When an Orthodox speaks of fasting, then prayer spontaneously comes to his mind. And when he speaks of prayer, fasting also automatically comes to his mind. For these two means of communication with God are interrelated. This is why Christ, too, when His disciples tried, without success to free some unfortunate person from the evil spirits which tormented him, recommended this dual means of prayer and fasting as the most powerful weapon that man has against the devil, “This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).
Since people, however, in our times want everything analysed, “demythologised” and finally in most cases undermined, this is why even among the baptised Orthodox of our times there are people who cannot see what justification prayer and fasting would have for the contemporary “enlightened’ and “liberated” person.
And so they wonder what meaning there is in speaking to God in the form of prayer, exposing to Him this or that problem or request, which in any case, God of His own knows as Omniscient. By the same token, such faithful, wonder what difference it would make to God whether they eat or do not eat this or that food in this or that quantity, and on this or that day.
Of course, these objections seem at first sight persuasive and fair. He however, that judges fasting and prayer in this manner surely has not conceived their deeper meaning. For, surely, the meaning of prayer is not to tell God what He does not know but to be humbled before Him willingly, to open our heart to Him, to lay in His hands our life, to feel the warmth of dialogue with Him, to proclaim to Him that we freely recognise Him as Lord of our life and our death. Likewise fasting surely has no special moral or spiritual value in itself not even as diet for God does not have our biological well-being as His measure. It is precisely for this reason that St. Paul, who lived so little and suffered so much, did not cease to confess clearly that “we shall not lose anything if we do not eat, nor shall we gain anything if we do eat”; “food, however, will not improve our relationship with God”.
Fasting, therefore, acquires its moral and spiritual significance from the moment that it becomes the means and potential of our easier communication with God. And indeed, by fasting man struggles in order to control his unreasonable biological desires and instincts, to become more liberal, to abstain from the attractions of this world and so to become more transparent and more receptive in his communication with the spiritual.
From the above, then, it becomes more obvious that neither fasting nor prayer are, or should be an end in themselves. They are means of communication with God and such communication is our quest and consummation. There is a beautiful Arabic proverb which says, “The soul wants neither coffee nor a cafe. The soul wants company and the coffee is a pretext”.
We could, therefore, say that fasting and prayer are two sacred “pretexts” for man to be able to break the monologue and the complacent enclosure inside his ego, to be humbled and to communicate with God in order to receive the blessing, the illumination and sanctification that guarantees this communication. For sure the words of Scripture will always have eternal authority, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).
By His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos of Australia (The Orthodox Messenger, March-April 1998)