When Fasting Is Easy While Praying Is Hard

Abbot Nektarii (Morozov) analyses what is the hardest thing about the Apostles’ Fast.

The Apostles’ Fast is in itself an easy fast.  Besides, it is easy to keep the fast during summer.  You lose your appetite, you don’t feel like eating all that much, maybe just a bit to drink…

Yet, still, as usual, parishioners come up after the Sunday Liturgy asking for a blessing for the Fast. And, consequently, for some practicable ascetic labours and feats.  And practicable most often means quite humble.

In our parish, for example, we consider reading the Psalter during Fasts in groups of twenty an ascetic labour.  Twenty people – as is the total number of Kathismas in the Psalter – gather together.  A list establishing the order is drawn up, and thus, the entire Psalter is jointly read daily.  Obviously, the person who reads the first Kathisma on the first day, reads the second one the second day, and so on.  Moreover, each of the readers writes a list of their loved ones, both the living and the dead, in advance, and all the names are remembered by all the people praying.

Moreover, on the eve of the Fast, usually on a Sunday, we come together and serve a Service of Supplication before beginning to read the Psalter – the usual one served before setting out on any good deed.  Thus, we served it this year as well, with almost all of the three sets of twenty readers present.  And when I turned to say the dismissal and saw the faces of the people I’d known well for many years, I suddenly thought that it really was easy to keep the fast during the summer.  As for praying…

I’m not saying that many see summer as vacation time even from a Church point of view, and for that reason so often the number of our parishioners decreases after Pentecost.  Yet, even those who stay back, who do not hide from the heat in their houses, are not free from the temptation of avoiding ascetic feats by escaping to the river bank, to the woods, or somewhere else.  And there would have been nothing wrong with that, had it not been for “avoiding.”

Generally, the heat does not have a good effect on us.  It makes us feel tired, distracted, sluggish and lazy, makes it hard for us to think, we get easily annoyed.  And if usually it is not always easy to raise yourself up and force yourself to pray, it becomes even harder in a heatwave.  And if not everyone can get themselves together and pray attentively every time, it is even harder during the summer…

Here, however, you have to read the Psalter along with a long list of names of people, some of which are familiar, while some are completely unknown.  And it has to be done without fail!  For if you haven’t read your Kathisma, it means you’ve let everyone down, you turned out to be a weak, unreliable link.

And, for some reason, I suddenly felt sorry for all the people present and praying, both the younger and the older ones.

And I remembered an instance, one of a whole series of similar episodes, that I could not avoid sharing with them.  An instance showing how important prayer can be even when there is no attention, no emotion in it, nothing but a person’s will, their inclination.

Once, a good friend, a doctor, who often helped me in my troubles related to poor health rang me.  This time, she was ill herself, seriously ill, and she asked me to serve a Service of Supplication for her health.  I did all I could to calm her, got ready to go and serve, but got held up a bit…  Suddenly I felt a bit sick, plus I practically hadn’t slept that night, just couldn’t think straight from exhaustion.  “What good are my prayers now,” I thought to myself!  I can’t even pray!

Yet, I felt bad, so I decided I to go and serve simply because I had made a promise, so as not to lie.

I went and served barely understanding myself what I read and sang.  I came home and immediately the phone rang – it was that same friend, the doctor.  All of a sudden, she felt better, both physically, and, what is more important, mentally.  The fear that had been wearing her down had disappeared.

Obviously, it is not a unique example of this kind of “coincidences,” which we constantly notice when we pray, and, as the late Bishop Vasilii (Rodzianko) once said, which never seem to happen when we stop praying.  But, for some reason, it was this example that became especially fixed in my mind.  Maybe, because in that instance, it was especially hard to call that prayer “prayer.”

As though it was like this: whenever we stand hesitating before the icons and wonder whether to pick up a prayer book, open it, and start to… well, at least read, much hangs in the balance at that moment, in the lives of our loved ones and in our own.

At times, it is this kind of prayer, so feeble, so distracted, that gives, according to St. Theophan, the Lord an excuse for such needed mercy.  And at times, that’s exactly what is missing!  And sometimes, it all becomes perfectly, distinctly clear, as is witnessed by our very life and the feeling of the heart.  On the other hand, sometimes (more often, obviously), it remains hidden from us, to be revealed later on – when absolutely everything is revealed.

…I told this to my three sets of twenty readers and saw their faces light up and their eyes shine.  And I rejoiced – I thought then that there should be enough energy and light there to last the length of the short Apostles’ Fast.  And, by their prayers, maybe there’ll be enough of it for me as well.  Experience is one of those things, obvious, but for some reason forgotten.  Yet, when you recall it from memory and share it with someone, all of a sudden you benefit from it yourself.

Translated from the Russian by Maria Nekipelov

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