Matthew the Poor: Fasting with Prayer

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Matthew the Poor: Fasting with Prayer

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. John 6:27

“Fasting by itself is not a virtue. It is nothing at all. Without prayer, it becomes bodily punishment that induces spiritual aridity and bad temper. The same is true of prayer; without fasting, it loses its power along with its fruits.

We may liken fasting to a burning coal and prayer to frankincense. Neither has value without the other, but together, the sweet savor of their incense fills the air.

Fasting calms the impulses of the flesh and quenches the fire of passion; it curbs the prattling of the tongue. Thus, it substantially prepares us for the work of prayer and the release of the spirit from slavery to the flesh. In this way, fasting allows the spirit to contemplate the truths of eternity and the age to come.

The following constitute spiritual meanings for fasting: Fasting is not a deprivation from certain kinds of food but a voluntary abstinence from them. It does not humiliate the flesh, but refreshes the spirit. Nor does it fetter or imprison the senses; it releases them from all that hinders contemplation of God. Fasting does not seek to repress the appetite for food. It renounces this appetite and, in renunciation, elevates it to relish the love of God. Fasting does not imply confinement or restriction, but aims at joy and magnanimity of heart.”

Matthew the Poor (1919-2006), a Coptic Orthodox Monk in Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way by Father Matta El-Meskeen (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) 229-230.

As I explore fasting through church history, I find rich expressions of it in the early church, but it has been much harder to locate thoughtful content closer to modern times. That is, until I read Matthew the Poor. This monk understood fasting and, more specifically, it’s connection to prayer!

Think of it this way. Prayer without fasting becomes, “God, give me what I want.” And we tend to want it all and want it now. Prayer with fasting surrenders our desires and says “God give me what you desire.” Notice the major difference? This may be a leading contributor to the loss of power in prayer today.

This Lent (and beyond) let’s surrender our desires to enliven the spiritual part of us (fasting) and ask God to make His will be done (prayer) so we become conduits of blessing to those He cares about (almsigiving). As a result, the fruit of the Spirit of generosity will be vibrant in and through us.

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Isaac the Syrian: Fasting is a weapon forged by God

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. Luke 4:1-2

“Fasting was the commandment that was given to our nature in the beginning to protect it with respect to the tasting of food, and in this point the progenitor of our substance fell…And the Savior also, when He manifested Himself to the world, in the Jordan, began at this point. For after His baptism the Spirit led Him into the wilderness and He fasted for forty days and forty nights. Likewise all who set to follow His footsteps make the beginning of their struggle upon this foundation. For this is a weapon forged by God, and who shall escape blame if he neglects it? And if the Lawgiver Himself fasts, who among those who keep the law has no need of fasting?”

Isaac the Syrian (c.613-c.700) in Homilies 37, in Ascetical Homilies, 172, as recounted in Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way by Father Matta El-Meskeen (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) 231.

Isaac reminds us that humankind, in the beginning, fell with regard to the tasting of food, and that our Savior, after He was baptized, fasted forty days and nights before His ministry began. Think about it. Where the first Adam fell the second Adam picked things up.

Jesus testified that we don’t live on food alone but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. We are not sustained by physical things but by spiritual truths. We learn this when we take the journey of fasting. We learn that we don’t need this or that after all.

Fasting forty days and nights in Lent (not counting the seven Sundays which are feast days) is not a modern fad but an ancient practice that goes back to the early church for a reason. It’s a weapon forged by God to save us from ourselves and our own appetites.

What does this have to do with generosity?

Saying “No” to some things does create margin in our lives for generosity, but that’s only part of it. The other part is learning to say “Yes” to the things of God so that our living, giving, serving, and loving reflects distinctly “Christian” generosity. We look like Christ in the world.

May our fasting this Lent help us our curb our fleshly appetites so that the Spirit produces the fruit of generosity in our lives for God’s glory. Amen!

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Alphonsus Ligouri: Temperance

And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness. 2 Peter 1:5-6

“He that gratifies the taste will readily indulge the other senses; for, having lost the spirit of recollection, he will easily commit faults, by indecent words and by unbecoming gestures. But the greatest evil of intemperance, is that it exposes chastity to great danger… The intemperate cannot expect to be free from temptations against purity. To preserve chastity, the saints practiced the most rigorous mortifications of appetite.”

Alphonsus Ligouri (1696-1787) in The True Spouse of Jesus Christ (Dublin: John Coyne, 1835) 272.

Ligouri helps us see how fasting protects us. In plain terms, it teaches us to say “No!” to ungodliness and worldly passions (Titus 2:11-13). Think of the temptation of Eve in the garden to taste the fruit of the tree that was forbidden: it was good for food and pleasing to the eye” (Genesis 3:6).

Part of the reason that almsgiving and prayer are combined with fasting throughout church history, is that we learn to say “No!” to taste and intemperance so we can say “Yes!” to the things of God. It’s also part of the reason Jesus wants us to store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth.

When we focus on preserving comfort rather than following Christ, we can’t help but use God’s money to serve the flesh and we become a slave to our own appetites. Don’t let it happen to you. Fast in order to teach yourself to say “No!” so that you can say “Yes!” the the things of God.

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Francis de Sales: Control Greediness

For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. Romans 8:13

“Besides the ordinary effect of fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness, and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole body subject to the law of the Spirit; and although we may be able to do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast.”

Francis de Sales (1567-1622) in Introduction to the Devout Life (CSD) 86.

One of the benefits of fasting is that it teaches us to curb our wants. Related to money, it helps us control greediness. I hope your fasting this Lent is having this effect.

The Apostle Paul charged the Romans (and us) to mortify or put to death the deeds of the flesh. Francis calls it “subduing the flesh.” We do this because it’s the path to life.

This is one of the many counterintuitive realities of the Christian faith. Only when we subdue the flesh do we position the Spirit to guide and control us. Happy fasting!

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John Cassian: Aids to perfection

Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. Colossians 3:2

“Fastings, vigils, meditation on the Scriptures, self-denial, and the abnegation of all possessions are not perfection, but aids to perfection: because the end of that science does not lie in these, but by means of these we arrive at the end. He then will practise these exercises to no purpose, who is contented with these as if they were the highest good, and has fixed the purpose of his heart simply on them, and does not extend his efforts towards reaching the end, on account of which these should be sought: for he possesses indeed the implements of his art, but is ignorant of the end, in which all that is valuable resides. Whatever then can disturb that purity and peace of mind — even though it may seem useful and valuable — should be shunned as really hurtful, for by this rule we shall succeed in escaping harm from mistakes and vagaries, and make straight for the desired end and reach it. This then should be our main effort: and this steadfast purpose of heart we should constantly aspire after; that the soul may ever cleave to God and to heavenly things.”

John Cassian (360-435) in The Conferences of John Cassian (Grand Rapids: CCEL) 8.

It’s important to note that fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are not “ends” but rather “aids to perfection” and if that word “perfection” throws you off, think, spiritual maturity. They position us to live a life of Christian generosity.

Letting go of that which is good to take hold of something better is what Lent teaches us. The key in the second half of Lent is learning to grasp that which is heavenly. Or in plain terms, the key to fasting is learning to feast on Jesus.

Mary figured this out faster than Martha in this classic text, Luke 10:38-42.

As Jesus and His disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to Him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to Him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed — or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Lent is learning not to be distracted so that we latch on to the one thing that is better, the one thing that is needed. Only when we do that we are positioned to serve as conduits of blessing.

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Johannes Tauler: Habitual

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16

“Dost thou complain and ask how shall a man behave who is despoiled and cut loose from self and from all things else? Shall he stay waiting perpetually for God’s action? Or shall he do some things that belong to a devout life — pray, fast, watch at night, read pious books — as long as he takes nothing from without, but all from God, who is within him? If a man does nothing, is he not a sluggard? Mark my answer: He must by no means neglect outward works, for those are commanded of him for the sake of good order; they lead him to God in a spiritual life. and they are for praiseworthy ends. Good works hinder his slipping downward into an irregular way of living, and, as they become habitual, they guard him from straying into eccentricities. By such means does God prepare him for His more interior life, hindering him from that grossness of life which He cannot tolerate.”

Johannes Tauler (c. 1300-1361) in his sermon “The Holy Trinity in the Soul’s Essence” in The Sermons and Conferences of John Tauler (Washington D.C.: Apostolic Mission House, 1910) 93-94

We are both in the “dog days” of winter in Colorado (more snow this weekend, pictured above). No Spring anytime soon. We are also in the “dog days” of Lent as Ash Wednesday (6 March 2019) was a while ago and Easter (21 April 2019) is still afar off.

The good news is that today marks the fourth feast day of Lent, so only three weeks of until the seventh feast day, which is Easter. Remind those around you to feast today on whatever they were fasting from. The seven Sundays are not part of the 40 days of Lent.

Something happens to us as we pray, fast, and give alms in Lent. In the words of Tauler, hopefully, these disciplines “become habitual.” They shape us into different people. For example, I have so enjoyed reading a Psalm at the divine hours, I will likely continue that after Lent.

What will you continue after Lent? Will you remain “despoiled and cut loose” from self? Will you continue the “outward works” which lead you “to God in a spiritual life.” Think about it for a few minutes on this Lord’s day. Contemplate life after Lent.

What good works will continue? Or will “grossness of life” prevail? Sadly, when we don’t choose the former path, our flesh chooses the latter and the result is neither pretty nor does it exhibit Christian generosity. Take five minutes to ponder life after Lent today.

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Peter Chrysologus: Fast of simplicity

Today’s post is admittedly long, but worth reading. I enjoyed this sermon on fasting and almsgiving so much, that I have decided to share a large excerpt of it as today’s post. Read, be inspired to undertake a fast of simplicity in the fortress of your heart, and store up your treasures in heaven to show you believe, lest you too, like too many, be found a hypocrite. God, help us be found faithful.

“Whoever flees hypocrisy conquers; whoever runs into it does not escape. Let us flee hypocrisy, let us flee it, my brothers. May ours be the fast of simplicity; may it be holy from our innocence, pure from our purity, sincere from our sincerity. May it be hidden from people, unknown to the devil but known to God. Whoever does not hide his treasure flaunts it; virtues that are flaunted will not remain. Just as virtues desert those who flaunt them, so they work hard at shielding those who shield them. Therefore, fasting, which is the first virtue against vices, should be placed in the fortress of our heart, since, so long as it presides within us, vices will not be able to disturb us from without.

In order for a Christian to be able to possess it, this is what Christ urges when He says, “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, in order not to be seen fasting by others, but only by your Father who is hidden; and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you (Matthew 6:17-18). When He says, Anoint your head and wash your face, the master is not enjoining His servants to have the hair of their heads saturated with seductive ointment, nor does He want their faces to gleam with habitual washings, but He does want a Christian to hide the fact that he is fasting by looking as he does when he is eating, and since he does not want Christian fasting to be characterized by an artificial sadness. But let us resume what we have begun.

Anoint your head and wash your face (v. 17). He is not hereby endorsing sensuous appearances, but is prohibiting looks that are pretended. A face downcast in sadness professes a hunger against one’s will, not a voluntary fast. If a person is willing, why the sadness? If unwilling, why the fast? One deserves to live in such pain who creates for himself a vice out of a virtue, a lie out of truth, a loss out of gain, a sin out of forgiveness. If the farmer does not push the plow, if he does not dig a furrow, if he does not cut down the briars, if he does not root out the grass, if he does not place seeds in the earth, he deceives himself, not the earth; he does no harm to the earth, but he produces no harvest for himself. And if the one who deceives the earth with his fraudulent and empty hand so deprives, so cheats, and so attacks himself, what will one do, what will he have, what will he find who lies to God with his flesh starving but brimming over with hypocrisy?

And since we have made mention of the farmer, let him know that he engages in an empty labor and he will have nothing if he pushes the plow of fasting, plucks out the weeks of gluttony, and roots out the briars of luxury, but sows no seeds of mercy. This is what the Lord wanted to reveal when during His teaching on fasting He added these words: Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where robbers break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust consumes, where thieves do not break in and steal (vv. 19-20).

How fatherly, how deeply rooted in love, what a far-seeing counsel of charity! He wants you to lose nothing, he who wants your property to be stored in heavenly treasure chests. How securely does one sleep who has deserved to have God as guardian of his goods! How liberated from care is he, how much anxiety has he cast aside, how tranquil is he, what arrogance from his slaves does he avoid by entrusting his goods to be kept safe by his Father. Paternal affection preserves goods in a way that servile fear cannot. The Father who gives his own goods to his sons does not embezzle what the sons have entrusted. He does not know what a father is nor that he is a son who does not believe his father.

Door-bolts do not shut moths out but shut them in. They produce them rather than repel them. Things kept in storage invite rust rather than prevent it. For what takes its origin from the thing itself is unavoidable. Where there is need, thieves cannot but be present. Therefore, whoever deposits his goods amidst moths, rust, and thieves exposes his goods instead of protecting them. Just as a moth originates from clothes, rust from metal, and a thief from need, so avarice arises out of wealth, covetousness out of acquisition, greed out of having possessions.

So, let whoever wants to conquer avarice, to stamp out covetousness, to extinguish the burning fire of greed, give away his wealth and not store it up. Brothers, let us send our treasure chests ahead of us to heaven. The poor are the transports who in their lap can carry to the heavens what is ours. Let no one have any hesitation about the qualifications of these porters. Safe this is, this transportation through which our goods are carried to God with God as the guarantor.”

Peter Chrysologus (c. 380 – c. 450) in Sermon 7.3-5 in St Peter Chrysologus: Selected Sermons Volume 2 (The Fathers of the Church-A New Translation; Washington D.C.; CAUP, 2004) 37-39.

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Leo the Great: Lenten inspiration

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4

“The self-restraint of the religious should not be gloomy, but sincere; no murmurs of complaint should be heard from those who are never without the consolation of holy joys. The decrease of worldly means should not be feared in the practice of works of mercy. Christian poverty is always rich, because what it has is more than what it has not. Nor does the poor man fear to labour in this world, to whom it is given to possess all things in the Lord of all things. Therefore those who do the things which are good must have no manner of fear lest the power of doing should fail them; since in the gospel the widow’s devotion is extolled in the case of her two mites, and voluntary bounty gets its reward for a cup of cold water. For the measure of our charitableness is fixed by the sincerity of our feelings, and he that shows mercy on others will never want for mercy himself.”

Leo the Great (c. 400-461) pope and doctor of the church, in Sermon 42 on Lent.

How is your Lenten journey going? I found three points of fresh inspiration today from this excerpt of Leo the Great’s sermon on Lent. With each one I leave you with a question to ponder.

Firstly, consider this statement. “The decrease of worldly means should not be feared in the practice of works of mercy.” Obedience to the hard teachings of Jesus on money does not leave you empty, but rather, enriched. Don’t fear the decrease of worldly means. Do you give as though God is your Provider?

Secondly, think on this idea. “Christian poverty is always rich, because what it has is more than what it has not.” Jesus only celebrates when you give out of your poverty because only then do you show the world that having Christ is having all you need. Do you exhibit Christian poverty?

Thirdly, and this comment may be the most powerful. “He that shows mercy on others will never want for mercy himself.” If you want to guarantee that God looks after you, spend yourself and the resources in your stewardship on those God cares about. Do you live trusting God to sustain and reward you?

I’ve been working for days on a research project for Asbury Theological Seminary. It’s in process. God help me finish it in the next few days.

Tonight, we are headed to the fish fry at the local Catholic church with our neighbors, Ken and Carol Sharp. It brings back memories of going to get fish on Friday nights when I grew up, back in Ohio on Lake Erie.

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Ambrose of Milan: The command of mercy

But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Luke 6:35-36

“The command of mercy is common to all walks of life, is necessary for people of all ages, and is to be handed down by all. The tax collector is not exempt, nor is the soldier, nor the farmer, nor the city dweller, rich or poor. All are admonished in common to help the one who does not have.”

Ambrose of Milan (c. 339-397) as recounted in On Almsgiving by by Martin Chemnitz (St. Louis: LCMS World Relief and Human Care, 2004) 12.

“The command of mercy is common to all.” Why are we all commanded to give to others what they do not deserve? That’s precisely what Jesus did for us. Only when we go and do likewise do we exhibit Christian generosity. It’s countercultural, for sure, and applies to every follower of Christ, everywhere.

Ambrose was a regional governor who was appointed bishop. In his community service role he connected the sacred and secular worlds into one way of living. The people appointed him bishop because they appreciated how he made sure God’s love and mercy were made known to everyone, everywhere.

What about you? As the command of mercy is common to all, how are you helping those around you who do not have?

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Basil of Caesarea: True fast

“Isaiah has taught us the grace of fasting, rejecting the Jewish manner of fasting and showing us the true fast. “Do not fast to quarrel and fight, but loose every bond of iniquity” (Isaiah 58:4, 6). And the Lord adds: “Do not be gloomy, but wash your face and anoint your head” (Matthew 6:16-17). So let us acquire the disposition that we have been taught, not looking gloomy on the days of fasting we are currently observing, but cheerfully disposed toward them, as is fitting for the saints. No one crowned is despondent; no one glum holds up a trophy. Do not be gloomy while you are being healed. It is absurd not to rejoice in the soul’s health, and rather to sorrow over the change in food and to appear to favor the pleasure of the stomach over the care of the soul. After all, while self-indulgence gratifies the stomach, fasting brings gain to the soul. Be cheerful since the physician has given you sin-destroying medicine. For just as worms breeding in the intestines of children are utterly eradicated by the most pungent medicines, so too, when a fast truly worthy of this designation is introduced into the soul, it kills the sin that lurks deep within.”

Basil the Great, (330-379) bishop of Caesarea and doctor of the Eastern Church in First Homily on Fasting.

I did not add a Scripture to today’s post as Basil astutely connected two key biblical texts on fasting for us in his homily. At least three wise insights surface for me from my reading that are worth sharing widely.

Firstly, caring for your soul surpasses pleasing your stomach. I am finding that praying the Psalms at the divine hours has been food for my soul this Lent. As life is really full, we must attend to soul care over dietary needs.

Secondly, don’t be gloomy but be cheerful when you fast. Basil declares the reason for this reversal. “The physician has given you sin-destroying medicine.” And, the best part about sin-destroying medicine: we can’t overdose.

Thirdly, when we put that which is better in us, “it kills the sin that lurks deep within.” I pray your times of fasting this Lent are shaping you into a new person for life after Lent. Transform us as we feast on you, Jesus.

Together these insights inspire us to pursue a true fast so that we attend to the care of our souls, so that we appear as glad rather than gloomy, and so that God forms us into new people in the process.

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