Prayer, Fasting and Asceticism

“This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). The last words of this Gospel passage explain its selection for reading at today’s Divine Liturgy, In the home stretch of the Great Fast we may need to be reminded that effectiveness in the Christian life demands more than occasional application. We must apply ourselves regularly and consistently to maintaining our life in Christ for it to bear fruit. This constant living out of our faith is called asceticism, from the Greek word for “struggle,” ascesis.

St Paul witnesses frequently to the ascetical nature of Christian spiritual life. He uses both athletic and military imagery to present the life in Christ as, at least in part, a struggle. Consider the following:

  • “The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. … and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts” (Romans 13:12-14).
  • “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown” (1 Corinthians 9:24-26)
  • “Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27).
  • “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil….For we wrestle not against flesh and blood…” (Ephesians 6:11-12).
  • “…forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
  • “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day…” (2 Timothy 4:8).

Training for an athletic contest or for a military expedition demands single-minded commitment to the struggle. One’s eye must be continually on the goal and our will firm to do anything in order to achieve it.

A Spiritual Combat

In St Paul’s day Christians had no lack of enemies striving to eliminate their Churches as damaging to the state or to established religions. Yet the Apostle does not finger these opponents when describing the struggle.

St Paul identified what would later be called spiritual warfare: the interior struggle to keep our minds and hearts centered on the Lord. “For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (Romans 7:22-23). The real struggle, Paul teaches, is not with enemies outside but with our own broken nature. The arena where Christians would struggle was not the coliseum but the heart.

The Church’s spiritual masters from the Desert Fathers to our own day have sought to determine the course of our spiritual struggle. They agree that our interior combat begins with the assault of what they called logismoi, random thoughts that suggest definite wrongdoing or simply not doing what it takes to keep in shape. There is no word to accurately translate logismoi. It has been variously translated as “prodigal thoughts,” “impulses,” “provocations,” “temptations” or “the seeds of the passions, those suggestions or impulses that emerge from the subconscious and soon become obsessive… blockages, usurpations, deviations that destroy the human being’s basic desire.”

These “prodigal thoughts” come to us unbidden from our past, from what we see others do, from entertainment media, from many sources. We may dismiss them and continue on our chosen path or entertain them, allowing them to convince us that what they propose is right for us. As Evagrius of Pontus noted in the fourth century, “It is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.”

Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware) once described logismoi as “first whispered by demons in obedience to the will of the Satan (the Tempter),” locating their source as further beyond our broken nature. This, too, is suggested by St. Paul who teaches that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Evagrius, writing in the same tradition, insists, “Demons first inspire thoughts and these, when they are allowed to linger, unleash the passions in us. The remedy against this system of demonic attacks is a constant vigilance over thoughts, never allowing them to linger.”

Right about now many of us may be assaulted by logismoi suggesting that we dispense ourselves from the Fast, skip a Lenten service, or return to any amusements we have given up for the season. We may be like many who commit themselves to regimens of diet and exercise for a short time and then are tempted to abandon them because they do not see speedy progress. It is, however, one’s commitment to the contest which brings about greater results. As Pope Paul VI noted in another context, “All life demands struggle. Those who have everything given to them become lazy, selfish, and insensitive to the real values of life. The very striving and hard work that we so constantly try to avoid is the major building block in the person we are today.” 

Prayer, Fasting and Spiritual Power

The nineteenth century Russian Saint, Theophan the Recluse, once wrote, “The demons can sense a faster and man of prayer from a distance, and they run far away from him so as avoid a painful blow.”

The opposite is also true as we read in Sotos Chondropoulos’ life of St. Nectarios of Aegina: “One time there was an archimandrite from Egypt who found himself in Athens on some religious business. Although he was a cleric, he was one only by profession… When he performed the Divine Liturgy he did it mechanically, without the faith and humility which is required…” 
[Told about a girl supposedly possessed by an evil spirit, he asserted confidently “There are no demons today” and declared that girl must be a schizophrenic. He would see for himself. When he arrives the possessed girl addressed him laughingly] “My dear priest, how beautiful and playful you seem…” Seizing him she shouted “You dirty, filthy worm… Isn’t it you that hasn’t left a girl or woman in Alexandria untouched? You dare to insist that I do not exist? Then I will make an account of all the ‘good works’ you have done as a mocker of sacred things.” [She told of one scandalous incident after another. The archimandrite collapsed and had to be taken away. The girl was eventually freed from the spirit after being anointed with oil from a lamp at St Nektarios’ tomb.]