In early 1985 I travelled with a friend to what was then Yugoslavia to see for myself what was happening in a small village called Medjugorje, where it was reported that a group of young children were seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary. This was before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the terrible Balkan wars, so we went ‘behind the Iron Curtain’ with some trepidation.
Whether one believes in apparitions or not – and I have to say that the whole Medjugorje story leaves many unanswered questions – I can honestly say that the week I spent there was one of great blessing for me. I saw no supernatural signs but I did meet many people who were impressive in their commitment to God, including Maria Pavlovic, one of the young visionaries. She certainly came across as a straightforward and humble soul who didn’t strike one as in any way trying to gain celebrity through faking a unique experience – indeed she seemed somewhat strained by her sudden fame.
Equally impressive for me was the core message which the visionaries were claiming they were receiving from Mary herself, a message of peace through rededication to God. And one particular aspect of this message struck me as hugely resonant with Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. Mary was reported as calling all Christians back to a sincere practice of prayer and fasting. I emphasise those words because it is the combination of both prayer and fasting that is crucial here. Sincere heartfelt prayer, of whatever form, is always beneficial to the soul, and fasting on its own may have benefits for one’s health and general equilibrium. Combine the two together in a sincere and concerted practice and you have: spiritual dynamite.
Jesus Himself spoke of the unique power of this combination: talking with his disciples after He had healed a young boy of possession (a possible case of epilepsy?), Jesus stated that such matters are only healed by ‘prayer and fasting’ (Matthew 17: 21). This startling statement can be understood as Jesus saying that prayer – on its own – has its limits! I understand His point in this way: God is never limited, but He works through our humanity, and it is our limitation that has to be factored into the situation. We need the spiritual tools to overcome our own spiritual blindness and lethargy, and our lack of real faith. What a practice of prayer and fasting does therefore is radically attune our spirits to the will and ways of God, and we then become much more open to His grace and thereby much more effective in manifesting His power in our lives.
Perhaps the word ‘dynamite’ is somewhat inappropriate here, but I do want to emphasise that we are talking here about raw power that can transform our ordinary discipleship and witness with explosive possibility. Can I sincerely suggest to you that if you have a difficult situation in your life, perhaps a chronic stress, long standing trauma or a loved one who you are very worried about, and perhaps you have been calling on God with a feeling of no response, then seriously take up a practice of prayer and fasting in recognition of Jesus’ advice? Arising from my week in Medjugorje, I wrote a poem called “Penny’s Nephew”, which may throw some light on what I mean here:
I don’t know about you but I love my food, and I have to be honest, I have always struggled with the very concept of fasting! The teaching on fasting coming out of Medjugorje is quite interesting and encouraging here. According to the visionaries – and we are talking about a message delivered by young village children – fasting is not going without food! We all need food and drink, especially as busy, caring folk. There is no great benefit in starving oneself to the point of weakness and illness. Rather the teaching on fasting focusses on eating very simple food, and thereby denying ourselves the range and variety of tasty foods that we can eat. For example, to spend a day on bread and water, taking as much bread as you need to get through your day. The point here is not to experience hunger so much as to choose to deny an available pleasure, and this choice is a spiritual discipline which, combined with heartfelt prayer, radically attunes our spirit with God’s Holy Spirit. And then the miracles can begin!
If the great mantra is:
“Prayer does not change God, it changes us”,
then we might say:
“Prayer and fasting does not change God, it radically transforms us”.
Go for it!