In our world of Christian variation, it is easy for some to think of things like fasting as though they were “works” and somehow opposed to grace (if you had a radical protestant understanding of these matters). The truth, however, is quite different. Actions such as fasting are grouped under the general heading of “asceticism” in Orthodoxy, from a Greek word which means to “wrestle.”
Quite interestingly, Fr. Dumitru Staniloae, working from very traditional sources, notes that the very first work of “asceticism” is, in fact, to believe in God. This faith, he notes, is impossible except it be given us by grace. He particularly talks about the grace of Baptism, but he does not limit the work of God’s grace to Baptism only.
I found it interesting to think of belief in God as the very first work of asceticism, and I noted that it was true in my own experience. Fr. Staniloae said that it was a work, both of the intellect and of the will. Not one or the other, but both. Thus it becomes a work really of our whole person – believing in God.
Frequently it is far more than an idea (thus it is not just intellection) but is also an action, a direction in which we have thrown our lives (will). It is not one without the other, though for some one might seem more dominant than the other. But that it is the first of all acts of asceticism, the first action we take in the war with the passions is of great interest to me. It says that first off, everyday, before I have done anything else, I must believe in God. It is not something to be taken for granted, but something to be exercised.
For myself it often means to exercise myself in prayer, to struggle to avoid the very earliest temptations of the day. I find it helpful to include in my earliest prayers of the day, the recitation of the Creed. I believe in this God!
It is good as well to add our thanks to our belief in God, for the God whom we believe, is also a good God who has preserved us for another day and brought us closer to Himself and union with Him.
Part of the battle to believe in God is the battle against “prelest,” that is, the slothful neglect of our salvation. It may be that we say to ourselves that “sure I believe in God,” but to have said it such a way that it hardly matters – when it should matter more than anything we say in the day. To believe in God can never be a half-hearted thing. I believe in God, help, Thou, mine unbelief! This is full-hearted.
I must also recognize that as this is an act of ascesis, I must have mercy on all around me who are struggling with this same thing. Some struggle well and some struggle poorly. But I need not judge the quality of their struggle, only to pray that their struggle bear fruit.
Believe in God. It is the first of all things.