EXCEPT THROUGH PRAYER AND FASTING
An early lesson for the (so-called) “other authors”
Fr Richard Flom
Before Peter, James and John were apostles, and long before Peter or John ever composed their epistles, these men were the closest three disciples to our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry also contains several passages of critical and formative lessons for these soon-to-be apostles, preachers, and evangelists. One such lesson is found in Matthew 17:14-21
In the 17th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus, along with Peter, James, and John, have come down from the mountain top where Jesus was transfigured before them. When they had came to where the other disciples and a crowd were gathered, a man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and said: “Lord, have mercy on my son for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly…. I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.”
After Jesus had cast out the demon and the crowd had dispersed, the disciples asked Jesus: “Why could we not cast it out?”
This question arises from their past experience of healing the sick and casting out demons at the instruction of Jesus recorded in Luke 9:1, “Then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.”
Upon their return to Jesus, recorded in Matthew 10:17, they were excited! They proclaimed: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”
If the disciples had previously cast out demons in the name of Jesus, why could they not cast out this demon?
Jesus explained to the disciples that because they had not spiritually prepared and strengthened themselves by prayer and fasting, they could not cast out this demon (MT 17: 21).
Prayer and fasting are two of the basic spiritual tools necessary for our Christian way of life. Prayer and fasting are necessary for us to overcome the demons in our own lives —our passions.
What is prayer? As lungs are our body’s breath; prayer is our soul’s breath. We cannot have life, if we have no lungs; we cannot have spiritual life, if we have no prayer.
Prayer is a continuous appeal of our heart in the presence of God. It is willingly being humble before God, willingly opening our heart to Him, willingly laying our life in His hands and recognizing Him as Lord of our life and of our death —to have complete, total trust in Him as our Lord, Master and Savior.
Prayer is not bringing before God a “laundry”list of wants, wishes and desires. Many saints have written that these types of prayers are in fact themselves sin.
The Church fathers and saints have identified many tools to aid us in our growth in prayer. These tools include: the services of the Church, including Vespers, Matins, the Divine Liturgy; an Orthodox Prayer Book and the Psalter; recitation of the Jesus Prayer or short memorized prayers from the Psalms while using a prayer rope; as well as the reading and study of Holy Scripture, especially the Gospels and the Psalms.
What is fasting? Is fasting only the avoidance of animal products, dairy products, fish, wine and oil (olive) on those days the Church prescribes fasting? The saints write that if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself. Fasting isto be adenial of self-indulgence, an abstinence from sin.
“…if we abstain from food but not from our self-indulgent passions, fasting from food becomes sin itself.”
“Scripture does not forbid anything which God has given us for our use; but it condemns immoderation and thoughtless behavior”(St. Maximos the Confessor, Philokalia). Fasting is to struggle against our passions in order to control our unreasonable biological desires and instincts. It is abstaining from the attractions and distractions of this world —yes, even from our smartphones, computers, TVs and the many other forms of entertainment, etc.
By the tool of fasting, we become more transparent and more receptive in our communication with God; we become freed from a particular passion, whether it be greed, gluttony, lust, pride, etc.
Neither prayer nor fasting are an end in themselves. They are only a means of reaching out to God Who is our Life and our goal.
St. Seraphim of Sarov said: ”[…] prayer, fasting, vigil and all the other Christian practices … do not constitute the aim of our Christian life. Although … they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God. As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, [they are only the] means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.”
Our goal is God himself! Prayer and fasting are merely tools to assist us in achieving our goal.
Prayer and fasting are hard work; they require much effort and diligence. But modern Christianity all too often does not consist of struggle, hard work and diligent effort. Rather, it teaches an easy, feel-good, cheap religiosity of recent creation. It is a belief in a salvation without struggle or sacrifice; a salvation without holiness or righteousness. It is a belief that one can be secular all week, except the time allotted for church on Sunday morning. It is a belief in an easy “cheap”grace without any cost.
Sergius Nilus, in 1831, wrote the following introduction to a book of the notes of a meeting between Nicholas Motovilov and Saint Seraphim: “people have forgotten the fundamental truths of Christian life and are immersed in the darkness of materialism or the exterior and routine performance of ‘ascetic labors…’”—in secularism and false spirituality.
This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, nor the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church. Nor is this your personal life experience. You have not succeeded or excelled at anything without hard work, effort and struggle. If you are an athlete, you did not reach your level of excellence, without considerable and diligent effort and work. If you are a professional, you did not reach your level of expertise without much diligent effort and work. So too is the Orthodox Way of Life —the way of Him who is Life, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Orthodox Christian way of life is a continuous struggle toward His righteousness and His holiness! Therefore, as St. Paul wrote (Eph. 5.17): “Do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”But, (Col .3.1-5) “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. […] Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry…”
Bothers and sister in Christ Jesus, the Scriptures and Holy Fathers tell us that we are to “be holy, [because He is] holy”(Lev 11: 45; 1 Pet 1.16).
The spiritual tools to aid us in growth unto His holiness and righteousness are prayer and fasting. There is no communion with God without prayer; there is no over-coming of our passions without fasting —not just from certain foods but from our uncontrolled passions —our demons.
St. Theophan the Recluse wrote that “Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons.” The demons, our passions, are cast out only by prayer and fasting.
Therefore, be strong in the Lord and pray without ceasing and fast.
O God, empty me of self, and make Thine abode in me! Amen.