Fr Dimitri Cozby

In health classes at school we learned the essentials of nutrition, embodied in the concept of four basic food groups. We were told that a balanced diet was necessary to health and that to ensure a balanced diet we must eat something from each of the four food groups at every meal.

Spiritual health also depends upon a balanced diet Here we are not talking about different types of food, although eating does enter into our spiritual life, as we shall see Rather, we must balance our spiritual life among three basic practices: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Our Lord outlines these in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-18) and warns us of the abuses into which pride and vanity can lead us. Whole hooks could be written about each of these topics and Christ’s teachings concerning them Here we can only offer a few thoughts on each and their relationship to each other, together with some observations from the Fathers.

These basic spiritual practices are important, in part, because each helps us cultivate a right attitude and a proper relationship in three crucial contexts. Prayer is the foundation of our relationship with God. Almsgiving (charitable works and stewardship) helps us to understand properly our relations with others. Fasting enables us to put ourselves – our personal physical, emotional, and spiritual needs – in the right perspective. Thus each practice is an aid to appreciating our role as God’s servants in the world which He created.

These practices are not ends in themselves. Just as good food does nothing for the body unless it is eaten and digested, so also these practices do our soul no good unless we approach them in the right spirit, in faith, humility, and love for God. Pursuing them mechanically or with the wrong motives reduces their effectiveness. As St Macarios writes, “Fasting is good and so are vigils, ascetic practice, and voluntary exile. But all these things are but the start, the prelude to citizenship of heaven, so that it is altogether senseless to put one’s trust merely in them …. Indeed, the cardinal rule of the Christian life is not to put one’s trust in acts of righteousness, even if one practices all of them.”

Christ first deals with almsgiving (6:1-4), what we would call “stewardship”. St Macarios of Egypt extols this virtue for those beginning their spiritual struggle and those still in the world who “cannot commit themselves entirely to the work of prayer”; these should “undertake to serve the brethren with reverence, faith, and divine fear.” Stewardship includes both donations to charity and contributions to the work and growth of the Church. Through the first, we alleviate the physical want of the poor. Through the second, we assuage the thirst of the spiritually impoverished, bringing then the Gospel of salvation.

The practice of charity is especially useful, however, in correcting our attitude toward others and toward the world. Charity reminds us to put our trust in God, remembering that we can give because He has provided us with more than we need for our own life. Thus God both supplies our needs and, through us, cares for the needs of others. It also reminds us that we Christians have a duty toward our brothers and sisters. St Peter of Damascus applies the Beatitude “Blessed are the merciful . . . “ specifically to acts of charity.

Christ cautions against ostentatious giving, charity motivated by the desire to acquire “glory among men.” He warns even about seeking self-praise. Giving to receive human praise is a prime example of the power of vanity to turn virtue into vice. St John Climacus speaks of “demons of vainglory and sensuality” who actually “encourage the giving of alms.” These demons render our charity empty. Those who do good to receive praise from their peers have, in that praise, their only reward (vs 2). They will receive no spiritual profit and no reward from God.

The Lord now instructs His disciples concerning prayer (6:5-15). Prayer is our communion with God. St Isaac the Syrian exclaims, “What other time is so holy … as the time of prayer, wherein a man converses with God? At that time … a man forcefully gathers together all the movements and deliberations of his soul and converses with God alone, and his heart is abundantly filled with God.” Another Father remarks, “Prayer is called a virtue, but in reality it is the mother of virtues: for it gives birth to them through union with Christ” (St Mark the Ascetic).

Vanity, however, threatens to corrupt our prayer and to rob it of its power. Christ warns of the same danger that faced us with alms: We must never pray in order to show off our piety. This caution applies first to public worship; we do not attend church merely as a display of piety, so that others may consider us religious. This warning also pertains to private prayer. Sometimes, unfortunately, we seek to impress ourselves, not others. When we pray merely so that we may congratulate ourselves for praying, our prayer loses its power. We never pray merely to be thought spiritual, either by others or by ourselves. We cannot experience the presence and love of God if we ourselves are the main audience for our prayer.

Christ also warns against “vain repetitions”, a reference to the sing-song incantations of the pagans. As St John Climacus notes, we must “pray in all simplicity. The publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single utterance …. There is no need for high-flown words, for it is the simple and unsophisticated babbling of children that have more often won the heart of the Father in heaven.” St John, however, encourages us to spend considerable time in prayer. Most of us, he observes, are still spiritually immature: “We need quantity as well as quality in the words of our prayer, the former making way for the latter.”

In vss 9-13 our Lord illustrates His points about prayer with a sample prayer, the one familiar to us as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Books have been written about the Prayer alone. We must be content here with only one observation. Christ places particular stress on one element, the need for mutual forgiveness. In the Prayer we ask for forgiveness of our sins “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He expands on this petition in vss 14-15, where He asserts that His forgiveness of us is contingent upon our willingness to forgive others.

These verses indicate that prayer places upon us a clear responsibility. St Maxirnos the Confessor asserts that we must “activate” our prayer. In other words, we must support it “with works performed in accordance with the commandments …. For prayer and supplication are given real substance when the commandments are fulfilled through the practice of the virtues.” We cannot approach God in prayer unless we are willing to commit our hearts and lives to Him.

Secondly, Christ emphasizes the special place that forgiveness and humility hold. We must approach God with humility and with the desire to be reconciled not only with Him but with our brothers and sisters. We must come before the Lord thankful for His blessings and repentant of our sins, not whining about the shortcomings of others.

Lastly, Christ speaks about fasting (6:16-18). This important discipline relates to more than just food; it effects our whole spiritual life. Fasting changes our attitude toward ourselves. Through fasting we identify what we really need, as opposed to what we think we need. Fasting is “a tool for training those who desire self-restraint” (St Diadochos). Indulgence is the hallmark of modern society; we are encouraged to grab for anything we can get and to deny ourselves nothing. This vice relates to both greed and pride, that is, to placing our desires above everything else and pursuing without restraint any means to satisfy our cravings. A good life does not depend upon a glut of material things. Our Lord distinguishes what we need for life, both physical and spiritual, from what we want. True happiness is found in the righteousness of the Kingdom, not in “going for all the gusto” this world provides.

Fasting is closely tied to almsgiving, since both relate to our view of ourselves and of the material world. Proper fasting relies on the lessons taught by good stewardship. We give with a glad heart only if we see every-thing as Corning from God’s providence, and if we are ready to turn loose of what we don’t really need.

We fac the same temptation with fasting as with the other practices, to do it for show. The Lord also admonishes us not to regard fasting as something gloomy or sorrowful. Rather, He insists that we treat fasts as joyful times and adorn ourselves with the signs of rejoicing (6:17).

We all recognize that each of these practices is individually important. We do not always realize how interconnected they are. We must pursue all three simultaneously if we are to achieve true spiritual growth For this reason, examining the teachings of the Fathers on the interactions between these basic spiritual practices can be very confusing. Sometimes they even seem to contradict: St Isaac the Syrian. for example, says in one place, “Nothing can bring the heart so near to God as almsgiving . . . “; but in another, “What other time is so holy . . . as the time of prayer!” St John Climacus contends that “fasting makes for purity of prayer . . . .” The contradictions are only apparent, however. The underlying truth is that these three practices are intertwined. Each supports the others; each magnifies the others’ effects. All three – stewardship, prayer, and fasting – are needed for a balanced spiritual life and for spiritual health and growth.