Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast, 2012
We heard in today's gospel reading how a father brought his son, who was possessed by an evil spirit, to the Lord and asked Him to heal him. The father was unsure whether his son would be healed, since the apostles had not been able to exorcise the spirit. This made the lord indignant and He said: O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? (Mark 9:19) and He said to the boy's father: If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth (9:23). Then the poor father exclaimed: Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief (9:24). And then the Lord healed his possessed son. This episode shows the presence of an unclean power with an evil will. It forces itself into human lives, striving to tear us away from the path of salvation, and sometimes, with God's permission, takes control of a person.
When they were alone, the apostles asked the Lord why they had not been able to cast it out. Because of your unbelief, He replied, For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove (Matthew 17:20). And then He added: This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29).1 The main condition for a miracle is faith. Faith is our receiver for God's grace, which makes miracles happen.
Why did the Lord first say that the apostles could cast out the unclean spirit because of their unbelief and then add that that kind comes out only through prayer and fasting? Is there some connection between the strength of one's belief and prayer and fasting? Yes, of course there is. Power of faith depends upon the inner purity of the soul. Purity of soul is obtained only through feats of ascesis—fasting and prayer. Fasting is necessary for the body, and prayer for the soul. Fasting restrains the passions and refines the body, making it the soul's helper instead of its rival.
If fasting and prayer cast out demons, then how are their children—unclean thoughts, jealousy, slander, judgment, and other sins that nest in our hearts—cast out?
When fasting is discussed, usually we have in mind abstaining from non-fasting-period foods, but this is only the surface layer. The Holy Church teaches that we fast bodily and we fast spiritually. Just as the soul is more important than the body, spiritual fasting is more important and more agreeable to God: this is abstention from various sins.
The same thing can be said of prayer—the participation of mind and heart—because the mouth often speaks the prayer while the mind and the thoughts are elsewhere.
Since Holy Lent is dedicated to the feat of fasting and prayer, we thus remember the venerable John Climacus, the great teacher of asceticism. He wrote a book called The Ladder which describes the spiritual ascent step by step to spiritual perfection. The basis of this spiritual ladder, the venerable John writes, is virtue—the rejection of everything earthly. At the top, he says, is God as love. This ladder has thirty steps, the same number as Christ's years when He began His ministry. Each step represents a victory over one of the passions and the attainment of the corresponding virtue.
This book was written, of course, for monastics, since the basis for this spiritual ascent is the renouncement of everything worldly. However, laypersons also need to ascend up the steps of this ladder that leads to the Heavenly Kingdom, in keeping, of course, with the conditions and possibilities of their lives.
Thus, we will strive, at least during this Fast of the Forty Days, towards feats of abstention and prayer to the extent that this is possible under the circumstances of life in the world, so as to cast out from ourselves every sinful uncleanness.
We will increase our faith through abstaining and prayer in order not to hear the Lord's terrible voice: O faithless and perverse generation, […] how long shall I suffer you? (Matthew 17:17), but rather to hear the reassuring words He spoke whenever someone expressed strong faith: Be of good comfort: thy faith hath made thee whole (Luke 8:48).
1Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21).