In this morning’s Gospel reading we hear of an incident immediately following the Transfiguration. Which we celebrated last Sunday
Jesus, Peter, James, and John have come down from Mt Tabor to the plain where the remainder of the apostles are awaiting them. There they find that a vast crowd of people are also awaiting his return.
A man comes up to Jesus and, kneeling, begs for his help. He has a son who is an epileptic (the A.V. actually uses the word “lunatic”). Possibly epilepsy as a diagnosis is more recent than the older English translations of the Bible, but at any rate he was suffering from a condition for which there was very little that could be done at that time or, in fact until quite recently.
Today there are, of course, drugs which can effectively control, but not cure, the condition. The main feature of the condition is that the sufferer has fits of varying severity. This appears to have been a particularly serious case because the boy has, in the pas, fallen onto the fire, or into water, thereby endangering his life.
The footnote in the Orthodox Study Bible reads “Sickness in scripture, especially epilepsy is often connected to demonic activity.” By kneeling, this father shows humility, but nevertheless lacks faith. While it was true, as the man says, that the disciples also lacked faith, Christ rebukes the man for placing the blame on them when it was his own greater lack of faith that prevented the boy’s healing. Actually, although Jesus defended his disciples in front of the multitude, he later rebuked them privately.”
Jesus speaks almost with a sense of weary resignation. “O faithless and perverse generation. How long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you? Bring him to me.” Then we see the demonic connection. Jesus discerns that is behind the boy’s condition. He rebukes the demon, which comes out of him, and he is cured from that moment.
Mark and Luke give a somewhat more colourful account describing the boy’s final seizure as the demon leaves him. Mark’s is, we are usually told, the earlier account, subsequently used by Matthew and Luke and we can only speculate on the reasons for Matthew omitting this detail. Interestingly, I have been reading of some recent discoveries that make Matthew’s the earlier Gospel. This would suggest that in cases like this Mark is an abbreviation of Matthew!
Then comes the inquest with Jesus and the disciples when they are alone together. “Why could we not cast it out?” Remember, that there were just nine of the disciples involved. Jesus had taken the other three of them, Peter, James, and John with him up the mountain. St John Chrysostom comments on this, and says that the rebuke of Jesus was directed at the nine, because the other three, the “pillars of the faith” (Gal. 2:9) had not been there when it had all been taking place.
This is the occasion when Jesus speaks of faith “as a mustard seed”, the smallest thing. Having faith like this would enable them to move even Mt Tabor, towering above them as he spoke. With even so little faith, nothing will be impossible for them. Yet, there was another factor as well. “This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
Both of these are cornerstones of Orthodox spirituality, and not only among the specialists – monastics, who may have been following this path of obedience for many years, and been rewarded with a high level of spirituality, becoming lights in a dark world to which many flock for enlightenment. In Britain we don’t hear a lot about these because Orthodoxy in this land is a young and tender plant. We should look perhaps to those places where Orthodoxy has been established for many generations. In a magazine that I was reading some time ago, the theme for the issue was “Holy Romania”, and it included a transcript of an interview with the Elder Gervasius. He was asked “Are there still advanced monks in our days?”
Gervasius responded, “There may be, but you must not praise men who belong to the present times. Leave them to be praised by their successors. We should praise our predecessors, and let our successors praise us – if we be worthy. Moreover, Christ will judge us all, in the way known to him. It is not a good thing, fathers, to estimate the value of a man more than he is worth or to exalt yourself with the deeds of others. Let us exalt in the lives of the saints who made the narrow path for us.”
This is an example of the wisdom of the elders stretching right back to the desert fathers and even earlier. We cannot judge ourselves, and we are told that we should certainly not judge others. It is not the judgement of our contemporaries that is important, nor even of those who come after us, but that of Christ who will “judge us all, in the way known to him.”
In the Gospel, Jesus almost weeps with frustration at the perversity and lack of faith of those among whom he has been labouring. With his disciples, on their own, he is more gentle. They lack belief and faith, but first of all come prayer and fasting without which they will accomplish nothing.
In a world where people want it all, and want it now, this goes for spirituality too. If we go back a few years people were taking drugs as a supposed fast route to heightened consciousness or so called spirituality, except that it was not what they thought, but a sham, a dangerous counterfeit leading to the demonic. People went to the east to learn “meditation”, ignorant of the riches of Christian spirituality perhaps because in the West, at any rate, this had been intellectualised and consigned to the printed word. In doing so, and unaware of the dangers, they opened their minds to the demonic It is easy to lecture about prayer, even to write books about prayer, but in Orthodoxy there is so much on offer from a living tradition based on these two elements, prayer and fasting stretching back for many generations.
This is the true ethos of Christianity. Monastics may be the giants in this field, but taught by them, we ordinary folk who live in the world may learn from them to the extent that we are able.