On the Law of God
Prayer: Feasts and Fasts
We have discussed how important prayer is for the spiritual life of an Orthodox Christian. But how are we to pray? Two forms of prayer are distinguished in the Orthodox Christian life: private, home prayer and unified Church prayer. Each has certain special characteristics. Our Saviour gave instructions in the Gospel about private prayer: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret will reward you openly” (Mt.6:6). And of course, home prayers are basic to us. Prayer is deeply intimate and heartfelt. Everyone who has sincerely searched for heartfelt and moving prayer knows well how easy and natural it is to pray in solitude, in silence and peace. Moreover, our Lord firmly warns us against hypocritical prayer done for show, to elicit praise from people.
When a Christian prays to God, he must strive to contemplate the words of the prayers which he reads, and to concentrate his thoughts on the content of the prayers. Everyone knows how difficult it is to struggle against the pressure of outside thoughts and images which tiresomely besiege the praying person. This comes to us both from our personal distraction and from indirect action of the evil power. The task of a Christian is to apply all his powers to persistently shake off all these side thoughts (which are sometimes impure) that torment him, and to pray concentratedly and piously. One should remember that an augmented pressure of thought and image, primarily vile or blasphemous, comes to us directly from Satan, and the struggle of resisting these thoughts is a direct struggle against evil. Consequently, one receives great benefit from such a struggle.
Usually, we pray with church prayers which we learn from childhood. This is necessary, because they lead us into that prayerful atmosphere by which the Church breathes. In this, one must beware not to slide into an automatic, mechanical reading of prayers without attention and penetration into the sense and meaning of the words of the prayer. To this end, a full reverence and concentration of attention is demanded, so that one actually prays - converses with God.
According to the harmonious testimonies of ascetics of prayer (Theophan the Recluse, St. John of Kronstadt, etc.) in addition to the reading of Church prayers, one ought to add prayer in one’s own words, about one’s personal needs and the needs of one’s own neighbors. Often, a Christian cannot fully express his feelings and trials in the words of the written prayers. In such cases, a living, sincere prayer in his own words is appropriate, together with a confession of one’s daily sins, with expressions of one’s intent to struggle, with God’s help, against one’s daily sins. Such a prayer will come from the depth of the human soul.
Only the person who develops in himself penetrating and constant home prayer can correctly participate in the public prayers in church. This participation is a firm necessity for every Christian. The Lord Himself said, “Where two or three (members of the Church) are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” The Ecumenical Patriarch and great teacher of prayer, St. John. Chrysostom, says, “One can, of course, also pray at home: but you cannot pray there as you do in church where so many people are gathered, where a harmonious voice is raised to God: for here is something greater: one-mindedness, a union of love, the prayers of the priest. During public prayer, not only do the people send up their own voices to God, but together with them, the angels and archangels glorify the Master.” Thus, church prayer has a pre-eminently sacred character and it is given this by the Grace of the Holy Spirit which, as we know, quickens our spiritual life, co-operating with our personal spiritual efforts.
A priest serves in Church; he is not a priest because he receives an ecclesiastical education, or has a calling to serve the Church. All this only prepares him for pastoral service. He is a priest only because he was consecrated to it by ordination, and enters through the mystery of priesthood into the pastorship of the Church. So it is that our church is a consecrated church, with a specially consecrated holy table. According to the words of the Holy Scripture, our church is a house of prayer. The Lord gave us an example of the honor due to God’s house when, during His earthly sojourn, He twice cleansed it from all disorder and indecency. At the Divine Services, we repeatedly hear the Holy Church exclaim the petition, “For this holy house and for all those who with faith, reverence and fear of God enter herein, let us pray to the Lord.” Each of us must enter a church in this disposition, remembering that here, one stands before the face of the Lord Himself.
One of the greatest and most painfully evident deficiencies of our contemporary life is our inability to celebrate our feast in a Christian manner. Our lives are composed in such a way that interests of a purely earthly character predominate in them. Jobs, worry over income and shallow impressions of the day – all this fills our time, and man does not have time to simply think about his soul, its demands and needs. Our feasts are apertures in our colorless lives of vanity and worldly cares. They teach us that this world is not so empty and impoverished as it sometimes seems to us, for above it, there is a different world giving our soul joy and ineffable peace. Who does not know what joy fills the heart of an Orthodox Christian in the days of the greatest feast, Pascha, the Radiant Resurrection of the Lord?
How often, though, do days of Christian commemoration and festivity turn out to be days of even greater emptiness and senseless idleness. A feast is a special day of God and must be dedicated as fully as possible to prayer and deeds of Christian mercy. In our time though, the feasts are often treated as any other day, and sometimes people even use them for debauchery and drunkenness. How often do we see that people, or even whole clubs (societies) and institutions organize their “balls” and entertainments on the eves of feasts? How do such persons differ from pagans or atheists?
Yet more reprehensible is the way many people view the fasts which the Holy Church has given us. We have many fasts: four lengthy ones, the Great Fast, the Sts. Peter and Paul fast, and the Dormition and Nativity fasts; and also shorter ones.
What an amazing and unchristian relationship so many people now have to these fasts. The fasts are violated by people without a qualm of conscience, as if the matter was about some nonsense, having no significance. The Church, on the other hand, takes a very serious view of the matter, and excludes from Holy Communion those who refuse to keep the fasts without cause. And St. Seraphim of Sarov pointedly said, “One who does not observe the fasts is not a Christian, no matter what he considers or calls himself...” Fasting is absolutely indispensable for man. From the external aspect, it is a struggle of absolute, filial obedience to the Church, whose rules are from the Holy Spirit, and not something to be neglected and scorned. From the inner aspect, fasting is a struggle of restraint and self-limitation. In this lies the great value and sense of fasting, since a strict observance of fasts tempers one’s will and perfects the character of one who is firm in his religious convictions and actions. Let us not forget that Christ Himself fasted, and foretold that His apostles would also fast.
We hear people claiming that fasting is harmful to health. But strict fasting is not demanded of ill people, who fast only according to their strength. Most important, one should remember that only those people who themselves do not fast, speak about the “harm to health” of fasting. But those who do observe fasting will never say this, for they know, through personal experience, that not only is fasting not harmful, but it is positively beneficial to bodily health.
Fasting is not merely a restraining from food, however. During the days of the fasts, the Church sings, “While fasting bodily, let us also fast spiritually...” True fasting includes deeds of Christian mercy. It is an alienation of the evil one, a restraint of the tongue, a laying aside of anger, a cutting off of vices and an exposure of falsehood... Thus, for a Christian, fasting is a time of restraint and self-education in all respects, and a real Christian fast gives believers a great moral satisfaction. Bishop Theophan the Recluse says of fasting:
“Fasting appears gloomy until one steps into its arena: but begin, and you will see what light it brings after darkness, what freedom after bonds, what release after a burdensome life...”
Answer the following questions.
1. How are we to pray?
2. What must we strive for when we pray?
3. What should we do in addition to the reading of Church prayers?
4. When can one participate in public prayer?
5. What does Church prayer have?
6. What is one of our greatest and most painfully evident deficiencies?
7. What is a feast?
8. Name the fasts of the Church.
9. How are fasts kept?
10. How important is fasting?
11. What is fasting?
Summarize what knowledge you have gained from this chapter.
Translated by Archbishop Lazar Puhalo - used with permission - all rights reserved.
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