In the Gospel today, when the disciples asked why they could not cast out the demon from this young man, our Lord gave them two answers. First He said that their faith was “too little” and then He commented that this kind (of demon) can only be cast out by “prayer and fasting”. By relating faith to prayer and fasting, we discover something very important about our Christian life. The father of the young man, when Jesus said to him, “if you can believe … all things are possible” responds to Him saying, “Lord I believe, help Thou my unbelief.” This leads then to the lesson that we learn by linking faith to prayer and fasting. If we would truly remedy our “unbelief”, that is if we wish to strengthen our faith, then the way to do so is by prayer and fasting.
During Great Lent, of all the things that we do, the two that stand out the most are indeed “prayer and fasting.” One of the greatest efforts that we put into Lent is “keeping the fast” and we spend a lot of time and energy attending to what and how much we eat. Also during Lent there is a greater emphasis on prayer, especially prayer in the Church with the additional “special” services and the longer version of the regular services. We even have special prayers that we say at home every day only during Great Lent (most notably the prayer of St Ephraim, “O Lord and Master of my Life…”) The reason for this, of course, is that Great Lent is a time when we particularly attend to strengthening our faith and so it is only logical that these two activities, prayer and fasting, should be emphasized.
These two activities, prayer and fasting, are like our two feet – right and left – upon which we walk. If we do not use our feet, then it is difficult to get anywhere and if we use only one foot, hopping around wherever we go, then we don’t get very far and we tire out quickly. To really make progress we need to use both feet together: right, left, right, left, right left... This is the same when we want to make spiritual progress; we use “both feet”: prayer, fasting, prayer, fasting … With only one foot, we don’t make much progress and we soon tire out. If we only fast, but don’t pray, then the fast becomes tiresome and boring – it is even inconvenient and uncomfortable. If you are having trouble fasting, then the first thing to ask is, “Am I praying?” By the same token, when someone goes to the extra services and adds the extra prayers to their daily rule, but they don’t fast, then it becomes routine and boring. Then their attention falls off and the prayers become nothing but a string of words and in the services the mind wanders far afield (even sometimes into dark and sinful places). The first question to ask if you encounter difficulty praying is “Am I fasting?” Really, we must use both prayer and fasting if we wish to make any spiritual progress – just as we must use both feet if we wish to walk anywhere.
Today also we remember St John of the Ladder. St John was the abbot of the monastery of Mt Sinai where Moses received the Tablets of the Law from the hand of God. It was, and by God’s grace, today remains as one of the most prominent desert monasteries of the Christian Church. It is the only monastery which is an autocephalus (self ruling) Church in its own right (equal to the Churches in the Holy Land, Greece, Russia, Crete, Bulgaria, Romania and so on). At the request of one of his monastic brethren, St John wrote down the principles by which he guided his monks. These principles today are preserved for us and known as the “Ladder of Divine Ascent”. In this book, “the Ladder”, St John describes a gradual, step by step ascent into the Kingdom of Heaven building each step on the foundation of the ones that went before. These steps are the various virtues that we strive to acquire by our spiritual labors. What St John has given us is a system by which one virtue leads to another and then another and another – each step resting on the ones before until finally one reaches the heavenly gates. There is an icon in the Church of this Ladder of Divine Ascent which I would encourage you to look at today before you depart. It is quite a striking icon in which we see various persons climbing this ladder of virtues striving to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. We also see the demons flocking around these spiritual strugglers trying to pull or prod them off the ladder by means of the passions with which they typically displace the virtues and enslave us to their will. When this happens the spiritual struggler might even fall from this ladder and end up imprisoned by the demons who successfully tempt him. We are reminded by this icon that no matter how far we ascend in our spiritual life, our struggle against the demons and their temptations continues unabated. There is an account of a holy elder who on his deathbed heard Satan lament that the elder had finally defeated him after a lifetime of spiritual struggle – but the elder said no, the struggle had not ended for he had not yet left this life and entered into paradise. Even in the moment of his death, the evil one tempted him with pride seeking to dislodge him from this Ladder of Divine Ascent at the very last moment.
St John wrote his “ladder” for those in the monastic life, but even for those of us in the world it is useful, for we can see what are the basic virtues that support those more advanced so that we are not deceived into thinking that we have progressed more than we actually have. But there is another ladder that is provided for us today in the Gospel – one that is not designed for monastics but rather for each of us who takes up his cross to follow Christ. This ladder is the ladder of the beatitudes that we heard read today (and which we sing at every Divine Liturgy). On this ladder we begin with the step of humility (blessed are the poor in spirit) which is the foundation of every other virtue. From humility we proceed to repentance (blessed are those who mourn (for their sins)), and to meekness. We proceed again to the love of righteousness, mercy and purity. We then ascend to the place of bringing peace (even as our Lord did) and reaping as a result persecution and even death. That death, however, is not a defeat, but is a triumph for in His death, He conquered death and has made death for us the door to eternal life.
Therefore brothers and sisters we are reminded that we must proceed in our spiritual life step by step, never getting ahead of ourselves and never relaxing our spiritual vigilance even for a moment. We need both of our feet – prayer and fasting – and we must exercise them both throughout the whole of our lives. There will never be a moment in this life when we cease praying and never a moment when we abandon fasting. Step by step we proceed towards the Kingdom of Heaven; rung by rung we ascend the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Right foot, left foot – by prayer and fasting – we progress step by step, into the Kingdom of God.