Many a story reveals the futility of making plans. In action-packed movies that require careful planning to commit the ultimate crime or to rescue comrades in arms and in simply mapping out our days’ strategies, we find obstacles thrown in our path at every turn. In all of these situations, life teaches us time and time again that execution of our most perfect plans requires adjustment and adaptation to the unexpected. Theory rarely if ever plays out in practice, and there is usually a great gap between the two. “Of the best laid plans of mice and men,” perhaps it is better to just fly by the seat of our pants. Or is it?
The Importance of Preparation
Many people go through life without any serious planning. Youth who do not ‘crack the books’ are most times ill-equipped to compete in the workplace. Sowing seeds of sloth produces the fruit of hunger (Prov. 19:15). Seniors who did not save during their working days have little upon which to rely in retirement: “Go to the ant … consider its ways and be wise … It has no guide, overseer, or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” (Prov. 6:6-8)
The spiritual life is no different in principle. We get out of something what we put into it, and many times not when and how we expect. Just as something as physical as labor builds something as immaterial as character, so physical prayer and fasting can yield spiritual results by God’s grace. Few are they who receive the fullness of this grace, because fasting and prayer is labor. It’s hard work. It’s the cracking of the books by which we can compete in the spiritual arena. It’s the attack against sloth that produces spiritual hunger and dis-ease.
Matthew writes how the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force (Mt. 11:12). Although this is in one sense a reference to imperial powers hostile to the kingdom of God, the Fathers of the Church use this verse to exhort the Christians to be violent and ruthless in spiritual matters so as to attain the kingdom of God (‘you gotta want it’). Our resolution (new-year or any other time) must be a revolution because “our enemy the Devil prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)
Choosing to Embrace the Challenge
Most of us, for different reasons, are not up for this kind of fight. Our minds and hearts are on matters closer to home. As a result, prayer and fasting become external exercises, what to read and not read, what to eat and not eat, and when. If we do not realize any spiritual benefit from our fasting and prayer, then why do it? Why not just fly by the seat of our pants as so many do in life in general? Why not abandon this fight?
The reason is the same as with life in general. Keeping a rule of prayer and fasting is better than not keeping one at all, even if it is just being committed to attending church services and giving of our time, talents, and treasures. Uneducated about many things regarding the faith, Orthodox Christians of past generations still would not depart from the Church and her moral and ethical teachings. They saw what immorality and unethical behavior bred and the great benefits of the opposite. They realized the benefit of staying on the spiritual path, knowing they would never attain in this temporal life the spiritual heights of theosis (divinization) and mystical contemplation of God (that includes the vast majority of us). God can save us right where we are. Only stay on the path, “for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and few are they who find it.” (Mt. 7:13-14)
It is in this sense, a most real sense, that our resolution to become more spiritual must always be a never-ending revolution. If for whatever reason we fail at taking the kingdom of God by violence (as mentioned on page one), then we must be ruthless to not be kept out of it, because as the Fathers admonish, we will be tempted to our last breath. “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” (Rev. 14:12; 13:10)
It is this keeping of the faith that is at the heart of why we need to pray and fast. We don’t just mechanically fast on Wednesdays and Fridays so we can receive Holy Communion on Sunday. We do so to remind us of Christ’s betrayal at the hands of Judas (Wednesday) and of his crucifixion (Friday), that our lives may not be a living betrayal and crucifixion of Christ by our neglect of hearing the word of God and keeping it. For then Holy Communion will not be a source of remission of sins and life everlasting but of the opposite. As Jesus said to his slumbering disciples, Peter, James, and John, in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Could you not watch with me for one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation.” (Mt. 26:40-41)
May God awaken us in 2018 that we may turn to Him while He still may be found by us, lest He come and find us sleeping. (Is. 57:6; Mk. 13:36)
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