Faith on Friday: On Prayer, Fasting, and Poetry

blue-prayerFirst let me say that I try not to whine on this blog. But after a little whining in Wednesday’s post, I received an invitation to lunch, links to several encouraging articles on happiness and how to overcome self doubt as a writer or artist, and other helpful replies. Thank you.

(Watch for reflections on those articles in my Mental Health Monday post next week.)

idiot-psalms-new-poems-14This morning I spent a little time trying to be silent. Trying to pray. Then I read, again, some of the spiritual poetry of my friend, Scott Cairns, in his wonderful book, Idiot Psalms. All of this while chasing a morning headache with Tylenol and caffeine. And then I turned to poetry. I remembered Mary Karr’s words in her essay, “Facing Altars,” which appears in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality:

Any attempt at prayer in this state is a slow spin on a hot spit, but poetry is still healing balm, partly because it’s always helped me feel less alone, even in earliest childhood. Poets were my first priests, and poetry itself my first altar.

yhst-27718179058433_2272_112584738Scott’s poetry reminds me of a volume I received as a gift many years ago—Prayers By the Lake, by Saint Nikolai Velimirovich. My spiritual father at the time introduced me to this man’s poetry. He simply gave me a photocopy of one of the prayers one day, saying, “I think you will like this.”

Orthodox Christians are in the middle of the Apostles’ Fast, which culminates with the celebration of the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know that I struggle greatly with fasting. It’s not that I struggle against my passions while trying diligently to fast, which would be a good struggle. But I struggle with the whole concept of fasting, and therefore I fail to embrace it as the vehicle of grace and healing the Church purports it to be.

And yet today I find myself cracking the door open—if only a little bit—to this ancient spiritual practice. These words from St. Nikolai helped me today:

‘This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.’ (St. Mark 9:29)

This is the saving prescription of the greatest Physician of human souls. This is the remedy tried and proved. Another remedy for lunacy, there is not. What kind of sickness is that? That is the presence and dominance of an evil spirit in a man, a dangerous evil spirit who labors to eventually destroy the body and soul of man. The boy whom our Lord freed from an evil spirit; this evil spirit that had hurled him at times in the fire, at times in the water just in order to destroy him.

As long as a man only philosophizes about God he is weak and completely helpless against the evil spirit. The evil spirit ridicules the feeble sophistry of the world. But, as soon as a man begins to fast and to pray to God, the evil spirit becomes filled with indescribable fear. In no way can the evil spirit tolerate the aroma of prayer and fasting. The sweet-smelling aroma chokes him and weakens him to utter exhaustion. In a man who only philosophizes about faith, there is spacious room in him for the demons. But in a man who sincerely begins to pray to God and to fast with patience and hope, for the demon it becomes narrow and constricted and he must flee from such a man. Against certain bodily ills there exists only one remedy. Against the greatest ill of the soul, demonism, there exists two remedies, which must be utilized at one and the same time.

Do you embrace prayer and fasting? I welcome your comments here, or in a Facebook thread. Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Faith on Friday: On Prayer, Fasting, and Poetry”

  1. I also struggle with fasting as a spiritual practice. In reflecting on the reasons, I think for me it is largely a case that I strive to live in a moderate, mindful way, so that the practice of depriving myself of food seems more a turning away from the good of accepting the nutritious gifts of God’s creation than a turning away from evil.

    While I do follow the (not very frequent) fast days in my tradition, I find it spitirually more helpful to focus on adding in more time for prayer and spiritual reading and more emphasis on service to others, rather than expecting that fasting itself will strengthen my spirit.

    1. Good points, Joanne. In the Orthodox tradition, fasting is part of a triad of spiritual practices that are encouraged as a group: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. I can see how these three strengthen each other.

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