Achieving the Goal of Fasting

When one reads the spiritual lessons from the Fathers and Mothers of our Church, one realizes that they did not hold to a “one-size-fits-all” mentality when it came to spiritual discipline.  Often they set forth the ideal, but acknowledge that some cannot attain the ideal, but instead of despairing, these folk need to embrace what they can do.  All-or-nothing thinking is not necessarily the most spiritual way, but sometimes is the result of immature or distorted thinking.  St. John of Karpathos writes exactly this referring to fasting and some monks who could not keep the fast strictly due to health problems.  Even without fasting St. John tells them they can rid themselves of both demons and passions.

Once certain brethren, who were always ill and could not practice fasting, said to me: How is it possible for us without fasting to rid ourselves of the devil and the passions? To such people we should say: you can destroy and banish what is evil, and the demons that suggest this evil to you, not only by abstaining from food, but by calling with all your heart on God. For it is written: They cried to the Lord in their trouble and He delivered them (Ps. 107:6); and again: Out of the belly of hell I cried and Thou heardest my voice… Thou hast brought up my life from corruption (Jonah 2:2,6). Therefore until iniquity shall pass away that is, as long as sin still troubles me I will cry to God most high (Ps. 57:1-2 LXX), asking Him to bestow on me this great blessing: by His power to destroy within me the provocation to sin, blotting out the fantasies of my impassioned mind and rendering it image-free.

So, if you have not yet received the gift of self-control, know that the Lord is ready to hear you if you entreat Him with prayer and hope. Understanding the Lord’s will, then, do not be discouraged because of your inability to practice asceticism, but strive all the more to be delivered from the enemy through prayer and patient thanksgiving. If thoughts of weakness and distress force you to leave the city of fasting, take refuge in another city (cf. Matt. 10:23) that is, in prayer and thanksgiving. (The Philokalia, p. 314)

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A Divine Reward Before Doing the Labor

By the inexpressible providence of God some people have obtained divine rewards for their labors before doing them; others during their toil; others after; and some only at the time of their departure.   (St John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Kindle Location 2394-2395)

The above quote from St. John Climacus reminded me of an event that happened almost 50 years ago.  A friend of our family had an aging mother who was about 85.  She was having serious trouble walking, suffering a lot of pain in her legs.  Perhaps it was a circulatory problem, but I don’t remember that detail.   She kept telling her son, our family friend, that if she couldn’t walk anymore, she hoped God would take her.  She didn’t want to keep living if she couldn’t go to church and she was afraid that since she couldn’t walk they would put her in a nursing home and that would be the end of her church attendance. She had been several times doctors but they hadn’t so far found a solution to the problem.  Then, one day, the doctor called the man and told him they had a new medication for his mother which the doctor felt would help her be able to walk.  Our friend went to the pharmacy and picked up the prescription and drove it to his mother’s house.  To his surprise, she was not home.   She didn’t drive, so he couldn’t imagine where she went.  He searched the house and began looking around the neighborhood.  A neighbor told him that he had seen his mom walking away from the home earlier in the day.  He became very alarmed knowing she wasn’t able to walk very well.  He drove around the neighborhood but didn’t see her.  He felt somewhat panicked about what might have happened to her.  He called the doctor and the hospital, but could not locate her.  After a considerable time, he drove to the church because it was the one place he knew she liked to be.  And sure enough there was his mom sitting on the front steps of the church.   She had walked nearly 2 miles to get there.  When he got out of the car, he felt a bit angry and said to his mother, “What are you doing here?”   She calmly replied that she had come to church to pray to God to ask him to help her so she could walk and come to church, but if that God wasn’t going to help her, then she hoped He would allow her to die in peace.

The son told her that the doctor had called that very morning with a new prescription for her and he had gotten the medication for her.  She replied, “See, God answered my prayer.”    He said later he felt a little amused by her simple faith, imagining as she did that God had answered her prayer, when he knew that in fact that medication was in production for years before she ever made that prayer.   His problem of course was his good Western mind with its linear view of history – as if God needed to wait for a prayer to be offered before God could  begin to act upon the petition.  Or as St. John Climacus noted in the quote above, some obtain their divine rewards before doing the labor.

Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal Amazon.com so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.

Praying: Paying Attention

“One of the elders said: pray attentively and you will soon straighten out your thoughts.”   (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 78)

“The Lord teaches, besides other, higher matters, of which there is no time to speak now, that if we are stirred up to pray alone in our houses and bedrooms this also encourages prayer to God in church, and inner prayer of the mind encourages spoken prayer. If someone only wants to pray when he attends God’s Church, and has no concern at all for prayer at home, in the streets or in the fields, then even when he is present in church he is not really praying.”   (St. Gregory Palamas, Homilies, p. 51)

Prayer for the Peace of the Whole World

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Almighty God and Creator, You are the Father of all people on the earth. Guide, I pray, all the nations and their leaders in the ways of justice and peace. Protect us from the evils of injustice, prejudice, exploitation, conflict and war.

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Help us to put away mistrust, bitterness and hatred. Teach us to cease the storing and using of implements of war. Lead us to find justice, peace and freedom.  Unite us in the making and sharing of tools of peace against ignorance, poverty, disease and oppression.

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Grant that we may grow in harmony and friendship as brothers and sisters created in Your image, to Your honor and praise. Amen.

(My Orthodox Prayer Book, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, Kindle Location 824-834)

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The Prayer of Elder Paisios

“In the abundance of your mercy, O Jesus, You called publicans, sinners and unbelievers.  Like them, despise me not, but as precious myrrh accept this song…”    (Akathist to the Sweetest Lord Jesus)

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”  (Matthew 9:9-13)

A friend sent me the following Prayer of St Paisios  (d. 12 July, 1994).  It is a beautiful prayer for the needs of all the people of God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ:

Do not abandon your servants who live far away from the Church. May your love convict them and bring them back to you.
Lord have mercy on your servants who are suffering from cancer.
On your servants who suffer either from small or serious ailments.
On your servants who suffer from physical infirmities.
On your servants who suffer from spiritual infirmities.

Lord have mercy on our leaders and inspire them to govern with Christian love.
Lord have mercy on children who come from troubled homes.
On troubled families and those who have been divorced.
Lord have mercy on all the orphans of the world, on all those who are suffering pain and injustices since losing their spouses.

Lord have mercy on all those in jail, on all anarchists, on all drug abusers, on all murderers, on all abusers of people, and on all thieves. Enlighten these people and help them to straighten out their lives.
Lord have mercy on all those who have been forced to emigrate.
On all those who travel on the seas, on land, in the air, and protect them.

Lord have mercy on our Church, the bishops, the priests and the faithful of the Church.
Lord have mercy on all the monastic communities, male and female, the elders and eldresses and all the brotherhoods of Mt. Athos.

Lord have mercy on your servants who find themselves in the midst of war.
On your servants who are being pursued in the mountains and on the plains.
On your servants who are being hunted like birds of prey.
Lord have mercy on your servants who were forced to abandon their homes and their jobs and feel afflicted.

Lord have mercy on the poor, the homeless and the exiled.
Lord have mercy on the nations of the world. Keep them in your embrace and envelope them with your holy protection. Keep them safe from every evil and war. Keep our country in your protective embrace day and night. Embrace her with your holy protection defending her from all evil and war.

(BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Lord have mercy on those who have been abandoned and have suffered injustice. Have mercy on families that are going through trying times. Pour your abundant love upon them.
Lord have mercy on your servants who suffer from spiritual and bodily problems of all kinds.
Lord have mercy on those who are despairing. Help them and grant them peace.
Lord have mercy on those that have requested that we pray for them.

Lord grant eternal rest to all those who have passed on to eternal life throughout the ages.

The Holy Spirit in Our Lives

“The Holy Spirit confers true humility. However intelligent, sensible, and clever a man may be, if he does not possess the Holy Spirit within him, he cannot know himself properly; for without God’s help he cannot see the inner state of his soul. But when the Holy Spirit enters the heart of man, he shows him all his inner poverty and weakness, the corruption of his soul and heart, and his remoteness from God. The Holy Spirit shows a man all the sins that coexist with his virtues and righteousness: his laziness and lack of zeal for salvation and for the good of others, the selfishness that informs what appear to be his most unselfish virtues, the crude self-love that lurks where he nevers suspected it. In brief, the Holy Spirit shows everything in its true aspect. Enlightened by the Holy Spirit, a man begins to experience true humility, distrusting his own powers and virtues and regarding himself as the worst of mankind.

The Holy Spirit teaches true prayer. No one, until he receives the Spirit, can pray in a manner truly pleasing to God. This is so, because anyone who begins to pray without having the Holy Spirit in him, finds that his soul is dispersed in all directions, turning to and for, so that he cannot fix his thoughts on one thing. Moreover he does not properly know either himself, or his own needs; he does not know how or what to ask from God; he does not even know who God is. But a man with the Holy Spirit dwelling in him knows God and sees that He is his Father. He knows how to approach Him, how to ask and what to ask for. His thoughts in prayer or orderly, pure, and directed to one object alone–God; and by his prayer he is truly able to do everything.” (Metropolitan Innocent of Moscow, The Art of Prayer, p. 232)

 

When is the Right Time for Prayer?

In the text of the The Apostolic Tradition (3rd Century AD), we find the following teachings about when to pray.

If you are at home, pray at the third hour [i.e., 9:00 a.m.] and bless God. But, if you are elsewhere then, pray to God in your heart. For at that hour Christ was seen fixed to the wood. Hence even in the Old Testament the law ordered that the bread of proposition should be offered at the third hour as a type of the body and blood of Christ; and the immolation of the irrational lamb is a type of the perfect Lamb. For Christ is the shepherd, and he is also the bread that came down from heaven [see John 6:41].

Pray likewise at the sixth hour [i.e., noon]. For when Christ was fixed to the wood of the cross the day was broken and there was a great darkness [see Matthew 27:45]. So let a powerful prayer be offered at that hour in imitation of the voice of him who prayed and caused darkness to overshadow all creation because of the unbelieving Jews.

Let a great prayer and a great blessing be offered also at the ninth hour [i,e., 3:00 p.m] to imitate the manner in which the soul of the righteous praises God, who does not lie, who remembers his holy ones and has sent his Word to glorify them. At that hour Christ, pierced in his side, poured forth blood and water [see John 19:34] and, illuminating the rest of the day, brought it to evening. And so, when he began to fall asleep, while causing the following day to begin, he imaged the resurrection.

Pray as well before your body rests on its bed. But toward midnight, rise up, wash your hands and pray…It is necessary to pray at that hour. For the ancients who have recounted the tradition to us told us that at that hour the entire creation rests for a moment in order to praise the Lord: the stars, the trees, the waters stop for a short space of time, and the whole army of angels who serve him praises God at that hour along with the souls of the righteous. That is why those who believe should hasten to pray then. And the Savior bears witness to this when he says, “Behold, a cry is heard in the middle of the might of one saying, Behold, the bridegroom is coming; rise up to meet him” [Matthew 25:6]. And he continues, “Watch,therefore, for you do not know the hour when he is coming” [Matthew 25:13].

And at cockcrow rise up and pray once more. For at that hour, at cockcrow, the children of Israel denied Christ [see Matthew 26:74-75 par.], whom we know by faith. In the hope of eternal light at the resurrection of the dead,our eyes are turned toward that day.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, 175-176)

The Power of a Praying Community

“One can see them scattered in the desert waiting for Christ like loyal sons watching for their father, or like an army expecting its emperor, or like a sober household looking forward to the arrival of its master and liberator. For with them there is no solicitude, no anxiety for food and clothing. There is only the expectation of the coming of Christ in the singing of hymns. Consequently, when one of them lacks something necessary, he does not go to a town or village, or to a brother, or friend, or relation, or to parents, or children, or family to procure what he needs, for his will alone is sufficient. When he raises his hands to God in supplication and utters words of thanksgiving with his lips, all these things are provided for him in a miraculous way.” (Benedicta Ward, The Lives of the Desert Fathers, p 50)

The Divine Liturgy and Personal Prayers

While one’s personal prayer life and joining in the prayer at the Liturgy are integrally linked and inseparable  in the spiritual life of Orthodox Christians, they are also  two distinct types of prayer.  When one joins the community at the Liturgy, we are joining to pray communal prayers, to join our heart and mind to those of all the other believers assembled together.  It is both how we compose the Body of Christ and experience the Body of Christ in our own person.

 Fr. Thomas Hopko writes:

“Liturgical prayer is not simply the prayers of individual Christians joined into one. It is not a corporate ‘prayer service’ of many persons together. It is rather the official prayer of the Church formally assembled; the prayer of Christ in the Church, offering His ‘body’ and ‘bride’ to the Father in the Spirit. It is the Church’s participation in Christ’s perpetual prayer in the presence of God in the Kingdom of heaven (cf. Heb 7.24–25, 9.24).  . . .  In the Orthodox Church there is no tradition of corporate prayer which is not liturgical. Some consider this a lack, but most likely it is based on Christ’s teaching that the prayer of individuals should be done ‘in secret’ (Mt 6.5–6). This guards against vain repetition and the expression of personal petitions which are meaningless to others. It also protects persons from being subjected to the superficialities and shallowness of those, who instead of praying, merely express the opinions and desires of their own minds and hearts. . . .

When one participates in the liturgical prayer of the Church, he should make every effort to join himself fully with all the members of the body. He should not ‘say his own prayers’ in church, but should pray ‘with the Church.’ This does not mean that he forgets his own needs and desires, depersonalizing himself and becoming but one more voice in the crowd. It means rather that he should unite his own person, his own needs and desires, all of his life with those who are present, with the church throughout the world, with the angels and saints, indeed with Christ Himself in the one great ‘divine’ and ‘heavenly liturgy’ of all creation before God.   Practically this means that one who participates in liturgical prayer should put his whole being, his whole mind and heart, into each prayer and petition and liturgical action, making it come alive in himself. If each person does this, then the liturgical exclamations become genuine and true, and the whole assembly as one body will glorify God with ‘one mouth, one mind and one heart’…”   (SPIRITUALITY, pp 127-128)

We come to the church at liturgy to join and become part of the community (common-unity), to share in the life in the Body of Christ.  Communion and community are related words and concepts.

In this sense, we don’t come to the Liturgy to say our private prayers.  Christ taught us to do that at home, hidden from the eyes of others – to do such private praying in the privacy of our own room (Matthew 6:6).  The liturgy is a time to set aside our private prayer books and to pray the liturgy with everyone assembled.  If we pray with the community, and “go to church” exactly for that purpose, then perhaps we can also learn tolerance for others.  They are not there to annoy us, but are there exactly so that we can pray with them, sharing space and time in community.  The people who aren’t dressed appropriately, or the crying babies, over-active children, the people coming late, those walking in and out of liturgy – these are the people we are coming to church to pray with and for.  So they aren’t disrupting our liturgical prayer life, they aren’t distracting us, but are there for us to note them and pray with and for them.  We come to the Liturgy to be fully aware of those with whom we belong in the Body of Christ.  This is part of the love for one another of which Jesus spoke (John 15:11-17 – note that Christ taught that loving one another would increase our joy, not detract from it!).

We also come to pray with and for the needs of the community.  In some places  it has become common practice to turn in long lists of names of the people for whom we privately are praying.  We somehow seem to think this makes the Liturgy personal.  But truthfully turning in such long lists of names does exactly what Fr. Hopko says shouldn’t happen at the liturgy: It turns the Liturgy, the common prayer of the people, into “the expression of personal petitions which are meaningless to others.”   You are supposed to pray personally and privately for all the people on your prayer list, but all those names aren’t meant to be expressed in the Liturgy.  The liturgy prays for virtually every one on earth in its various petitions.  Turning in long lists of names may seem pious and prayerful, but we are already praying for virtually everyone at the liturgy in the many categories of people we pray for in the various petitions.  Naming people at the Liturgy changes the nature of prayer at the Liturgy into private petitions.  It is appropriate for the local community to pray by name for people of special interest to the community that have special needs, but these should be names known by virtually everyone in the community and whose needs are well known too.

A friend tells me that turning in long lists of names to be read at the Liturgy is common in places where Communion is infrequent.  He thinks it is just another practice that has emerged in churches in which actual communion has disappeared.  Like the proskomedia, names are being offered because frequent Communion has disappeared.  It is the substitute for the reality of the sacrament.  If people are living the Christian life and joining in the community’s Eucharist, they are “in Christ” in reality, not just in name.

We “go to Church” in order to fully experience the sacramental reality of the Community’s Eucharist.  That is something we cannot experience at  home in our private prayer life.  Our private prayer life is in fact nourished by our liturgical prayer life in community.  But we should not be reducing Liturgical prayer to being just our private prayer.  Individualism is meant to be overcome in Christ in whom we become part of His body, members one of another (Romans 12:5).