with drama, colour, and beauty. The 24-strong choir sang portions of the service in Latin – this was in the Church of England – reminding me of my days in the Catholic Church, and alerting me to the fact that singing beautifully in a foreign tongue can by-pass the critical, analytical mind and uplift the spirit; exactly what I needed and need.
          We ask why it is that few people seem to want to join us. In Britain, there are six times as many Mormons as there are Unitarians – and Mormons demand things of their members. Mormons tithe, fast, refrain from alcohol, coffee, and tea, go on a two-year mission at their own expense. But Mormonism, despite its bizarre metaphysics, provides a framework for living a spiritual life and this seems to be what people are seeking. Maybe, and I put it no stronger, that while we have got the intellectual side of things right - allowing for theological diversity and the like – we haven’t yet come to realise that there is a generic spirituality, a series of techniques and practices which transcend all religious divisions, and which we – uniquely - can practise and teach without impediment of dogma.
          This is what we need to explore in our quest for growth in the 21st century.

Rev.Bill Darlison
Minister Emeritus Dublin Unitarian Church

Dorene Groocock wrote an article about fasting which was published in Oscailt in March 2013. Here it is again: