On the first Sunday of the Great Fast our Church celebrates the triumph of Orthodoxy, the victory of true Christian teachings over all perversions and distortions thereof- heresies and false teachings. On the second Sunday of the Great Fast it is as though this triumph of Orthodoxy is repeated and deepened in connection with the celebration of the memory of one of the greatest pillars of Orthodoxy, the hierarch Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica, who by his grace-bearing eloquence and the example of his highly ascetic private life put to shame the teachers of falsehood who dared reject the every essence of Orthodoxy, the podvig (in an approximate translation the word podvig means “spiritual struggle”) of prayer and fasting, which enlightens the human mind with the light of grace and makes it a communicant of the divine glory.
The most essential thing in Orthodoxy is the podvig (spiritual struggle) of prayer and fasting which the Church particularly extols during the second week of the Great Fast as the double-edged “wondrous sword” by which we strike the enemies of our salvation — the dark demonic power. It is through this podvig that our soul is illumined with grace-bearing divine light, as teaches St. Gregory Palamas, who is triumphantly honored by the Holy Church on the second Sunday of the Great Fast. Glorifying his sacred memory, the Church calls this wondrous hierarch “the preacher of grace,” “the beacon of the Light,” “the preacher of the divine light,” “an immovable pillar of the Church.”
Christ the Savior Himself stressed the great significance of the podvig of prayer and fasting when His disciples found themselves unable to cast out demons from an unfortunate boy who was possessed. He told them clearly, “This kind (of demon) goeth not out save by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:21). Interpreting this passage in the gospel narrative, our great patristic theologian-ascetic, the hierarch St. Theophan the Recluse asks, “May we think that where there is no prayer and fasting, there is a demon already?” And he replies, “We may. Demons, when entering into a person do not always betray their entry, but hide themselves, secretly teaching their hosts every evil and to turn aside every good. That person may be convinced that he is doing everything himself, while he is only carrying out the will of his enemy. Only take up prayer and fasting and the enemy will immediately leave and will wait elsewhere for an opportunity to return; and he really will return if prayer and fasting are soon abandoned” (Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 245-246).
From this a direct conclusion may be reached: where fasting and prayer are disregarded, neglected or completely set aside, there is no trace of Orthodoxy — there is the domain of demons who treat man as their own pathetic toy.
Behold, therefore, where all contemporary “modernism” leads, which demands “reform” in our Orthodox Church! All these liberal free thinkers and their lackies, who strive to belittle the significance of prayer and fasting, however much they shout and proclaim their alleged faithfulness to the dogmatic teaching of our Orthodox Church, cannot be considered really Orthodox, and have shown themselves to be apostates from Orthodoxy.
We will always remember that by itself totally formal Orthodoxy has no goal if it does not have “spirit and life” — and the “spirit and life” of Orthodoxy are first and foremost in the podvig of prayer and fasting; moreover, the genuine fasting of which the Church teaches is understood in this instance to be abstinence in every aspect, and not merely declining to taste non-lenten foods.
Without podvig there is altogether no true Christianity, that is to say, Orthodoxy. See what Christ, the First Ascetic, Himself clearly says: “Whosoever will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34). The true Christian, the Orthodox Christian, is only he who strives to emulate Christ in the bearing of the cross and is prepared to crucify himself in the Name of Christ. The holy Apostles clearly taught this. Thus the Apostle Peter writes: “If when you do well and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is accepted with God. For even here unto were ye called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow his steps” (I Peter 2:20-21). In precisely the same way the holy Apostle Paul says repeatedly in his epistles that all true Christians must be ascetics, and the ascetic labor of the Christian consists of crucifying himself for the sake of Christ: “They that are Christians have crucified the flesh together with the passions and lusts” (Galatians 5:24). A favorite expression of St. Paul is that we must be crucified with Christ that we might rise with Him. He puts forth this thought in a variety of his sayings in many of his epistles.
You see, therefore, that one who loves only to spend time enjoying himself and does not think of self-denial and self-sacrifice, but continually wallows in every possible fleshly pleasure and delight is completely un-Orthodox, un-Christian. Concerning this the great ascetic of Christian antiquity, the Venerable Isaac the Syrian, taught well: “The way of God is a daily cross. No one ascends to heaven living cooly (i.e. comfortably, carefree, pleased with himself, without struggle). And of the cool path, we know where it ends” (Works, p. 158). This is that “wide and broad way” which, in the words of the Lord Himself, “leadeth to destruction” (Matthew 7:13).
This then is what Orthodoxy, or True Christianity, is!
The Life and Works of Archbishop Averky, Vol. 1, 1977