Fasting in a cloister: Soup, silence and the search for wisdom

Church bells. Cowbell. A rescue helicopter. Flush toilets.

These are the only sounds that break the silence here in Salzburg, Austria, where I am spending a week on retreat.

I hope the soothing atmosphere of the Johannes-Schlossl, run by the Pallottine Fathers, will help offset the stress that was becoming overwhelming, with work, the pandemic and all.

Peace and quiet will, I am sure, help to cut myself off from the world and hear and see nothing at all.

The answer seemed to be to get away from it all so I could hear my own voice inside of me again.

So here I am on a fasting retreat in a monastery. Nestled in the green hills of Monchsberg, the hospital is nearby, which I find quite reassuring, given that I am new to this sort of thing.

There are plenty of horror stories about fasting – hello, internet – from people stricken with vomiting to nervous breakdowns. I’m going ahead and checking in anyway.

The cloister sent me an email a few days before, specifying some preparatory steps. Turns out you can’t just get in your car and start fasting, you have to start cutting back on your coffee intake before you get there.

Feeling pretty motivated, I made sure to switch to tea.

Meanwhile, there was also a long list of things to bring, from hiking poles to a hot water bottle and a thermos flask.

I am now carrying so much that I could go for three weeks of jungle survival training.

Once at the monastery guest house, I find the rooms to be basic. They are large, with a private bathroom. They do not have a television but instead offer a view of the garden.

I unpack my suitcase and put my emergency biscuits on the desk.

I am one of a group of people who came here on this trip, but it turns out half of them didn’t realize they had booked a fasting retreat.

I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into either.

We are given such a full weekly schedule that I am surprised to have so little free time.


After the introductions, we start with the fruit juice.

Dinner is a glass of pressed apple with carrot and beetroot. I’m happy to get anything the first day and take about 20 minutes, juicing a spoonful at a time.

Indeed, going slow is key, according to fasting leader and Qigong teacher Alexander Steinberger.

You sip each spoonful, consciously and deliberately, with the goal of getting the most out of the least.

Then we are faced with a big question, who wants to undergo hardcore fasting, which is basically just juice and soup?

The other option is the lighter alkaline fast, and I’m afraid, dear reader, I’m going for the easy way out.

My head hurts in the evening, I feel cloudy, as if a thick fog has settled over my thoughts.

I pour myself a cup of absinthe tea and go to bed. I have more intense dreams than I have had in ages.

Breakfast is a bright spot and almost tastes like indulgence, with an apple, banana, tomato and cucumber.

In addition, we get a sweet mash consisting of plums, dates and raisins.

Hiking is one of the main activities during the fasting retreat in Salzburg – even in bad weather.

We have another cup of tea, then go for a hike. We do this for several hours, every morning, to local sights in or around Salzburg, such as Leopoldskron Palace, Hellbrunn Palace, Maria Plain Pilgrimage Church or Kapuzinerberg – fasting and sightseeing.

Fortunately, the exercise is fun but I can’t find my rhythm in the group so I go alone the following days.

It works better and I feel more in tune with myself, able to get a sense of what I’m hearing and feeling.

It seems that other people need entertainment and companionship and, indeed, group dynamics are important in fasting, when the sense of togetherness and fellowship helps us through the most difficult times.

Emptied and exhausted

The first day of fasting is like a roller coaster ride for me and I feel different every hour.

I don’t feel well either – I’m drained and exhausted.

We rest at noon and I fall asleep immediately, enjoying the very first liver wrap, a detox.

I can’t tell you if it helped because I fell asleep immediately, although I couldn’t even imagine a nap at home.

From the second day, I feel like I’ve been here for three weeks.

In the afternoon, I ask Father Rudiger Kiefer for spiritual advice. His words are touching. Everyone is there because they have lost something, want to get rid of something, are looking for something or find something, he says.

Sometimes it’s a matter of weight, but in truth it’s a lot more. He takes time to reflect on life, the world and God.

My headache is fading and I look forward to lunch, the sun and the garden. I feel somehow strengthened by the walls of the monastery and I feel less foggy. I can hear my body and my soul.

Sure, I’m still hungry, but not as badly as I feared. Half an apple fills me up.

It doesn’t feel like giving up, because I focus on what’s there and not what’s missing.

Let go

On the third day, I feel like writing down everything that moves me and I can finally release what’s in my head, from toxic memories to thoughts that are no longer needed.

It calms my mind.

After all, fasting is about letting go and reorganizing. Later in the evening we eat soup and go up to the roof terrace, then we walk around in the dark and listen to a reading.

We drink a lot to make up for hunger and drink about 3-4 liters of water and tea throughout the day which seems like an incredible amount to me.

I finally found my rhythm.

Every day, I walk around the forest and then do yoga in my room, getting my blood circulation going again after the liver wrap.

I’m starting to feel more energetic.

And guess what? Suddenly it’s time to go home and I haven’t even touched my emergency cookies. Turns out I won’t need it. Fasting isn’t as bad as I feared. – dpa/Anita Arneitz

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