Gospel on the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent
In the gospel reading on the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the following two events are significant to interpret: Jesus said to him, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes”. Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24). Also: And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” So He said to them, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:28-29).
With the first gospel event, the Lord Jesus Christ among else wants to teach us and show to us the existence of an ascetical and a graceful struggle in Orthodox spiritual life and the difference between them. Ascetical faith and trust in God is one thing, while graceful faith is yet another: graceful faith already changes into cognition, knowledge, and certainty. It is one thing to fulfil God’s commandments ascetically, yet another to do that gracefully. Ascetical prayer is one thing, whereas graceful prayer is something else. Ascetical love for our fellowmen is one thing, and graceful love—something other than it. The same applies to the struggle for all the other virtues of our Christian life. Ascetical patience, or humility, or mourning, or fasting, and so forth, is one thing, and it is quite different when any of these feats are overshadowed by God’s grace.
What is the difference between the ascetical and the graceful struggle and where does it stem from? Depending on the stage or degree of spiritual development at which a man is, his struggle also varies. At the first stage, called purification of the heart from passions, everyone’s struggle for any virtue is ascetical. This means that at this stage the heart is still susceptible to and bound by passions, so that the demon, pretty easily, through thoughts and the senses, can induce а man to sin. Also, at this stage, since the heart is still captured and defiled by passions, the grace of Holy Baptism does not manifest its power and open assistance to him who strives to fulfil God’s commandments and free himself from the sinful habit. That is why the struggle at the stage of purification of the heart from passions seems much hard, at times even hopeless. It takes putting much effort and labour in moments when it seems to us that there is no help from anywhere. We must fulfil God’s commandments, the virtues, also when we have absolutely no desire or will to do that and we do not feel it as a need inside us. Forcing oneself is the crucial moment, due to which the struggle is called ascetical. A man is left nothing else but to force himself in doing what is good, and this based on his mind’s decision, relied on certain unconfirmed cognitions of faith—with the belief that God will help him. Therefore does the father of the possessed boy say with tears: Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!
However, it is not true that God, with His grace, does not help a man already at the first stage, because we could do nothing without Him; still, this aid is somehow hidden exactly for man’s free choice of good, of God to be manifested. God wants to train us to fulfil His commandments out of love for Him, as children of God, not as slaves—out of fear, or as hired servants—for a reward. It is easy for us to fulfil the commandments when grace is with us. It is easy to give when we receive. This is trade, though, not love. Love gives even when it receives not.
At certain moments, grace manifests itself in our life more powerfully, but this only to rest us from our struggle, fortify us in the faith and comfort us. Then all is easy to us. We practise each virtue as something most natural. Nonetheless, these are not the moments when we grow spiritually. Spiritual development is allowed us only in the moments when God’s grace remains hidden and we continue striving to fulfil the virtues. Whenever we fall and do not manage to practise the virtue, in those moments of grace being hidden, we have failed the test and will have to sit for it all until we do well. It is a kind of continuous training in what is good. The Old-Greek word ‘ascesis’ itself in essence means ‘training’. The Holy Fathers say that in the moments when grace is hidden we must act—although we do not feel that way at all—as if it were present. Only then do we grow.
At the second stage, called illumination of the mind, everyone’s struggle for any virtue is by now graceful. It means that the heart is sufficiently purified from passions and Baptismal grace manifests itself from it in power and openly assists a man in fighting against the sin and the demon. No more struggle in great effort and labour, but natural inclination towards virtue instead. The demon cannot assault us from within; rather, he attacks and tempts us from outside, through people that are his servants. At this stage of spiritual development, the ascetic having previously been tried with the two rough passions of avarice and self-indulgence, the entire future warfare happens over the subtle passion of vainglory. To be more to the point, the entire struggle and warfare with the demon takes place over the love towards the enemies, too. If we ask the demon’s servants to tell us why they hate and attack us, what evil we have done to them, they will not know what to say. At this stage our faith becomes experience and knowledge all the more, rather than bare faith. At the third degree—deification, there occurs what
In the second gospel event, Christ teaches us that the demonic kind can be cast out only with prayer and fasting. What do these words of the Lord mean? They mean that linked with the passions, which hold human beings captives, are the demons, and all until a man is not freed, cleansed from his passions, all until then he will not be able to free himself from the demon attached to them—the demon that through the passions freely enters inside the heart and causes temptations and a fall. We heal ourselves, cleanse ourselves from the passions when, on the one hand, we do not satisfy them, when we refrain from them and when, on the other hand, we perform the holy commandments of God. According to the Holy Fathers, each passion is like a snake: if we keep it in a closed basket and do not let it eat or drink, it will die; and if we nurture it regularly, it will live and grow up. The prayer and fasting mentioned by our Lord imply exactly that struggle of restraint and healing from passions and at the same time fulfilment of God’s commandments.
Genuine forgiveness of the sin is the purification from the passions and the expulsion of the demon from within a man. The spiritual father, who, through spiritual guidance, will help his child become purified from passions and free from the demon, at the same time helps his child not repeat the same sin—this meaning true forgiveness, too. If we tell someone his sin has been forgiven, and he commits it again, then it is obvious that neither has there occurred healing from passions, nor forgiveness of the sin, nor expulsion of the demon linked with the passions by which the man is bound. Naturally, without participation in the Holy Mysteries of the Church, the struggle for the virtues is futile—that is, prayer and fasting alone are worth almost nothing.
At the prayers of our spiritual father, may the Lord heal us from the passions and free us from the demon linked with them! Amen!