Insights on Holy Eating
A brief history of forbidden foods and fasting in world religions
Most religions recommend or require certain forms of abstinence or define prohibited food items as part of their requirements for believers. Anthropologically or in comparative terms this tendency can be interpreted in several ways: an ordering of the world into pure and impure substances and practices, a mistrust of food linked to sexual desire, the necessity for gestures of atonement, or a concern with a form of discipline. Different religions may have similar fasts, but for different purposes. Thus the Christian fasting period of Lent (the forty days before Easter) is a form of self-mortification and abstinence commemorating the events leading up to Christ’s crucifixion while the Islamic Ramadan (a month-long period of fasting during the daylight hours) is less penitential and oriented more towards introspection and the self-discipline appropriate to an upright life.
Certain characteristics are found in many religious practices with regard to food along with certain key differences. Many religions and even non-religious philosophers such as the Greek Pythagoreans recommend or require vegetarian observance and so prohibit or severely limit the consumption of meat. This is found in many forms of Buddhism and observed by certain followers of the Hindu religions of India. In some contexts vegetarianism represented a form of dissent, even heresy, thus the southern French Cathars of the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, suppressed as dangerous heretics, are alleged to have counseled vegetarianism. The picture is complicated by varying definitions of what constitutes holy eating depending on status within the religion. Thus in Christian Western Europe, monks were not supposed to eat meat while priests and lay people were only regulated according to the day or time of year and on non-fast days were encouraged to eat meat.
Another trait is the prohibition of certain kinds of meat, not as a form of abstinence but to be avoided by reason of being defined as unclean. Judaism and Islam are well-known examples of the practice of distinguishing certain kinds of meat, notably pork, as forbidden to all believers as well as regulating animal slaughter practices. Christian texts of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages often ridicule Jewish (and later, Muslim) concerns over rules of governing what can be eaten and present Christians, by contrast, as tolerant omnivores. On the other hand, the Catholic Church defined abstaining from certain foods in terms of time, rather than type: Lent, Fridays, Advent (before Christmas) and various vigils and saints’ days were marked as fasting days, and not only meat but sometimes dairy products and eggs were included in the prohibitions.
Holy eating thus tends to be defined in negative terms: what is forbidden. The positive component is linked to the differential referred to just now between those who consider themselves as removed from the world, and so truly devout, versus ordinary believers. At one extreme are Christian heroes of fasting such as the monks of Roman Egypt known as the “Desert Fathers” who were said to live on mere spoonful’s of greens, or adolescent girls of late-medieval towns, such as St. Catherine of Siena, who reputedly ate almost nothing except the Eucharistic wafer taken at communion. This is holy eating, or not eating, and although such practices would be now defined medically as forms of anorexia, they carried with them in previous centuries at least the possibility of being holy and pleasing to God in a way that ordinary observance of common regulations about food was not. There have always been devout people regarded as exceptional “athletes” or “warriors” who were credited with feats of holiness that might involve visions, prophecy, transcendent experiences, or self-mortification including near-total abstinence.
Such behavior is not common to all religions and the conceptual link between not eating and holiness is hardly universal. What does have resonance across a number of religions is a notion of purity joined to abstinence from food or at least from meat. Such purity may be part of a counsel of living well without inflicting violence on animals, thus in Buddhist and Jain teachings. In Hinduism the picture is more complicated because a majority of believers do not abstain from meat, but the highest caste, Brahmins, generally do. Here purity is defined in less concrete and more personal terms than not engaging in the slaughter of animals. Meat confers a degree of impurity that the highest status people are supposed to avoid. In a sense this resembles monasticism in Catholic Christianity where a group of particularly devout men and women isolate themselves from society, devote themselves to prayer and eat only vegetarian and dairy products along with fish. Here purity has nothing to do with killing animals (fish die for the sake of the human stomach), or even penance. Rather it is a sign of leaving the secular world, just as are enclosure within the monastery walls, the routine of prayer, manual labor or living in common, all attributes of monasticism.
It is a mark of modernity and secularism that such practices identifying holy foods should give way before (supposedly) scientific ideas of what a healthy diet consists of. Yet it is obvious to any thoughtful observer that the most developed countries, and those in which religious ideas about food are weakest, nevertheless are populated by many people with often unstated assumptions about purity, danger and what would now be called “wellness” rather than holiness. In countries like the United States, vegetarianism without religious identity is common. Many foods that were cheerfully consumed by our grandparents are now considered disgusting (i.e. impure), such as organ meats, lard, or fish heads. Individuals who do not suffer from celiac disease nevertheless present themselves as aspiring to a gluten-free diet or way of life. The identification of meat with coarseness, sexual desire, impurity, heaviness or some such negative characteristic, persists, even without an explicitly religious commitment.