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Only By Prayer and Fasting

A sermon from Fr. Thomas Williams
St. John the Theologian Mission, Rapid City, South Dakota

Gospel Matthew 17:14-23 (10th Sunday after Pentecost)

This kind is cast out only by prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting.

When I was ten or eleven growing up in New York City I was one of the lucky kids whose family had a television. New York had seven channels in the 50s. Every Sunday, for some reason, when I came home from the nine o'clock mass, I would sit in front of the twelve-inch screen, eat breakfast and watch Channel 11, waiting for the Yankees game that would come on promptly at 12:30.

But as I was waiting I would always watch the Oral Roberts program on Channel 11, with lots of preaching and shouting. What fascinated me the most were the healings.  "Heal!!! Be thou healed in the name of Jesus," he would shout, and almost always the person who was healed would fall back as he pushed them back on their head. Just as they were about to hit the floor, his assistants would catch them, pulling them up, and off the person would go, somewhat wobbly, but waving their hands and shouting praises to God ... and everyone in TV land. I was fascinated by this. Now I am not sure if it was the shouting (Catholic priests didn't shout during the mass or even in their sermons); or if I was waiting to see if anyone would ever hit the floor. I didn't believe in my heart that anyone was really being healed. It all seemed too loud, and besides who would ever go on television to be healed?

This kind is cast out by prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting.

In a few years I would leave home in New York City, with its twelve-inch TV and seven channels, and go off to study to be a Catholic priest at the ripe old age of fifteen. But whenever I came home on vacations, I still watched Oral Roberts and the other TV preachers do miracles. There were more TV preachers healing now, but I still didn't believe in my heart that anyone was being healed, even though I was still fascinated by it.

But by now I was coming up against it because this was the time of Pope Pius XII and all the miracles at Lourdes and Fatima. I heard priests telling us about the sun falling from the sky and people throwing away their crutches because the Holy Virgin Mary had appeared in both Lourdes and Fatima. I wasn't convinced that there were miracles, I didn't believe in my heart what I heard, and I was ashamed because I had strong devotion to the Holy Theotokos. I am not sure what caused my skepticism. Perhaps it was too much like Hollywood. Hundreds of people healed on TV every Sunday. I believed Jesus cured hundreds in a day, even thousands, because the gospels told us that. But Oral Roberts and the other TV healers? I just couldn't see it, maybe because they shouted so much, tossed people around. Lourdes and Fatima were another story. This was about Mary, the Ever Virgin Mother of God. But the sun falling from the sky, the crutches all over the place in the Life Magazine photos, and the movies about it, like the Song of Bernadette, and the secret envelope with messages from Mary to the pope — I wasn't believing it.

This kind is cast out only by prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting.

Well, life went on for the next 35 years and then I became Orthodox. And I embraced the basic feats that have always characterized the ascesis, or spiritual life, of Orthodox Christians. Among these feats, prayer and fasting hold a central position.

When an Orthodox speaks of fasting, then prayer spontaneously comes to his mind. And when he speaks of prayer, fasting also automatically comes to his mind. For these two means of communication with God are interrelated. This is why Our Holy Lord Jesus Christ, too, when His disciples tried, without success to free some unfortunate person from the evil spirits which tormented him, recommended this dual means of prayer and fasting as the most powerful weapon that man has against the devil. "This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting."

Not a lot of showmanship, not a lot of drama to embolden the healer in the eyes of the people, but prayer and fasting.

However, today many people cannot see what justification prayer and fasting would have for the contemporary "enlightened" and "liberated" person who embraces only scientific, empirical data.

And so they wonder what meaning there is in speaking to God in the form of prayer, exposing to Him this or that problem or request, which in any case, he already knows.  By the same token, such faithful also wonder what difference it would make to God whether they eat or do not eat this or that food in this or that quantity and on this or that day.

These objections seem at first sight persuasive and fair. But looking at prayer and fasting in this manner misses their deeper meaning. For surely the meaning of prayer is not to tell God what He does not know, but to be humbled before Him willingly, to open our heart to Him, to lay in His hands our life, to feel the warmth of dialogue with Him, to proclaim to Him that we freely recognize Him as Lord of our life and our death. Likewise fasting surely has no special moral or spiritual value in itself — not even as diet — for God does not have our biological well-being as His measure.

Fasting acquires its moral and spiritual significance from the moment that it becomes the means and potential of our easier communication with God. And indeed, by fasting man struggles in order to control his unreasonable biological desires and instincts, to abstain from the attractions of this world and so to become more transparent and more receptive in his communication with God.

Neither fasting nor prayer are, or should be an end in themselves. They are means of reaching out to God, and such communication is inherent in us, for God made us in His Image and after His Likeness. There is a beautiful Arabic proverb which says, "The soul wants neither coffee nor a café. The soul wants company and the coffee is a pretext."

We could therefore say that fasting and prayer are two sacred "pretexts" for man to be able to break the monologue and the complacent enclosure inside his ego, to be humbled and to communicate with God in order to receive the blessing, the illumination and sanctification that guarantees His presence in us. For surely the words of Scripture will always have eternal authority: "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6)."

"The humble!" I had found my answer, finally. It is in humility, the extreme quiet of humility, that Almighty and Everlasting God hears us, touches us and helps us in this life, and we are brought to this quiet humility through prayer and fasting. Remember: the soul wants neither coffee nor a café. The soul wants company and the coffee is the pretext. The soul wants union with God and prayer and fasting are the pretext.

Prayer and fasting. This kind comes out only with prayer and fasting. Prayer and fasting, which bring quiet humility to the soul — the presence of God. I think that's what Our Holy Lord is telling the apostles this morning.