And when He had entered the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” And He said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”

Mark 9:28-29

The movie “To Save a Life” came out in 2010. It is a fictional story about a popular student who is coping with the suicide of a childhood friend. He tries to correct things in his own life that he thinks contributed to the death of his friend. Along the way he still makes mistakes, but he also finds God. And despite his enthusiasm for Christianity he still has some bad things happen to him, some of his own doing and some based on circumstances beyond his control. One of the lessons of the movie is that just because we decide to follow after Christ, life doesn’t necessarily get easier. In one of the most powerful scenes of the movie, the young man drops to his knees and utters his first real prayer to God. He cries out in desperation, “Give me the strength to know what’s right.” I think of this prayer in the moments when I feel stuck, or feel like I need a spiritual restart, or in moments of despair when I feel truly lost.

On the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. John Climacus, also known as St. John of the Ladder, because of the book he authored, entitled “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” St. John Climacus lived in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. He reposed peacefully at the age of 70. He lived most of his life in the monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai.

“The Ladder of Divine Ascent” is a monastic treatise, meaning that it is more readily understood by monastics and more applicable to monastic life. The language is heavy. The book outlines thirty steps toward living a life totally devoted to God. The first step is “renunciation of the world.” The second step is “detachment,” followed by “exile” or “pilgrimage.” The steps are very steep. The book and its steps are very intimidating, especially to people who are living in the world.

The concept of steps, whether they are these thirty, or a less severe set of steps is a good metaphor for the Christian life. We have to start somewhere, and then we have to work to climb higher on “the ladder.” As we get higher on the ladder, it gets harder. Why? Because the demons bring more temptation to those who are higher on the ladder. Hence the icon of “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” depicts monastics falling, especially from the higher rungs of the ladder, and the devil and his demons chasing after those who are climbing. Why do the demons attack those higher up? Because the last thing they want is to see is committed Christians. The more committed we are, the harder their attacks.

In the Gospel lesson read on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, Jesus encounters a man with a son who has a “dumb spirit” (Mark 9:17) which tortures the boy. He tells Jesus that he brought his son to the disciples and asked them to cast out the spirit and they were not able to. Jesus subsequently heals the boy. Some time after, the disciples asked Jesus why they were not able to cast out the spirit. He replied to them, “This kind can only come out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29)

If you are having one of those times in your life where you feel stuck in your faith and don’t know how to restart, which step to take first on your ladder of divine ascent, a great place to start is prayer and fasting, the two things that Jesus tells the disciples can cast out the demon, sort of intimating that they need to do more of each.

Prayer is simply communicating with God. Communication takes on many forms. There are of course words of prayer. There can also be prayer without words, to just come into the presence of God. Sometimes we are “with” people and no words are said. For instance, a child who is crying wants to be held by its mother. No words are needed, only the mother’s gentle touch. When someone has lost a loved one, a “ministry of presence” is helpful, just being with someone, even if no words are said. There is an intimacy with God sometimes when no words are said, just to come into His presence. We know that God is present everywhere, He is not limited to the church building. He certainly is present in the sanctuary. And there have been innumerable times that I have gone into the church and sat quietly in the Holy Altar, or in the pews and just looked at His image in the icons, just enjoyed sharing the holy space with Him.

The words of prayer are important. Jesus warns us in Matthew 6:7, in speaking on prayer, for us to “not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” A few words, offered sincerely, are much better than many uttered insincerely. To pray simple phrases like “Lord, have mercy” or “Thy will be done,” and really mean these words, for our hearts to beat in time to them, for our thoughts to be controlled by these words, this is what prayer is supposed to be. Prayer need not be long either. When someone has never prayed or hasn’t in a long time, praying for a lengthy period will be intimidating and may cause certain people not to stick with prayer. Short spirts throughout the day are actually more effective. They help us to build up to longer periods of prayer. They also keep God in our consciousness a greater percentage of the time.

I have always struggled with both prayer and fasting. Perhaps that is why I’m not further along in my spiritual journey. As I get older, regarding prayer, I don’t really ask God for any outcomes. If anything, I ask Him for wisdom and discernment, and I continually ask for Him to have mercy on me, as I continually make mistakes and commit sins against God and against other people.

Fasting is about discipline, not deprivation. Yes, we abstain from certain foods, but this is not so that we can suffer. Instead fasting helps us to discipline our bodies to going without certain foods, and in turn helps us to discipline our minds to control our thoughts, and to discipline our bodies—our mouths, our hands, etc. so that we can control our actions. If you are having a hard time getting started, or starting again, the best ways to begin are with prayer and fasting, by being in the presence of God and by being disciplined in our thoughts and actions. Fasting and discipline are done at different levels, and an extreme level is probably not sustainable for the person who is just getting started or re-started. This is why we work in concert with a priest (spiritual father) to help guide us to the level of intensity that is appropriate to where we are in our spiritual life. If you aren’t into the habit of fasting, start building one slowly. Fast from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays, then work your way toward fasting for an entire Lenten period. Fast first from meat and then work your way to more strict levels of fasting. Remember always that fasting is about discipline, not deprivation.

If you are needing a spiritual re-start, or if you’ve never started down the road to spirituality, prayer and fasting are two great places to begin anew or begin for the first time.

Have mercy on me, O God. Have mercy on me.
Your Body and Your Blood, O Word, You offered at Your Crucifixion for the sake of all: Your Body to refashion me, Your blood to wash me clean; and You gave up Your spirit, O Christ, to bring me to Your Father.
(Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, Ode Four, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)

If you’ve never started climbing a ladder of divine ascent, or if you have stopped, or if you have fallen off the ladder, learning to pray and fast are crucial in order to start climbing or to begin reclimbing.