This morning I want to talk to you about the importance of prayer and fasting. I know we talk a lot about these two subjects throughout the course of the liturgical year but this morning’s Gospel compels us to consider, once again, these two very important aspects of our Orthodox Catholic Faith. Prayer and fasting are two very important and indispensable elements of Christian life. But they are also the two most frequently ignored aspects of our life as Christians. It is for this reason that we need to regularly reflect on and consider them.
Let me begin by saying that I personally believe that there is great power in both prayer and fasting. But like many of you, I am often negligent in the proper practice of both. Like you, I often am distracted and preoccupied with the cares and affairs of daily life so much so that I sometimes neglect my prayer rule and fasting. This is not good at all.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus makes it very clear that we cannot do great works without prayer and fasting. These two things are instruments of great power; by them, great miracles and achievements are accomplished. Thus, they are critical to our ability to do great works and to our mission as Christians.
Having returned from His Transfiguration, Jesus enters a enters a village and is met by the other disciples and a crowd of people who were following Jesus to see what miracles He might perform as He went among the people. And the first thing we see is that there was an unmet need. There was a need that Jesus’ disciples could not meet – it was beyond their resources (human or spiritual).
Previous to this, Jesus had already given to His disciples the authority to heal the sick and cast out demons in His name. And they went about preaching Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God, and they healed and delivered just as Jesus said they would. But now, they encountered a need which was obviously too great for them to meet. This young man, so violently afflicted with a devil that tormented him – and the disciples, no matter what they did or tried, had been unable to deal with it. This was the unmet need; it was a failure on the part of the disciples.
Now, let us not be too quick to criticize or fault the disciples in their failure to heal this young man. After all, how many times, even though we truly believe, do we fail in a task or in some good work? Have we not all been in those places where we have tried with all that we have to find answer in our lives to some pressing problem, or in the life of a family member, friend or neighbor? We have tried everything in our power; we have exhausted all our physical or spiritual resources, and still the need is seemingly unmet. The sickness remains; the situation is unchanged; the person is unaffected, unsaved, unchallenged. The need is unmet! What are we to do?
Jesus came down from the mountain, where he and His closest associates had been in the presence of God, to be faced with this unmet need. They came down from the presence of God, where everything was perfect and the possibilities are unlimited – back to the grim realities of life: back to poverty, despair, loneliness, sickness, corruption, greed, death.
Have you ever attended a powerful church service where you experienced the touch of God in such a way that you felt you could turn the world upside down, only to do out of the church and find that your car had been broken into or you bump into someone down the street that you have been praying for and there is no discernable change in their behavior – in fact they seem worse than ever? You feel the wind leave your sails very quickly. You are confronted by the dilemma, the failure, the tragedy.
Jesus and His disciples came down from the mountain to face an unmet need. Jesus does not ignore unmet needs. I praise God that He does not do such things. Jesus is truly the Master of the unmet need. If you have some situation in your life that you have no answer for, then I am here to tell you all is not lost. There most definitely is an answer and a solution, and He is Jesus Christ. No situation or problem is too hard for Jesus to solve, no challenge or obstacle is too difficult or insurmountable for Him to overcome.
In a moment of time, Jesus turns the situation around. What seems impossible for us is not impossible for God. When we have expended all our resources, Jesus reaches out His hand and miracles happen. It is all very wonderful, but as we can see from this morning’s Gospel, even the disciples are amazed and astonished at what Jesus accomplishes. There is no longer an unmet need, but now they are left with an unanswered question.
They had had answers to prayers before, you see. They had ministered very effectively most of the time and they had many successes. So what was different this time? “Why could we not cast out this demon?” “Oh, Lord, we tried everything we knew how. We have prayed just as we have heard You pray for people. Where did we go wrong?” The disciples had an unanswered question: “Why could we not cast him out?”
To their question, Jesus gives an unexpected reply. Jesus says, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” In other words, Jesus is saying something like this to His disciples, “Listen up guys! Your faith is strong and you only need a little bit of it to do great things, but this kind of problem requires more. This kind of demonic problem does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
There are needs and problems in life that require a different approach. They have a whole different dimension of difficulty to them. Some things require a greater spiritual power. Jesus says there is a way to obtain that spiritual power needed to address such needs and problems, and that way is by prayer and fasting.
When Jesus was led up into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil, he entered into a prolonged period of prayer and fasting, 40 days in all, without bread and water. Can you imagine any of us today going through the 40 day season of Great Lent without any food or water at all? As hard as we would certainly try, it would be very difficult for us to make it through the entire 40 days without breaking the fast. But yet, Jesus accomplished it, and it was not simply because He was God. Remember, He took upon Himself our human nature and experienced temptation just like we did. However, Jesus was disciplined. He knew the great value of prayer and especially the great value of fasting. In fact, He developed a lifestyle of prayer and fasting. By His example, Jesus shows us the benefits of such a lifestyle and that we too, should acquire it for ourselves as well.
It is clear that Jesus had been fasting prior to this incident with the demon-possessed boy, for He said explicitly that such a demon can only be expelled by prayer and fasting. Obviously, then, Jesus knew the great power and importance of prayer and fasting. This is a lesson we must learn in great detail. We cannot simply read treatise after treatise on prayer and fasting. We must incorporate all that read into our life and make prayer and fasting a regular part of our life. We must find time each day, as Jesus did, to withdraw from the world and spend time in prayer. We must also fast regularly, and our fasting with intense and concentrated prayer so that the Holy Spirit is not impeded from entering into us, changing us, and strengthening and empowering us for the work of the Lord.
Jesus was ready for every occasion and circumstance of life and ministry precisely because he developed a lifestyle of prayer and fasting. There is great power released in these two physical and spiritual endeavors. Now, you may ask me why? The answer is simple: Prayer is the simplest form of communication between humans and God. Prayer is not only the words of our lips, but the words of our heart. Prayer, when offered from a pure and sincere heart, reaches the ears of the Divine Majesty like a sweet song carried on the wisps of the wind. God receives such prayer and responds to it generously.
I believe in the power of prayer. As I told you earlier, I sometimes have difficulty praying but I find my spots where my prayer is uninterrupted and flows from the heart. For example, I find it difficult to prayer in my home. But when I am in church, especially if I am alone, my heart opens up and soars. I experience the same feeling when I am alone in the outdoors, but away from people, alone in a field or on a hilltop. A monastery is also good for me, but not all of them. There are some monasteries here in the States where I find great peace and consolation. But there are others which I find distracting and unconducive to prayer and meditation, places which are too attached to the world. That is one of the things I love about the monasteries in Greece: you can sense the holiness and the presence of God in many of them. The world as we know it does not exist inside them.
Basically what I am saying is this: you have to find your own special place where you can be alone with God. Wherever it is, go there frequently. It is so important to have a prayer life. You will be amazed how much things in your life will change once you include prayer as a part of your daily life. A properly formed and carefully maintained prayer life will help you in many ways, my children.
And why is fasting so important? Fasting releases great spiritual and physical power. It is that spiritual power that can make us move mountains. Fasting purifies our not only our souls but our bodies as well. Thus, there is a holistic element to fasting which brings us many benefits.
Fasting also reminds us of our humanity. It is always good to be reminded of our humanity when we come to God. To come to God feeling a sense of helplessness is not a handicap but a head start. As we shed ourselves of the spiritual and physical baggage that weighs us down, we realize that we are not what we appear to be. In other words, we recognize our limitations and thus our need for help from the only One who can do all things at all times. Fasting casts off the façade we like to wear and exposes our inner most being for all to see.
Fasting humbles us. Properly practiced, fasting should humble us. It should bring to light just how selfish and self-serving we are, how dependent we are upon this world for the things we believe we need from it in order to be happy and content. Fasting requires us to deny our appetites for physical and material pleasure and satisfaction. Fasting brings to light many negative things about ourselves we would normally not see or even acknowledge, things we try to hide in order to be something other than what we are. Fasting strips away the veneer and reveals the real substance of which we are made.
Fasting is a sign of desire for the divine. Fasting, if undertaken in the proper spirit, brings about spiritual growth, which in turn brings us closer to God. When we fast, we are saying that seeking God is more important to us than the daily routine of finding food for ourselves. We should seek God every day. That is why prayer and fasting are so important for us.
In these difficult times, we have a great need for prayer and fasting. We have great unmet needs in our lives, in the Church, in our parish, in our community, in our families. I believe that Jesus can meet and fulfill these needs in ways that are beneficial for us both spiritually and physically. In fact, I believe that He alone can satisfy and fulfill our needs.
If you want things to change in your life, then you must pray and fast. But even before you do that, you must start with a heart of repentance and forgiveness. You cannot pray properly if your heart is not at peace with others. You cannot begin a fast if you are angry or holding a grudge against someone. If you are going to ask God to hear your voice, then you must be willing to love and forgive others and you must be at peace with your all people. This is hard, I know, but as Christians we are called to love one another, even those who hate and despise us or treat us badly.
If we are not properly disposed to prayer and fasting, then God will not hear our voice or look favorably upon our efforts. For example, merely skipping one or two meals a week is not serious fasting. Our disposition must be that of making changes and seeking God in a more intimate way. Fasting releases spiritual power in our personal lives. It opens the door to a direct and intimate communion with the Father. Prayer and fasting compels us to focus directly on our Creator and Lord. This is where our true strength comes from.
Prayer and fasting are not some kind of magical rituals we employ to move God to action. God wants to do amazing things for His people but He looks for people who are willing to make sincere and honest changes in their lives in order to come into alignment with His. God resists the proud and the arrogant but He gives grace to the humble of heart. Prayer and fasting, especially fasting, are perfect ways to learn patience. It takes patience and discipline to pray and fast but these attributes can be easily acquired if we are sincere in our desire to align ourselves with God.
Fasting is not easy. Those of us who try to fast know that it can be painful. The pain of fasting is twofold. First, there is the physical pain which results from the detoxification of our bodies. All the accumulate poisons and garage in our bodies starts to come into our blood and this causes us to sometimes feel awful. The other pain we feel is spiritual. This spiritual pain is caused by the conflict in the spiritual realm between your flesh and the Spirit of God. Remember the old saying, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak?” We find this to be very true when it comes to prayer and fasting, especially fasting.
As Jesus stated in this morning’s Gospel, there are certain things we can do if we believe, but there are other things that require something greater. If we are going to attempt to do greater and more significant things, if we are going to attempt to solve bigger and more complex problems, then we need to step up our game, and this is where prayer and fasting come in. We must arm ourselves with stronger spiritual power, especially if we are going to fight against the evil one and all his works. Otherwise we will fail. Even if our faith is strong, we will still fail for we have not properly prepared ourselves for the battle at hand.
The importance of prayer and fasting in your life is not something that can be taken for granted. It is for this reason that holy Mother Church speaks frequently about these two very important aspects of our life as Orthodox Catholic Christians. She wants us to be properly armed for the spiritual battles which rage all around us. God will help us in our struggles if we help ourselves by properly preparing for them.