Comparing the Baha’i Fast and Lent

When I was a Baha’i, another Baha’i mentioned that she was teaching (i.e. talking about the Faith to a non-Baha’i) a Christian and told her that the Baha’i Fast is sort of like Lent. In this year, 2022, the Baha’i Fast and Lent happen to begin on the same day, March 2, so I think this is a good opportunity to talk about these two traditions and see how similar they actually are.

What is Lent?

Lent is a season of the Christian year in which Christians abstain from certain foods or do other things as a way of strengthening their spiritual life. It is observed for 40 days before Easter. In modern Roman Catholicism, people do this by giving up something they like, and/or by doing some extra act of service or charity. Traditionally Catholics gave up meat, but nowadays most give up something else, like sweets or TV or social media.

It is traditional in Christianity to observe a season of fast and abstinence (called a penitential season) prior to a major feast day. In Catholicism the two main penitential seasons are Advent, the season preceding Christmas Day on December 25, and Lent, the season preceding Easter which usually occurs in April.

Easter is the most important holiday in Christianity, commemorating the Resurrection of Christ. That makes Lent the most important penitential season of the year.

Note: Not all Christians observe Lent, but most do. Catholics, Orthodox, and mainline Protestants (e.g. Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians) observe Lent in some form. That represents around 75% of the world’s Christians. Pentecostals, Baptists, and Evangelicals (including so-called “non-denominationals”), the Christians that many English-speaking Baha’is are most familiar with, do not observe Lent.

What is the Baha’i Fast?

The Baha’i Fast is a period of 19 days (which is one Baha’i month) during which Baha’is abstain from eating or drinking anything between sunrise and sunset. It ends with Naw-Ruz, the first day of the new year on the Baha’i calendar. Naw-Ruz always falls on the March equinox (i.e. the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere), so the fast always starts around March 1–2.

Are they similar?

Was my Baha’i friend justified in calling the Baha’i Fast “sort of like Lent”? Yes, I think it’s a fine comparison.

The fundamental purpose of both is the same. You give up good things that you like so you can focus more on God. Catholicism and the Baha’i Faith both recognize that God created the world and the world is good, but we can allow the good world to distract us from the Ultimate Good. By abstaining from those things, we remember that our happiness and well being don’t depend on these created things but on God.

For me, remembrance is the key thing in fasting. When I was a Baha’i, during the Fast I would get hungry and think, “I should eat something,” and then a second later I’d remember, “Oh yeah, it’s the Fast.” My hunger reminded me of God. Then at sunset, when I could eat again, I’d remember God again, because it was God’s law that had said I could eat again after sunset.

Now, as a Catholic, it’s a similar experience. I give something up for Lent. Then, when I want to go do that thing I remember, “No, I’m not doing that, because it’s Lent.” And then Sunday rolls around, or Easter comes, and I can do that thing again, I remember God again, knowing that I get to have this nice thing because God made it, and also that Sundays and Easter are special days.

How the Baha’i Fast and Lent are different

While they are similar in their overall purpose, they are not directly related to each other and are practiced differently.

  • Lent is for 40 days. The Baha’i Fast is for 19 days.
  • During Lent, your abstinence (giving something up) lasts 24 hours a day. During the Baha’i Fast, you avoid all food and drink, but only during daylight hours.

So the Baha’i Fast involves giving up more things but over a short period of time, while Catholic Lent lasts longer – more days and more hours of the day.

Which one is better?

I don’t think either one is “better” than the other. One might be better suited to an individual’s personality rather than another one.

Personally I find Lent more challenging. Going hungry during the Baha’i Fast was hard, but it’s only for 12 hours and then you can eat whatever you want. On the other hand, giving up chocolate during Lent is really painful for me, because I have to go days and days without it.

I could see how a Baha’i might think Catholic Lent is lame, because you choose the thing you give up. But that puts more responsibility on the individual Catholic to choose a item that would be a big deal to them. Yes, an individual Catholic could cheat by giving up something they don’t care about anyway. But there are ways to cheat the system with the Baha’i Fast, too, by staying up all night and sleeping half the day. If you follow the intent of each practice, they both achieve the desired result, which is to center your thoughts on God and train you not to be focused so much on created things.

The new and improved Baha’i calendar

I just want to say, I really like the new Badi calendar the Universal House of Justice implemented seven years ago.

Seat of the Universal House of Justice
Seat of the Universal House of Justice. Photo by Adib Roy on Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This calendar change is old news to Baha’is. But as I said in my last post, I haven’t been paying attention to events in the Baha’i world. So it wasn’t until the past few days that I became aware of it. In 2014 the Universal House of Justice announced that beginning in early 2015, the Baha’i calendar would be keyed to the timing of the vernal equinox at Tehran.

When I was a Baha’i (late ’90s, early ’00s), the Baha’i calendar in Western countries was simply a rebranded version of the Christian Gregorian calendar. Naw-Ruz always happened on March 21. The Births of the Bab and Baha’u’llah were on October 20 and November 12, respectively, ignoring the fact that they occurred next to each other on the Islamic calendar. The beginning of every Baha’i month and the date of every Baha’i holiday was fixed on a particular day of the Gregorian calendar. It didn’t feel like the calendar of an authentically new dispensation.

I became a Baha’i at university, and I remember writing both the Gregorian and Baha’i dates when I took notes in class. After a while it felt kind of cheap though, because there was always a simple 1:1 relationship between the two. October 6, for example, was always going to be Mashiyyat 10 and nothing else.

This bothered me at the time. I knew that Naw-Ruz was supposed to occur on the Spring Equinox, which didn’t always fall on March 21. One time I called the offices of the NSA to ask about it. The lady I talked to didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. “It’s just always on March 21,” she said.

The UHJ came up with a great solution to how to handle the birthdays of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. They need to be calculated lunarly (if that’s a word), so that they stay next to each other. But simply using the Islamic dates of Muharram 1 and 2 would have two problems, as I see it: (1) It would rely on the calendar of a preceding dispensation, i.e. everything would be Badi and solar, except for this one little thing, the calculation of these two adjoined holidays, which would be Hijri, and (2) It would cause the two birthdays to cycle around through all the seasons every 30-some years.

Instead, the UHJ said that the birthdays would occur after the eighth new moon after Naw-Ruz. That keeps them together, at about the point in the lunar cycle when they were actually born, while also keeping the birthdays in the autumn, when they were actually born. The range of possible dates encompasses both of the old holiday dates, October 20 and November 12. Well done, UHJ. Very cool.

Now the Baha’is finally have a real calendar.

Over ten years later…

So it’s been a while since I posted on this blog. I don’t know if anyone still sees it. I suspect it only gets visited by spambots nowadays. Just in case a real human (even the rare one who might have read the blog in its heyday) drops by, I’ll answer a few questions he/she might be wondering:

Why did you stop blogging?

Lack of time, mostly. I also got discouraged at the kinds of comments many of the Baha’i visitors would leave. A lot of Baha’is were thoughtful and intelligent, but quite a few commenters either (a) made comments that clearly ignored what I said in my post, or (b) were ex-Catholic Baha’is who overestimated their own knowledge of Catholicism and consequently argued against strawmen, or (c) would spam massive globs of copy-and-pasted Baha’i Writings in the comment section.

Per (a) above, I must reiterate that not all Baha’i visitors did that. Please don’t comment saying that not all Baha’is did that. I literally said that exact thing. Twice now.

But mainly it was lack of time.

Are you still Catholic?

Yes, I’m still a practicing Catholic. I’ve now been Catholic for twice as long as I was a Baha’i (16 years vs. 8 years).

Have your views of Catholicism changed in the past ten years?

Not really.

Have your views of the Baha’i Faith changed in the past ten years?

I haven’t given the Baha’i Faith much thought. During the eight years I was a Baha’i I had accrued a sizeable Baha’i library (as one does). When I became Christian I put it all away in boxes and didn’t look at it, except when researching for a post here. I finally gave it all away eight years ago.

So now I was going to no Baha’i meetings and had no Baha’i books to read. Out of sight, out of mind.

I do still have the prayer book the LSA signed and gave me when I declared. But I never look at it. I just feel weird getting rid of it. Seems rude.

Is this blog dead?

I don’t know. It has been, obviously. Every once in a while I think about resurrecting it. But it seems like a lot of work. I need to find a new, updated theme for it. I need to go through the comments and do some pruning. I get tired just thinking about it. [Update 14 November: I have updated the theme, and I’ve started doing some comment pruning.]

That said, it’s possible I’ll write on the blog again. I definitely can’t invest much time into it. I’m not even sure it would matter. Would anyone read it if I wrote? Does anyone even read blogs anymore?

Back when I started this blog back in 2006 (has it really been 15 years?) it was with two purposes: (1) For me to think out loud about the transition I had made from Baha’i to Catholic, a transition that had taken two or three years to traverse, and (2) To give me a place to express my frustration at (what seemed to me to be) the inconsistency and even hypocrisy of Baha’is, including the Central Figures, when talking about other religions in general and Catholicism in particular.

These two purposes are no longer motivating for me. I’m used to being Catholic now; the newness has worn off and the Baha’i residue has disappeared from my mind. And since I never talk to Baha’is or read Baha’i literature, I never think anymore about the things they say about Catholicism.

On the other hand, a handful of people have commented that this blog helped them clarify their own thinking about matters of faith. I am grateful that my little scribblings here were helpful to them.

If you read the blog back in the old days, whether you commented or not, whether you were Baha’i or Catholic or neither, thank you for reading, and I pray that God blesses you.

Naw-ruz potluck ideas

Happy new year! My congratulations to all my Baha’i readers for surviving another Fast.

Naw-ruz was probably my favorite Baha’i holiday. I was always relieved the fasting was over. It wasn’t just the going hungry and thirsty. It was the waking up before sunrise, and the having to give up snacking (something I’m very fond of).

One thing about Naw-ruz though… It seems like non-Baha’is who celebrate it have a lot more going on than the Baha’is do. It’s not just the “Seven S’s” table, which I never saw in my 9 Naw-ruzes as a Baha’i, even at Persian homes. Apparently Iranians also have this jolly fellow to spread Naw-ruz cheer. Not quite an Ayyam-i-Ha Camel, but hey. And the best part about non-Baha’i Naw-ruz is, you jump over fire.

Imagine how lively Baha’i potlucks would be with all that stuff going on at the Center. LSA Social Committees, are you taking notes?

Why Catholics don’t divorce

A while back I had a post on the Baha’i concept of social laws vs. spiritual laws, and how that doesn’t translate well – or at least it translates differently – to the Catholic worldview.

I used the example of divorce, which generated a lot of comments. I did my best to explain how Catholics conceptualize marriage and divorce, but I’m not sure if I was clear. Here is an old clip from South Park from 1998 that says what I was trying to say.

Quality time

Why I like confession

Baha’u’llah condemned the Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest:

When the sinner findeth himself wholly detached and freed from all save God, he should beg forgiveness and pardon from Him. Confession of sins and transgressions before human beings is not permissible, as it hath never been nor will ever be conducive to divine forgiveness. Moreover such confession before people results in one’s humiliation and abasement, and God—exalted be His glory—wisheth not the humiliation of His servants. Verily He is the Compassionate, the Merciful. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, page 24)

Of course, when I was a Baha’i I believed this. You shouldn’t confess your sins to a priest. That’s unnecessary and embarrassing.

When I made the decision to join the Catholic Church, I had to go to confession for the first time and say every wrong thing I had ever done up to that point. And you know what? I didn’t feel embarrassed or humiliated. On the contrary, it felt good to get it off my chest, and know that the slate was wiped clean. I didn’t feel like I was getting away with it anymore.

When I was Baha’i, I did feel like I was getting away with it. Whenever I did something wrong, I said “sorry” to God alone. I said it silently, under my breath, when no one could hear me. And it was so easy to do that I never really improved my behaviour. It was easy for me to do that same thing over again, because all I had to do was tell God “sorry”.

Knowing that I would have to bring it up at confession made it far more real to me, and spurred me to change my bad habits. If I had had this during the years I was a Baha’i, my character would have improved earlier. I regret not having had that opportunity.

So my experience has been the opposite of Baha’u’llah’s claim. What I find humiliating is the memory of my youth when I acted like a cad, and kept doing so even when I knew it was wrong and even though I kept telling God I was sorry. I feel humiliated before God that I took his mercy for granted. Baha’u’llah’s teachings made it easy for me to do that. Far from finding confession humiliating, I am grateful for it because it helps me feel accountable for my actions.

There’s no reason to be embarrassed about confession. There’s nothing someone can tell a priest that he hasn’t already heard.

Besides, if Baha’u’llah is right and confession is humiliating, then how does he explain the fact that it is taught in the New Testament?

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. (James 5:16)

Christ himself directly taught it:

[Jesus] said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:21-23)

This quote from Christ directly contradicts Baha’u’llah’s claim above, “…as it hath never been nor will ever be conducive to divine forgiveness”. Obviously there was a time when it was conducive, or else Christ wouldn’t have said so.

God gave us confession as a gift, so that we can have assurance that he forgives us. When you go to confession, after you have stated your sins the priest says, “I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is comforting to hear that with your own ears. When we pray directly to God, though we can still ask for forgiveness, we can’t hear God’s reply.

Red-letter Christians

Some editions of the Bible print the words of Christ in red so that they stand out from the rest of the text. This has lent a nickname to Christians who make a common doctrinal mistake. A red-letter Christian is someone who believes that the only parts of the Bible that really matter are the direct quotations of Christ. There are a couple reasons I think this is a mistake.

First, it’s naive. The authors of the Gospels made decisions about what quotes to include and what to exclude. So if you base your faith on the red letters, you aren’t reading Christ’s words straight. You’re reading the Gospel writers’ versions of what Christ said.

Second, it takes Christ’s words out of context. Christ wasn’t speaking into a vacuum. He was forming a community (the Church) and speaking to it. The community heard what he said and created the New Testament based on it.

Some Christians think you can get rid of the Church and just read the Bible, and that makes for a simpler, purer Christianity. But that’s backwards. Jesus didn’t write the New Testament, upon which the Church was later based. Jesus created the Church, which then wrote the New Testament.

If you are interested in learning more about what Catholics believe about the Bible, a good place to start is this section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic view on alcohol and drugs

An anonymous visitor asked this in the Q&A section of this blog:

Hi, I am a Baha’i who would like to know some more about Catholicism. The Baha’i Faith has clear, strongly worded teachings against alcohol, psychoactive drugs and tobacco. I’m not aware of Catholics having any code of conduct in these areas. If I’m wrong about that, can you please quote Bible and Catholic teachings on these subjects, so that I can quote those teachings to my Catholic friends to help them to improve themselves.

Unfortunately most members of the Catholic Church neither know nor care what the Church teaches. The Church is a “big tent” that includes many people whose Catholic identity is no more than an extension of their family or ethnic identity. So what the Church says may or may not matter to your friends.

There are many references to alcohol in the Bible, mostly wine. The upshot of it all is that wine is okay to consume in moderation, but one must never become drunk.

I’m not aware of the Bible saying anything about psychoactive drugs, and tobacco was not yet in use when the Bible was written.

As you probably know, the Catholic Church does not base its teachings solely on what is written in the Bible. We believe that God entrusted the Church to the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit, which protects it from teaching error and allows it to apply the principles of truth to new circumstances as societies change.

We understand there to be seven fundamental virtues, upon which all virtues are based. Three have to do with God and our relationship with him (faith, hope and love), which we know about only through revelation. The other four (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) are earthly virtues accessible to all mankind through reason.

We believe that to indulge in alcohol, tobacco or drugs in a way that causes harm to one’s body transgresses the virtue of temperance. (Temperance is the virtue of moderation in all things.)

We also believe that the Ten Commandments are actually categories of sins, and every possible sin falls into one of these ten categories. Harming one’s health is a violation of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”.

If you need a reference, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2288–2291. (The Catechism’s section on the Fifth Commandment may be found online on the U.S. bishops’ website and on the Vatican website.)

Abortion and the Faith

The Baha’i Writings say that human life begins at conception. During my eight years as a Baha’i, though, I never heard anyone express concern over the practice of abortion.

In retrospect, that seems strange. Baha’is make a big deal about some aspects of human rights, like racism and sexism. But if a person begins life at conception, then isn’t abortion a human rights issue too? Why doesn’t it get the same attention that race unity does?

I’d like to hear what Baha’is have to say about this. What has been your experience in the Faith with regard to abortion? How do the members of your local community feel about it? Do they ever discuss it? Has abortion come up in firesides or in institute? How was it handled?

Angels and demons

(This post is about actual angels and demons, not about the recent film.)

I just found an old comment from five months ago that I hadn’t responded to. My apologies to Martijn Rep for missing his comment. Mr. Rep asked a question in the thread under From Hindu to Baha’i to Christian:

I learned that at least for some Christians the devil, or various demons, play an important role in this world as real creatures, not just as the individual ego or insistent self. …

This is in fact a doctrine held by most Christians. We believe that there are two types of rational creature: angels and humans. Both have free will and face the choice of turning either toward God or away. The demons are those angels who turned away. Just as angels are real persons, so are demons.

Some Christians make a mistake, though, in the degree to which demons (and angels) play a role in their daily lives. For them, every good thing that happens is due to an angel’s or saint’s influence, and every bad thing is evidence of demonic attack. The Church discourages this superstitious mindset.

Most of the time, when a person thinks a bad thought or does a bad thing, they are acting on their own initiative. We already have an inclination to sin, after all. It can happen, though, that a demon will put an idea into someone’s head. But that’s all a demon can do. He can’t make someone do something they don’t want to do. When you get right down to it, it’s your own self that makes you sin.

(Incidentally, the Christian view of angels and demons is different from the Muslim view. In Islam, there are three types of rational creature: angels, humans and jinn. Angels have no free will so they can’t turn away from God. Demons are evil jinn rather than fallen angels.)