Fasting reinvented in post-Catholic Austria and France

While the Catholic Church’s traditional prescriptions concerning bodily asceticism are largely ignored by the faithful, even in monasteries marked by “the progressive imposition of the prerogative of health over asceticism,” forms of voluntary reduction of consumption are appearing in secular society. This observation prompted sociologist Isabelle Jonveaux (University of Graz) to conduct research in Austria and France on fasting as a spiritual experience in settings where it does not implement a precept fixed by a religious institution. After a previous book about the evolution of bodily asceticism in monastic life, she presents the results of her new research in a book in French, Une Culture de la Satiété [A Culture of Satiety] (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, $24.96). Jonveaux’s research focused on “holistic fasting,” introduced in Europe in the 1970s, initially in German-speaking countries, in the context of searching for a holistic experience of body, mind and spirit. Women are said to be in the vast majority in the practice of secular asceticism, which overlaps with the more pronounced interest of women in alternative eating behaviors that has been observed by other researchers.

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The contemporary experience of fasting is readily presented as linked to traditions, including those of monasteries as well as other cultures. But secular fasting is the result of a personal process and is not associated with mortification: “The asceticism of fasting is associated with the search for bodily well-being.” Secular asceticism is not a glorification of poverty, notes Jonveaux, but a form of “positive sobriety” leading to a better quality of life through reduced consumption. Some fasting stays even take place in wellness or luxury hotels, while others are hosted by monasteries or accompany a hike. Fasting tends also to be combined with a concern for the environment, in parallel with a concern for “conscious” eating. Some organizers of fasting sessions recommend using local products for the herbal teas consumed. The author also cites the “car fast,” which appeared in 1997 and is recommended by both Catholic dioceses and Protestant churches for its ecological value.

Fasting is increasingly accompanied by temporary disconnection from new technologies (Internet, social networks, etc.), which is experienced as a mastery and liberation that enables inner listening—also in traditional religious contexts. In the fasting sessions observed by Jonveaux, there is a spiritual dimension, although “spiritual” is undefined. Through renunciation, “the individual learns to resist the appeals of consumer society.” It is a protest against the presentation of consumption as the path to happiness for individuals. More precisely, explains Jonveaux, “the forms of renunciation studied testify to a devaluation of the abundance enabled by consumption.” Faced with the feeling of an overabundance, the conviction emerges that true happiness lies elsewhere. And the “return of renunciation” also shows that “certain practices previously prescribed by the Church correspond to social expectations that individuals are seeking to reinvent in other ways.”