Grace and peace be with you, my brothers and sisters in prayer.
As we reach the end of this book (but not the end of our journey), may we continue to reap the fruits of the praying, reflecting and sharing we have done here.
Though only a few have shared comments publicly, others undoubtedly share in silence. For, whether the book was completed or not, our prayers brings us together into the presence of God. May it always be so…
“The contemplative undergoes a total change, which involves both his inward and outward lives together. His senses are most strikingly transplanted from a material into a spiritual existence.”
These enticing words are offered to us by Fr. Matta. If I had read them prior to my exposure to Orthodoxy, I think I would have been most confused.
At best, I would have assumed that he was talking about our New Life after the resurrection of the dead, not something now.
But I have learned. From both reading Fr. Matta and the lives of many holy monks, I have come to recognize that he is referring to our senses here and now, in this life.
And there are similar experiences among the holy of the Western Church. Perhaps I needed Orthodoxy to wake me up to this reality.
As one living in the world, with all of its modern ways, such experiences seem almost unreal. In the world’s eyes, to a psychologist such as me, the sweet odors that come with sanctity would be considered olfactory hallucinations.
Yet, by grace, I have been given glimpses. If only for a moment, I have come to know that my senses, when purified and instructed by the Spirit, are more profound than just the cones and rods, anvils and hammers, that make up the hardware of my sensory organs.
By the grace of God, I can see and hear (and smell, touch and taste) with my heart.
How this can be is mystery, of course. But most Truth is.
At first I felt a bit uneasy with Fr. Matta’s assertion that the eye that once found its pleasure in created beauty (such as in nature) turns, “from these transient objects with their false, changing beauty to the Source and Creator of beauty. He is the true beauty, which shall never change or undergo a semblance of change.”
My discomfort, I imagine, comes from labeling the beauties of nature as “false”. How can they be? They are reflections of God, crying out His glory by their very existence.
I suspect that the “falseness” belongs more to our eyes and hearts than it does to the majestic earth or the planets and solar systems that God has fashioned. We are too likely to love them for themselves, wanting to hold onto and capture what is, by its nature, transient.
This “holding on” can be a sort of corruption. In art and photography, is that not what I am doing? Trying to make permanent that which is not?
It can too easily become a distraction if not an idolatry. To love the creation more than the Creator.
But I am set right by Fr. Matta’s next words, the eye “is now able to see God’s beauty in everything.”
My heart, transformed and informed by the Spirit, will not cease to see the beauty I now see with my eyes – it will see more. Not just more in quantity but more in depth and meaning and reality.
Given that we have become accustomed to “seeing dimly as in a mirror” (to paraphrase St. Paul), it may be hard for us to fathom that currently we are not truly seeing.
But, as God gives us glimpses, we come to understand that there is a reality that is more real than what we think is real.
It is only in the Spirit that our prayer can take us to this way of being. And we need to be purified to receive the Spirit – yet it is this same Spirit that purifies us in order that we might receive His fullness.
While this sounds circular, it only does so because it is a process – our praying and crying out for help, intermingled with the Spirit’s teaching and comforting.
If we persist, in time, we shall become pure and receive Him fully, learning what it means to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34: 9)
“When we actually arrive at this point of spiritual perception, we will realize at once how little and childish our spirituality has been.”
Most certainly we shall.
In addition to this transformation of our senses, there are many other gifts or “spiritual fruits” that may be given “in return for endeavor in the way of righteousness”.
While this may give the impression that such gifts are a sort of reward, it is not to be looked at in this manner. “Such gifts are given for the benefit of others and for strengthening the faith of the weak.”
However, neither is it meant to suggest that there is no relationship between the labor done and the gifts received. Striving for holiness, done rightly, leads to holiness and the gifts associated with it.
We can only properly strive for holiness with utter humility. And gifts may or may not be given to us, as God sees fit – for in His wisdom, He knows when and where they will benefit His people.
Hence, reception of such gifts as clairvoyance, healing and speaking in tongues is never cause for pride or self-glorification.
Which raises an interesting question: is it acceptable to ask God for such gifts?
The Coptic Church, Fr. Matta relates, boldly petitions God for spiritual gifts and fruits “for its children”. We are thus reminded of the reason for asking – to feed the children of the Church.
Still, I recall reading that one of the holy monks of Mt. Athos acknowledged that he had prayed for two years to receive a certain gift. Yet when it was finally granted him, he prayed another two years that it be removed!
The reality is that we don’t know what to ask for because seldom do we understand what it is that we need.
Hence, we should indeed “strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts”, as St. Paul writes (1 Corinthians 12: 31), while always remembering that, without love, we are nothing and we gain nothing (see 1 Corinthians 13: 2-3).
Thus, Fr. Matta instructs us that, “gifts should not be the aim of our spiritual struggle”. We struggle out of love and trust God to give what is needed.
But yet another question emerges. Why is it that we seldom see in today’s world the spiritual gifts that were so abundant in the early Church?
And, it seems that, when we do hear of contemporary manifestations of God’s gifts, we treat them as “things to be marveled at”.
Why should we be surprised? Have we not believed the promise of Jesus, that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these”? (John 14: 12)
Apparently we do not believe it very much. As Fr. Matta writes, “It is our faith that is weak. There is a decline and negligence in the spirit of asceticism and worship, at least in worship that is free from inordinate desires, goal, or perverse inclinations.”
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13: 8). He has not changed. And the Spirit has not been withdrawn.
What then is wrong?
Fr. Matta tells of a, “coldness that has crept in on the love that binds the group of the faithful together…”
Yes, we have grown cold and our prayer too often seems to be but a matter of duty and ritual.
It is fiery love that burns in the heart of the true believer.
This is a heart that has labored and struggled through its own weakness, longing for nothing more than it longs for God.
It is a heart that, even when it feels dry and without the comfort of God’s presence, waits for Him, unwilling to settle for anything else. Not the world. Not despair. Only Him.
It is a heart content with whatever gifts God gives or doesn’t give. God Himself is the gift. Yearning for Him alone, this heart rejoices in putting itself completely at His disposal.
It is a heart so totally transformed by the Spirit that it already tastes the life that is to come – contemplating the divine without feeling separate from what it contemplates.
It is a heart that longs to pray and to pray without ceasing. For to pray is to be in His presence and know union.
Like a lover with her Beloved, the longing to be with Him is an insatiable thirst, ever filled, ever desiring more.
There is no greater joy.
May it be so.
(This concludes my formal posts for Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, by Matthew the Poor, aka Fr. Matta El-Meskeen. However, comments will continue to come to me, should you wish to post them, and I will gladly respond. Blessings to all…)