The Bible says that when you fast you should put oil on your head and a smile on your face and not go around dour-faced and boasting about it. It doesn’t say you should blog about your fasting either. So why am I doing just that?

It started as a Lenten practice. St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral was holding Compline services on a Wednesday and a friend wanted to us to attend together. I’d been shocked to find out another friend undertakes 3 day ‘dry fasts’ (which I certainly wouldn’t recommend) and inspired by numerous Muslim friends who are a lot more sensible! In comparison, taking only liquids for about 20 hours (including some soya milk in Barleycup about 4ish) wasn’t very taxing at all. Especially when I could look forward to breaking my fast with a lovely hot vegan meal home-cooked for me after the service.

During these hours I also switched off the WiFi and didn’t use data on my phone so WhatsApp and iMessages didn’t come through until I turned it on again and I couldn’t check email and scroll through Twitter and Instagram. That was the biggest relief and also the most challenging part of the fast. That’s, principally, what I want to talk about.

First the food, or (voluntary and temporary) lack of it. Fasting is to dieting what celibacy is to being single: a completely different mentality. Dieting (which I never recommend) is all about losing weight and is a limited and strategic resistance to our grossly self-indulgent consumer culture which rarely works in the longterm and often plays straight into the hands of the sugar-pushers who created the problem of obesity in the first place. What fasting has in common with celibacy is that it takes an initial determined mental effort and then it becomes a habit. (People who say ‘I’m celibate’ when they are just not in a sexual relationship at the moment – and jump at the chance of one – have no idea what they are talking about.) Fasting also has nothing to do with involuntary starvation.

Fasting gives the digestive system a rest and, crudely, in terms of intake and output, for most people in post-industrialised nations, that’s a very good thing indeed. There are many health benefits to having a colon that isn’t continually stuffed with food – especially when it’s a long (human) one which specialises in gradually getting the nutrients out of fibrous vegetables rather than being rancid with all the toxic chemicals in factory-farmed meat.

For this reason, fasting may have a limited and very gradual effect on the waistline. Not because of a calorific deficit. The metabolism reacts in various ways to an alteration in intake, and fat-creating panic and eating large quantities after eating few or none are two of them. I find that my body doesn’t panic if my brain doesn’t. No, I’m not being New Age about this. My Muslim friends have often told me of the clarity and serenity they feel while fasting and it was only when I restarted this ascetic practice of my youth, after many decades, that I re-experienced that feeling.

DON’T accept an invitation to a meal and sit there saying “Oh I’m fasting but do go ahead don’t mind little me” in a saintly voice with your head to one side, gazing off into the middle distance. DON’T attempt to do anything that requires great physical or mental effort, especially if collaborating. Schedule both for another day. DO tell people if it comes up. It’s not a big deal. You’re not a hero. They may be interested. It’s not all about you. DO use the time in a productive way.

So, second, the thoughts and feelings. The biggest challenge to me while I’m disconnected from the internet is not so much Fear Of Missing Out but a great anxiety that, without me twirling it, the world won’t spin by. So I invent all sorts of reasons why I must just check (whatever) right now just in case (whoever) has tried to contact me about (whatever) and is in total despair that my sage advice is temporarily unavailable.

This hunger, for attention, is more insidious that that for food. I very rarely break my food fast once started (although the end point is somewhat variable) but have on occasion just checked that there’s no-one who desperately needs me on every single means of internet communication at my disposal. To combat this self-centred anxiety, I’ve started texting the couple of people who I feel may be in touch through one of these means during those hours to say when I should be back online. People react well. The world spins by.

This letting go of people, of my concern to be the one dealing with their concerns, of being in the limelight, is accompanied by a general quieting of input. I can’t see video clips of cute animals on social media, with the WiFi off, the TV series I’m watching are unavailable (I do sometimes put on a video or DVD and have the pleasure of focusing on a film uninterrupted by adverts). And if I suddenly come up with an interesting question, such as ‘why are there no East Asian actors in S1-7 Games of Thrones?’ (the author’s answer raises even more questions about representation, Orientalism and rationality – some of which I addressed in the essay I cheekily inserted in this novel) then I have to wait patiently until the fast is over. – resisting my inner urgent ‘I wanna know and I wanna know right now!

So I’m in a bit of a cocoon for about a day and I welcome it and look forward to it. It’s not all about me. Very, very little is. Meanwhile, I find I get on with things. Preparing for my tax return, making up menus for my elderly mother, writing my series of inclusive novels. Walking my dog. Thinking about an area of ethics I’d like to tackle next. I have so much time!

At the end of the day (I’ve not yet switched to the post-breakfast till pre-breakfast fast which is probably more ideal than missing out breakfast and lunch and having a late dinner) I am grateful to have a meal. Even bread tastes wonderful when you haven’t eaten for 20 hours. Yes I’m reminded of those who have no food, as our national bard famously prayed (even if he didn’t write the Selkirk Grace himself) but I’m also profoundly grateful that I do and I may also think of all the people who contributed to the production, transportation and marketing of my food. Burns would say, as we still do in Scotland, I mind them.

Pope Frances, of whom I confess myself a not uncritical fan, recommended fasting during Lent as a way to combat violence. There are links here that repay exploring. Thomas Merton, another man of peace, withdrew from the American Peace Movement when an anti-Vietnam war protestor burned himself to death (and was only just persuaded to throw the baby he was cradling to safety). Sadly, this kind of protest, and that kind of war, is not unknown today.

Fasting reminds me that it’s not up to just me to fix the world; that my anxiety may contribute to a general lack of serenity out of which arise bad decisions; and that our collective compulsive urge to consume is the basis for the violent conquest and acquisition of peoples and lands and animals – and of the mineral deposits that all our oil wars (with an ever-changing enemy) are really being fought over.

I don’t recommend fasting. It’s something you do if you feel drawn to it. It doesn’t work for everyone and it doesn’t have to. If it’s for you, you may wish to consult a medical professional and to start off very gradually. If you do start fasting from food, or even if you don’t, try disengaging from the internet even just for a few hours. Experience the joy of the world spinning by, without you twirling it.


Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photograph ‘Zen Stones and Butterfly’ into the public domain.


Muslims @thecathedral

[Trigger warning for Evangelicals: have hot sweet tea on hand and keep breathing]
Have you ever planned scripture readings for a wedding? The conversation usually goes like this:
– Right, flowers done, what’s next? Readings. Thoughts?
– Em, how about The Good Wife, then 1st Corinthians then the Wedding at Cana?
– Sorted. Next. Top Table placings. It’s a nightmare!
Okay it’s not exactly careful discernment of liturgical appropriateness but if you get the readings wrong no-one will shoot you. However, if you mess up who sits at the Top Table…
The stage after this is to run the readings by the vicar/priest/minister who will look them up in the lectionary. Because (surprisingly to some) when we read from the Bible in church we don’t actually read from the Bible. Readings in the lectionary are read as edited chunks of verses of scripture (missing out, for example, Biblical verses referring to the size of the male member of your enemies and those that compare an unhappy woman to a bear in the corner of the attic). I’m not making this up, you know!
This gets more complicated, still on the theme of weddings, when another language is involved. Usually Latin. Now like many Roman Catholics [I did warn you and there’s more to come] I can get through Adeste Fideles without a hymnbook and once asked a woman making a wedding video why she’d backed it with Miserere Domine. However, stop most Roman Catholics halfway through reciting the Credo from a service sheet and ask what the next sentence means and you may get a rather vague reply.
My point is that we tend to do things conventionally. Proverbs 31:10-31 is an acrostic composed of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet so it fits into the lectionary perfectly; 1 Corinthians 13 comprises 13 verses but the last verse of the previous chapter gives it context and it may be shortened to end with ‘love does not come to an end’; verse 12 of John 2 may be missed out as it links the Wedding at Cana to the next story. These textual decisions are usually made with the presiding minister in much the same way that an actor will discuss cutting lines with the director. For some weeks after the Epiphany, social media was full of Evangelical hatred against St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow; against the Very Rev Kelvin Holdsworth and against a young Muslim woman who was invited to read at an interfaith service.  None of these ‘Bible-defenders’ followed the clear Biblical instructions regarding raising concerns with a brother in faith (kindly, gently and in private) and the ultra-rightwing backlash (some of which had to be reported to Police Scotland) is sufficient evidence of the precarious state of love, peace and understanding in the USA and UK in recent months – which was the motivation for the inclusive service.

The young woman, who received abuse from vile racist trolls for weeks, had the task of not only reading a portion of her sacred scripture (Surah Mary 19:16-33) and of reading it in a language not her own but also of singing it. This she did beautifully and we, the congregation, were much moved. Subsequently, Bishop Nazir-Ali (sensitive to the very difficult interfaith situation in Pakistan where he served for years) praised the good intentions behind the service but expressed concern over a reading from the Qur’an in a Christian place of worship. This comment contained no racist or other vile language and was in no way derogatory to Islam, to the reciter or to the clergy of St Mary’s Cathedral.
Sadly, the good bishop’s erudite words on the meaning of the Arabic verb yattakhida were misquoted by an online UK Evangelical site, by the BBC and by an ‘alt-right’ (we know what that means) site in the US. Ironically, not only does it remain unclear whether the ayah (verse) referred to was actually included unaware in the recitation (the angry monoglot WASPS who claim it was have been unwilling to name their ‘non-Christian Arabic-speaking source’ to me) but even were it so, the literal translation is of a denial of adoptionism. And a previous verse may be understood (by Christians) to refer to the resurrection. In other words, the Arabic recital (of that verse all the fuss is about) is in fact more Christian-friendly in terms of orthodoxy than the usual English translation would be.
Notwithstanding the good intentions of all, the already fraught interfaith climate and the fact that the literal meaning of the Arabic verse (that may not even have been recited) is orthodox for Christians, we (congregation, clergy, reciter, Muslim guests, online supporters) have all been accused of single-handedly bringing the reign of Satan down on Earth. All of us together. Single-handedly.
Well, admittedly, there are signs that we just must be in the Last Days (notably so after the 20th of this month) but for people of faith that’s where we always are. Because the Kingdom of God is always close at hand. [Like that cup of tea, go on, take a sip, you’ll need it]
Surah Qâf 50:16 informs us that God is closer to us than our jugular vein. St Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews 13:2 enjoins hospitality to strangers upon us, reminding us that thereby some have entertained angels unaware.
It is our way in Glasgow, when vile people try to divide our united community, to run out to embrace each other. I was moved to tears by an Imam, in George Square in the centre of our dear city, when in another time of fear he recited the complete motto of the city of Glasgow attributed to our patron Saint Mungo:
Let Glasgow flourish, by the preaching of God’s word and by the praising of God’s name.
And we will flourish. Our loving, inclusive, united community will flourish because we trust in the promise that love wins. And even our atheist friends online have encouraged us to hold fast to that love. One woman said that she would not have come to a service but she understood why we celebrated the Epiphany together – because it was a sign of peace.
Lord of love, unite us in this sign.

(Thanks to Tony Melena for releasing his image “Unconquerable Love” into the public domain)


Am I my brother’s keeper?

The case of the Swedish Foreign Minister, her critique of the situation of Saudi Arabian women and the subsequent, inevitable, backlash, strikes me as worthy of deeper reflection than that involved in a choice of placard with which to take to the streets. ‘Down with Islam!’, ‘Up with Women!’, ‘I am [add name]!’, ‘Death to Infidels!’ lack nuance, and omit the historical context of the overlapping and competing discourses which they summarise.

Margot Wallström may indeed be seen as Woman, a being either in compliment or opposition to another known as Man; as White, a quality of a minority of beings in some kind of relationship to the majority known as Black; as Christian (by virtue of her nationality and saintly first name – whatever her personal beliefs happen to be) as distinct from Muslim. You can see where I’m going with this. She is also the Foreign Minister of a small but powerful country, with a reputation for academic excellence (Nobel Committee etc.) high suicide rates, bureaucracy (admittedly it’s only the Norwegians that call Sweden ‘the land of rules’) and a historical legacy of very lively ambassadors arriving on longboats. As you can immediately tell, I know almost nothing about Sweden and during my short time there as an interpreter for the European Social Forum held in Malmö I was struck by two things: one was ‘the ghetto’, as our guides called it, which made me laugh as it was so peaceful and pristine. I live in Glasgow which is often neither; the other was the sudden appearance of an entire blond family cycling through the city about 11pm! This last was quite normal behaviour apparently.

So when I say that I think that the ‘feminist foreign minister’ as she’s been billed, seems to have got it wrong, it’s in context of my firm (though rather uninformed) belief that Sweden, indeed Scandinavia as a whole, often seems to get it right. I think that context matters. Margot Wallström may have previously established her awareness of the agency of Saudi Muslim women, that they are not just victims. Which I believe was the essence of Audre Lorde’s critique of Mary Daly’s treatment of women in two thirds of the world in her searing exposé of global misogyny, Gyn/Ecology. In fairness to Daly, she did quite a lot of exposing of US and European misogyny too. I don’t know if Margot Wallström has campaigned against Swedish girls being put under social pressure to have breast enlargements, to have sex when they want affection, to have sex for money to get through university (or is the sugarbabe phenomenon only happening in the UK?), to have an abortion as their mum doesn’t like the colour of the father’s skin (I know the latter happens in the UK, I don’t know about Sweden). I don’t know if she has spoken out against the hidden genocide of poor African American men, in overwhelming disproportion on Death Row, or the economic pressure on African American women to be sterilised.

Note that I’m aware of what I don’t know. Note that when I talk about this minister and about her country, I say ‘seems’. I don’t believe Bishop Berkeley’s famous ontological maxim: esse est percipi (‘what you see is what you get’, as I’ve freely translated it in my latest novel) but in terms of media presentation, what is apparent is taken to be real. I have no evidence for this other that a hunch but I bet Margot Wallström doesn’t see herself, or Sweden, as a policewoman. I think that’s a political delusion of grandeur peculiar to the USA. I bet she sees herself as a sister. A sister to the oppressed. To the women of Saudi Arabia and to at least one man. If I’m right, and I could be wrong, then her motivation seems laudable. So why am I questioning it?

Cain, after killing Abel, is famously asked (by the Omniscient, so it’s a bit of a set-up) where his brother is and responds with ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ meaning that he obviously thinks ‘no, I’m not!’ – whereas the audience to this pantomime is obviously supposed to shout out ‘OH YES YOU ARE!’ My point is that if one is to indulge in fraternal or sororal correction, especially if one happens to represent a country that’s the 12th biggest global arms dealer (it seems) and as head diplomat one is inevitably put into the position of broker to such deals, then one must first establish kinship. And be seen to have established kinship.

People who seem to be White Christians bearing arms, with reason and God on their side, and lotsa money (mostly from persecuted European Jews but let’s not get sidetracked) have historically had a tendency to descend upon Araby with fire and sword. The recent, and they are comparatively recent, militant doctrinal and political tendencies of the wahabi, salafi and now IS (can we please stop calling it that other very pretty name?) seem to have caused a collective amnesia, in at least one third of the world, about the history of Islam. The European (this includes Russia, remember) monarchs of Christendom were by and large tyrannical to Jews and Muslims; the Moorish monarchs, by and large, were not. In 1492 the countries which welcomed the majority of expelled Spanish Jews were Morocco and Turkey. The Ladinos are in the latter to this day (I know cos I met one on a bus in Istanbul, who answered politely when I abruptly asked her about what seemed to be her mediaeval Spanish). During the Third Reich it was the same story, while Christendom shut its borders. This Jewish-Muslim thing is a set-up. It’s divide and conquer. All those Christian European politicians who read Caesar’s Gallic Wars in their private schools and decided to play at that game when they grew up.

I don’t believe that Margot Wallström is playing games. I don’t believe that the UK should be selling arms (do use your upcoming vote wisely UK voters!) and I don’t believe any other country, including Sweden, should be doing that either. I highly recommend Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology (read together with Audre Lorde’s critique in Sister Outsider) which, disgracefully, is not outdated. It seems to me that the treatment of women in three thirds of the world may still be categorised as global misogyny. Of that I, unfortunately, have compelling evidence. As, I’m sure, have you.

I believe that in Margot Wallström’s spirited defence of Raif Badawi there lies the conviction, the moral claims, of sisterhood. But if Margot is Raif’s keeper, then does she really know where he’s at? And would this foreign minister admit that the imprisoned campaigner may have something to say about Sweden, about Europe? Could it be that we haven’t actually got it all right and that, amazingly, we (post)Christian secular enlightened White people might have something to learn from a Saudi Arabian man? Who is not just a victim. Living in Saudi, he would know the trouble he’d be getting himself into. Did she?

We are right to condemn injustice. We are wrong to perpetrate it. Prisons and corporal punishments oppress and may kill; but perceptions may also harm. It’s not the outcry about foreign injustice which is wrong but the silence about domestic oppression, and the fuelling of foreign conflict, which accompanies it. Margot Wallström may be quite aware of this and may speak out in this way but, crucially, that is not what has been reported. Could a culturally aware diplomat not have been more diplomatic? In attempting to shame the Saudi authorities, whose reaction to criticism of their values is already violent, has this foreign intervention of critique without kinship helped – or has it made the situation of the campaigner worse?


‘Red No Signal’ in Public Domain by Piotr Siedlecki