by St. Ignatius Brianchaninov
A reminder about wrapping up Lent.
Prayer is good with fasting and alms (Tob. 12:8),
said the Archangel Raphael to Tobit. Such a great work is fasting! It is good, it is the only door through which sinners can depart from their fleshly state and enter into the saving pasture of repentance, and the only way they can remain in that saving pasture. It is a great good, but not only for sinners—it is a great good also for the righteous, and a great weapon in their hands. It does not abandon them throughout the whole course of their earthly sojourn; by it do they restrain themselves in purity and sanctity. The foundation of their fasting is mercy; they place fasting at the foundation of their prayer; and through prayer with faith (cf. Js. 5:15) they obtain whatever they ask (cf. Mk. 11:24).
As St. Mark wisely says, our flesh is taken from the earth, and it qualities are like the earth’s: it needs cultivation. A seed sown in a field uncultivated by agricultural tools will go to waste without bringing forth any fruits; likewise, prayer remains fruitless if the flesh is not prepared for it—if the heart is not prepared by fasting. Entertainment and aggravated thoughts, coldness, a hardened heart, vain and sinful dreams that continually arise in the imagination, all destroy the prayer of one who is sated. The opposite is also true—if a field is carefully cultivated, but not sown with good seed, weeds will grow there with particular strength. So it is in the heart of one who has fasted if he contents himself with only physical asceticism, and does not guard his mind with spiritual labor—that is, the labor of prayer. The weeds of conceit and high-mindedness will grow thick and strong in him. High-mindedness and conceit in one who fasts harshly and over-zealously are always united with contempt and judgment of neighbors, with a particular inclination to become scandalized, and finally, with self-delusion, pride, and his own destruction. Fasting is a powerful weapon; when it is left to its own devices, when it is turned from a weapon into a lifetime goal, or an ambitious aim, it becomes the ascetic’s instrument of suicide.
That is how the Pharisees fasted—and they fasted greatly; they fasted to their own detriment (cf. Mt. 9:14). Is this such a fast as I have chosen: for a man to afflict his soul for a day? Is this it, to wind his head about like a circle, and to spread sackcloth and ashes? Wilt thou call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this rather the fast that I have chosen? Loose the bands of wickedness, undo the bundles that oppress, let them that are broken go free, and break asunder every burden. Deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harbourless into thy house: when thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not thy own flesh. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall speedily arise, and thy justice shall go before thy face, and the glory of the Lord shall gather thee up. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall hear: thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am (Is. 58:5–9). The prophet requires that fasting be preceded and accompanied by mercy. He promises that if the ascetic should unite his prayer with mercy he will be heard swiftly, and be worthy of visitations of Divine grace.
Everywhere, the Holy Spirit lays down the law of uniting fasting with prayer. Be converted to me with all your heart, the Lord calls out to sinners through the lips of another prophet, teaching and encouraging them to repent, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil. Who knoweth but he will return, and forgive, and leave a blessing behind him, sacrifice and libation to the Lord your God? Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly (Joel 2:12-15).
The repentant Ninevites showed the power of fasting and prayer. God had already passed sentence upon them, the prophet Jonah had already announced it to them. The prophet had already gone a distance from the city and was watching it intently, waiting at every hour for the fulfillment of the terrible prophecy. But the Ninevites had recourse to repentance, they had proven the sincerity of their repentance by abandoning their evil ways, by intense fasting, and intense prayer—And God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil way: and God had mercy with regard to the evil which he had said that he would do to them, and he did it not (Jon. 3:10). In the New Testament, the Lord said that fasting would become the common ascetical labor of all His disciples But the days will come, when the (heavenly) bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days (when the Lord is ascended into heaven) (Lk. 5:35). How could the Lord Jesus’ disciples not fast on the earth, how could they not weep here, how could they not clothe themselves in garments of grief, when their Treasure, their only Treasure, is far from them; when the path to Him is filled with hardships—flanked by robbers who terrify both by their number and their viciousness!
All of God’s saints spent their lives in fasting and prayer. Thus, according to the Gospels, St. Anna the Prophetess, daughter of Phanuel, never left the temple, serving God with fasting and prayer both day and night (cf. Lk. 2:37). Holy Scripture tells of the great Judith that she dedicated all the days of her widowhood to fasting, that she had experience in prayer and knew its power, that she had attained a living faith in God through prayer, and through prayer had done a wondrous work (cf. Judith 8). With fasting I covered my soul (Ps. 34:13), said the God-inspired David, so powerful is this ascetic labor; I humbled my soul with fasting (Ps. 34:16)—that is how well this ascetical labor counteracts the self-satisfaction and tendency to be puffed up which comes from satiety! Through fasting, My prayer shall be returned to my bosom (Ps. 34:16); without it, prayer is the sorry victim of mental distraction, inseparable from satiety. Amongst the signs of God’s true servants, the Holy Apostle Paul includes—abiding in fasting (cf. 2 Cor. 5:5) and prayer (cf. Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2). As for himself, he testifies that he spent his earthly life in constant ascetical labors, deprivations, and sorrows. He recalls the hunger and thirst that he had to endure during the course of various circumstances, and the voluntary, continuous fasting by which he tamed and enslaved his body (cf. 2 Cor. 1:27; 1 Cor. 9:27).
When the Evangelist Luke describes in the Acts the Holy Apostles’ assembly in Jerusalem, at the ascension into heaven of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the presence of the Most Holy Virgin and other women who had followed the Lord during His earthly sojourn, he says, These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication (Acts. 1:14). It is clear from these words that they prayed long and uninterruptedly, which is impossible to do without fasting. Such was the Apostles’ way of life! Such was the way of life of the martyrs! Such was the saints’ way of life! It was, and still is, bound together with unceasing prayer and continual fasting. Their mercy and love for their brothers, for those who love them and those who hate them, is divine—as higher than human nature, as emulating the love which comes from the breast of the Lord Himself. They not only showed compassion for all those with spiritual and physical needs, they not only forgave all wrongs, even the most serious offenses—they gladly laid down their lives for the salvation of their neighbors, and for the salvation of their enemies.
When there were important things ahead or difficulties in life, before important works, and when great sorrows were upon them, the saints of God increased their fasting and their prayer. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ gave us an example of both. Before going forth to preach and to save mankind, the Lord went into the desert, where he remained in fasting for forty days and forty nights. Blessed Theophylact writes,
”He fasted because it was His good will to show us that fasting is a great weapon during temptations, and against the demons. Just as a surfeit of food is the beginning of any sins, so restraint is the beginning any virtues.”
The guide to the ascetical labor of fasting and ascetical labor against the devil is the Holy Spirit.
Before the Lord chose the twelve Apostles, who were destined to catch [the peoples of] the universe in [in the nets of] faith and salvation, He ascended a solitary hilltop and remained there all night in prayer (Lk. 6:12). Before He resurrected Lazarus, the Lord turned in thanks to the Father for hearing His prayer. He said, And I knew that thou hearest me always, because the Father’s will and the Son’s will are one Divine will, but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me (Jn. 11:42). Likewise, before choosing the Apostles, the Lord had no need to pray; but he turned to prayer and remained in prayer all night, showing us, as the holy fathers reason,
an example through His own actions, that we might do the same; and showing us that God also hears our brief prayers, but before important events and beginnings it is beneficial and necessary for us to pray especially long and intensely.
Before His sufferings and death on the Cross, to which the Lord deigned to submit for the redemption of humankind, He came to the garden of Gethsemane, to the place where He would have to be betrayed, manifesting Himself as a voluntary sacrifice made through the single and undivided will of the Father and the Son. He showed us by this that we must accept every misfortune sent to us from above as something that belongs to us and cannot be taken away; we must accept it with self-denial, with obedience to God’s will, with faith in God the Almighty, Who keeps unsleeping vigilance over us, by Whom all our hairs are numbered, and from Whom my bone is not hid, as the prophet said, Which Thou madest in secret; nor my substance in the nethermost parts of the earth (Ps. 138:14). The Lord showed us how we can and should fortify the weakness of our human nature when misfortunes come upon us. He turned to intensified prayer. He enjoined His disciples, who were overcome by sleep, to Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation (Mt. 26:41).
So that the temptations that come upon man might not overtake him, take possession of him, or swallow him up—prayer is needed. We need that spiritual strength, that Divine, unwavering peace which prayer brings, to overcome temptations when they are upon us. In order to conquer satan, who tries to shake man with thoughts of sorrow, hopelessness, and despair, and destroy the one consigned to afflictions by Divine determination; in order that our faith not fail in times of affliction—we need prayer. We need it, so that amidst sorrow itself we might feel all joy, which God has ordained us to have, when we fall into diverse temptations (Js. 1:2). Only the one who is first cleansed of his sins can receive grace-filled consolation from prayer; and he can only preserve his purity through fasting.
The true servants of the Lord followed the Lord’s example. Already in the Old Testament, St. David, guided by the Holy Spirit, intensified his fasting and prayer during difficult life circumstances (cf Kings 12:16; Ps. 34:13). Likewise, the Prophet Daniel, having learned from the book of the Prophet Jeremiah that the number of years of the Jews’ Babylonian captivity assigned by God had been fulfilled and it was time for them to return to Jerusalem, turned with intensified prayer to God for the Jews’ deliverance, and he strengthened his prayer with fasting: And I set my face to the Lord my God, said he, to pray and make supplication with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes. And I prayed to the Lord my God, and I made my confession (Dan. 9:2-4). The state to which fasting and prayer brings a person makes him especially capable of receiving Divine benefactions and Divine revelation. Thus Cornelius the Centurion’s alms, prayer, and fasting were known to God, and they brought him the greatest good: knowledge of Christ. I was praying in my house, at the ninth hour, the centurion related about himself to the Apostle Peter, and behold a man stood before me in white apparel (Acts. 10:30). While the Apostle Peter was in hunger and praying, the great linen sheet came down to him from heaven, revealing an image of the pagan world that God had received into faith in Christ and His salvation (Acts. 10:11).
Also, as they were ministering to the Lord, and fasting, the Holy Spirit revealed to the Apostles that He had chosen Paul and Barnabus to preach Christianity to the pagans, and asked that they separate these two from themselves and send them to do this service. They heard this request of the Holy Spirit during fasting and prayer, and before they fulfilled it they again had recourse to fasting and prayer, so that the request that they had received through the cooperation of fasting and prayer would also be fulfilled through the same cooperation. Then they, fasting and praying, and imposing their hands upon them, sent them away (Acts 13:3), writes the author of the Acts of the Apostles.
Everyone now knows what success Paul and Barnabus achieved through their service! Their success was crowned by the spread of Christianity throughout the then known world. There are uncountable proofs and examples of just what Divine revelations all God-pleasers are granted when they renounce matter through fasting. By pure prayer, with naked minds unsullied by any fantasies, not distracted by any extraneous thoughts, they stand in deep reverence and peace before the invisible and inscrutable God.
Beloved brethren! Having come to know the significance and power of spiritual weapons—alms, fasting, and prayer—let us hasten to gird ourselves with these weapons. Let us acquire mercy, let us array ourselves in kindness, according to the teaching and assurance of the Apostle (cf. Col. 3:12). May our outstanding character trait, the continually outstanding feature of our conduct be mercy.
Let us not seek righteousness outside of mercy.
Mercy that proceeds from corrupted human nature is contrary to righteousness; mercy that pours from the Gospel commandments, although abundant, is in unbroken union with God’s righteousness, and serves as its expression (cf. Ps. 84:11–14; 88:15). Let us humble our bodies with food partaken of in measure, and with particular kinds of foods, not only during the holy fasts appointed by the Church; but let us at all other times partake of food sensibly, commensurate with our essential needs, for the maintenance of our physical strength and health. When the body has done its work for the spirit through fasting, and made our spirit angelic in its kindness, let us then give our body wings through prayer. May our spirit obtain the blessed habit of quickly and frequently placing all our reliance upon God, of begging God’s blessing upon our endeavors, and His help in all our activities.
We shall soon see God as the helper and guide of our actions. This is but little! By raising our thoughts often to God, we gradually clear our moral path of all iniquity—not only the crude, but even the subtle iniquity in our thoughts and feelings. What man who calls out to God for help would venture to ask His help for a vicious deed? What man who presents his request to the King of Kings would not first take care to ensure that this request be worthy of the King’s Divine gaze, which penetrates the inner recesses of our hearts, and sees both the visible and invisible with equal clarity? If we ask any thing according to His will, only then will He hear us (1 Jn. 5:14). What man who hourly turns to God will not acquire the conviction and sense that he lives under the eyes of God, and that the All-seeing God, Who is everywhere present, sees his every deed, and every movement of his soul?
The necessary result of such a conviction and sense is the Christian’s spiritual progress. May the merciful Lord grant us this progress, to the glory of His name, and unto our salvation. Amen.