Chapter 1, Section 2, The Greatness of Prayer, pp 26-29

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3)

Let us pray… Fr. Matta reminds us in this short section of what prayer really is meant to be, “a communion with the heavenly host in praising their Creator”. This is something far greater than what most of us probably think of when we consider prayer. From where we are, we do not take in the vision of the host of spiritual beings living in harmony with God’s will, living to glorify Him.

Fr. Matta tells us that, “we ask God for temporal things because we have fallen from our original status in which we lacked nothing.” Even though we have been disobedient and are therefore overcome with many needs and concerns, God has “promised to listen to our prayers when we bring him our needs and complaints, which he knows only too well. He thus assures us that he will never abandon us for our sins and that our tribulations are a matter of concern to him.”

  1. Many of us have learned about prayer as a way of asking for what we want or need. Does it make sense to you that Fr. Matta links this to our fallen nature? How do you find yourself reacting to this notion?
  2. What does it mean to “glorify” God? We read and use this term a lot but how do we really do this?

Fr. Matta writes, “The foundation of prayer is paying absolute honor to God’s will… For this reason, prayer inevitably demands that man relinquish his own will.”

  1. While the answer to this question may seem obvious (or not), why does God give us a free will if He then expects us to relinquish it?

A beautiful image is created by Fr. Matta’s words: “So, by pure prayer, man’s hand stretches forth in heartfelt repentance to pluck the words of the gospel from the tree of life and to eat them at all times. Thus he is renewed and lives, never to die.”

picture of tree of life tile2

OK, so I couldn’t resist inserting a bit of art*, so lovely was the image. 🙂

It is getting late so I will add just a bit more on the Sayings of the Fathers in a day or two.

* (If anyone would like the original 6″ x 6″ ink on tile painting – minus the scripture quotes – I will gift it to the first person who asks me for it. My e-mail address can be found in this blog! I will mail it to you free of charge as long as your address is in the US.)

Blessings… Pluck the words and eat them. Be filled…

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Chapter 1, Part 1, Sayings of the Fathers, pp 25-26

Grace and peace be with you, my friends. I will round out my posting on this first section of Chapter One by offering some brief comments on the sayings of the Fathers that Fr. Matta gives us to pray with.

While it easy to quickly read through these short passages, it is good for us to remember how Fr. Matta prayed them, having such a very small library in the desert. He told us in the Preface (p. 11) how he stayed up all night praying and reciting passages of the Fathers. He visualized the saints, imploring them to clarify the meaning of their words and “God would answer my plea”.

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St. Macarius the Great, a desert Father of Egypt, authored the first of the sayings. He lived in the 4th century, was a disciple of St. Anthony the Great and is venerated by both the Eastern and Western Church.

Initially I found myself feeling a sense of strain with his words: “we ought soberly to have an attentive mind” and “the soul should be totally concentrated…” Of course, I cannot disagree – but I know my weaknesses in this regard.

But then I am comforted as he tells us that, with this concentration, we are to “wait expectantly for Christ”. Not that waiting is easy, but I am thus reminded that prayer is not something I do alone or solely through my own abilities. The Lord Jesus is coming and helping me at every step if I but open myself to Him.

And then, St. Macarius gives an even greater reassurance, “In this way the Lord finds rest in the well-intended soul…” The Lord does not make His home in me because I have accomplished great things, i.e. because I excel at concentrating  and resisting distraction. Rather, He knows the intentions of my heart and rests in my soul, if He finds it “well-intended”. (May it be so.)

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The last of the sayings given in this section is from St. John of Kronstadt. St. John was a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church who reposed in 1908 and was glorified in 1990. Those wanting to learn more of his life may read a short biography here.

Perhaps the beauty of the saying Fr. Matta shares with us is so obvious that any words of mine are unnecessary. However, there is one little personal memory that was triggered for me. Many years ago, a priest-friend of mine said that he thought he was only really awake for about 20 minutes out of each day and he never knew when it was going to happen!

I’ve always remembered and treasured that remark for its sweet mixture of humility and humor. And it is so true – that for all the reading, talk and mental gymnastics we do, we may only have a few moments of “true prayer”.

The manner in which St. John writes of it suggests to me that he is not saying this is a failure for which we should berate ourselves. Rather, because “true prayer” is about the “nearness of the heart to God”, we should rejoice and be deeply grateful for these moments when we experience the “sweetness of God’s presence” in our souls.

To receive this gift for even a few moments makes us, I think, the most blessed creatures in the entire universe.

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Please continue to read and pray, posting any comments that you would like to share with our little community. Also, I claim no expertise in understanding the Church Fathers and my knowledge of Orthodoxy is as an “outsider”, so I welcome correction by those more knowledgeable than me.

Chapter 1, part 1, “What is prayer?” pp. 21-26

“Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11: 1)

Greetings, people of prayer! Let us now enter the book proper…

As we begin Chapter 1, allow me point out that chapters are generally divided into sections. Each section begins with two or three phrases from Scripture, our current section beginning with the quote above from Luke. We then are led by Fr. Matta into the understanding that he received during his life of prayer. Finally, each section concludes with relevant short passages he chose from the writings of the Church Fathers.

Fr. Matta writes, “Prayer that is spiritual and genuine is both a call and a response: a divine call and a human response.” Often we think of prayer as something we do, perhaps not thinking so much of God as the initiator of prayer. He cites St. Gregory of Nyssa, “…prayer is a heart-to-heart talk, forever active on God’s part, forever slow on ours. In fact, both parties call, and both respond. However, the initiative is always God’s.” Fr. Matta also tells us that, “Prayer does not reach its power and efficacy as an actual communion with God until man is fully aware that his soul is created in God’s image…that it derives its very being from him.”

  1. Why is it so necessary for the efficacy of my prayer that I be fully aware that my soul derives its very being from God? (What would my prayer be like if I believed otherwise?)
  2. Am I aware of God calling me to prayer? If so, what is that like for me? If not, am I making quiet space within to experience this? Is my prayer motivated by an external “should” or an internal longing? (We may experience some of each…How did the “shoulds” come to be within me? How did the longings?)
  3. Recommendation: (from p. 22) “…we should always begin our prayer with overflowing thanks. O, the humility of God, who seeks to talk with us in spite of our sins!”

Fr. Matta writes of the importance of repentance and confession, “…for as much as our hearts are pure, God finds his rest in us.” He tells us that it is through our sense of God’s greatness that we will fully know our sinfulness and that we deserve condemnation. Yet, “He is willing to share all of our difficulties with us.” Thus, so great is God’s “humility in dealing with us, all our sense of pride will be burst up within us. We will feel contrite in his presence and will experience an overwhelming sense of self-abasement. The sacrifice of our humility and our love to him will thus become perfect. Through this, the nature of prayer will be revealed to us…”

  1. “Self-abasement” is not a popular concept in today’s world, to say the least. It seems to fly in the face of what our modern culture tells us is psychologically healthy, e.g. positive self-image and self-esteem. Yet Fr. Matta sees it as “preparing us for fellowship with God”. Is it possible to reconcile these notions – or are they mutually exclusive?
  2. In the little we know of the mystical experiences of saints who have had visions of Christ, His love and humility are overwhelming. How might this description of Him impact my approach to prayer? (i.e. have I thought of Christ as one who is humble when I encounter Him?)

Fr. Matta points out how many people never pray – and he sees this as a serious matter. He sees prayer as “implanted in our nature that, through it, we may ascend to God and achieve union with Him.” Also, that it “is the only bond that links us to God.”

Furthermore, he tells us that, “When we lose prayer, we actually lose the glory of our image, and we no longer resemble God in any way.” But all is not lost because, “Through prayer, he offers us union with himself so that he may become totally ours, and we may becomes totally his.”

  1. Do you see prayer as something implanted in our nature? If this is so, why are there so many who do not pray?
  2. Presented this way, it seems that we should naturally want to pray and find it easy to do so. Yet often this is not the case. We struggle. How is it that something so natural and essential to our nature can feel so hard for us at times?

There is quite a bit here for us to bring to prayer and reflection – so I will pause… Perhaps later in the week, I will post something on the passages from the Fathers at the end of this section. Do not hesitate to post any of your own reflections or questions for the group in the comment section.

Introduction part 2 (pp 15-18)

Blessings to all. I am posting a bit more for the remainder of the Introduction because I have the time to do so now. Once again, do not feel rushed by this. Take whatever time you need on previous sections or go back and forth between them. Comment or not, as you are inclined. Others are reading and praying with you.

Several very compelling statements are offered by Fr. Matta about prayer:

First,  “Christ commands us to pray and then guarantees the answer to our prayer.”

Second, “But the thing we should never allow to escape our minds is that, ultimately, prayer has no purpose other than to glorify God.”

Third, “The experience of prayer is not all delight, nor power, nor tangible gain. To reach maturity under God’s hand, man has to undergo countless stages of purifying and discipline.”

Personally, I can look at each of these statements and think, “OK, I know that.” But then a moment later look at them again and ask, “Do I really?”

  1. What does it mean that Christ “guarantees the answer to our prayer”? How do we reconcile this with the experience of praying for something specific that does not come about, e.g. that someone recover from serious illness?
  2.  How do we know if our prayer has as its “ultimate purpose” glorifying God? Is this something that is going to make my prayer life even more confusing and complicated – or might it be liberating?
  3. It is generally human nature to not like rebukes and discipline. Have you had any experiences where you have been grateful when receiving these from God?

At the end of the Introduction, Fr. Matta writes powerfully of those he refers to as “people of prayer”, those who have been so purified and disciplined. His description of the impact of this group of people is at once practical and mystical. “As for the menace of nuclear weapons and their threat to destroy the world, we have no path to peace, security, or hope except through people of prayer.”   And further, “For when we die to ourselves and to the world, the world lives and is renewed.”

  1. Do you share Fr. Matta’s faith in the role that people of prayer can play in the face of the world’s evils? Does your view on this impact how you participate in secular endeavors, i.e. political efforts to make change?
  2. When Fr. Matta describes the “people of prayer”, he describes a profound life commitment. How do you find yourself reacting to this?

I know there is a lot to chew on here – but these are only suggestions for prayer and reflection, not things one must figure out. Also, one question may intrigue you and another not. So, allow the Spirit to guide you to what is best for you right now…

Introduction, part 1 (pp 13-15)

Greetings, my friends. I have decided to move on with another post as there is much rich material awaiting us. If you would still like to comment on the first post, please do. I’m not trying to rush anyone.

My plan is to post a little something every 2-4 days if I am able.

We are going to begin the Introduction to the 2nd Edition. Seldom have I encountered an introduction that is so deep with spiritual significance that I am almost overwhelmed by it. (It makes me wonder if I will be able to endure the book!).

Fr. Matta writes: “The Church cannot live on principles of faith to be studied. Faith in Christ is not a theory. It is a power that changes lives.” He tells us that we should all have this power and will only find it when we meet Christ face to face in ourselves. Also, that “…we must bear the shame that will cover us when our souls are stripped naked before God’s pure and searching eyes… We will then gain a true knowledge and awareness of the holiness and kindness of Christ.” (p. 13)

  1. How and when have I felt this power of Christ changing my life? Have there been times when I wanted to feel it and could not?
  2. Shame is a very difficult sensation for us and we often want to avoid it. Can shame ever be helpful to us?

Fr. Matta continues on to write of the role of the Holy Spirit in our prayer and the need to “pray without growing weary”. For, he writes, “Prayer must be made with constant zeal in order that we should be changed into something higher than our nature.” God, he tells us, is acting in our souls without us being aware of the change. “Prayer is the most powerful effective spiritual work and has its own spontaneous reward without the evidence of feelings…such transformation will not be in the form of a sudden leap. It will take its time and course as an imperceptible but meticulous build-up.”

  1. In one sense, “weariness” is a normal part of our human condition. We get tired – physically, mentally and spiritually. What do you think Fr. Matta (and others) mean when they talk about “praying without growing weary”? Is this possible? How?
  2. We become discouraged if we pray and it appears to us that we are not changing. Do Father Matta’s words offer any guidance for this dilemma?

Toward the end of this first section of the Introduction, Fr. Matta instructs us that through this prayer we will receive more than we deserve, “…an immense trust in God, so powerful and so certain that it can almost be seen and touched.” He further writes, “When the soul ascends to the world of true light, which is within its own self, it begins to feel in harmony with God through constant prayer…It leaves no feelings in the soul except total awareness of the sovereignty of the Spirit and absolute obedience to his will.”

  1. One cannot help but get the sense that Fr. Matta is writing of his own experience in prayer. Yet he writes with complete humility, acknowledging that we gain more than we deserve. How do you react to his description – does it discourage or inspire you as consider your own prayer?

We have much to reflect on here. Let us pray for one another. Others are reading the book and sharing the journey, even if silently. Share your reflections in a comment, if you wish…

 

We begin… (Preface pp. 9-12)

As I compose this first post, I have no idea how many people are waiting to begin or how many may join in in future days. But I greet and welcome you all in the name of Christ our Savior.

Let us begin prayerfully. I pause to pray as I write this. …. May the Spirit guide us as we share this book and our reflections, bringing us closer to Him as we enter more deeply into prayer. Amen.

To begin our reflections, I am going to start with the Preface of our book. I am often guilty of skipping prefaces but this one is well worth reading. I will post some questions below. Some may be for private reflection. Some you may wish to comment on here. Some perhaps you cannot relate to. All of that is fine.

(If you have not already read the “guidelines”, please do so, as it may answer some basic questions regarding what we will be doing, as well as describing the habits of blogs. Also note that I may occasionally add something new there as it occurs to me. )

  1. Fr. Matta (as I will refer to our author) writes of his desire for the solitary life so that he could “turn it all into prayer – and prayer alone”. As he describes leaving the world, he writes: “Prayer indeed became now my only anchor.” How do you find yourself reacting to his life choice? Have you ever had times when you felt that prayer was your “only anchor”, even if in a different way?
  2. Prayer is often a different experience for us at different times in our lives – sometimes a struggle, other times a welcome refuge. On p. 10, Fr. Matta writes, “The voice of God was the only answer for all my needs. It was the voice of father, friend, comrade, and guide. No sooner did I feel the need for his voice than I heard it speaking inside me a thousand times stronger than an ear would ever hear.” This certainly goes beyond my everyday prayer experience! But let us reflect on how we have we heard God’s voice – has it been like any of the relationships he describes? Or others? Or even in silence?
  3. Fr. Matta tells us at the end of the preface that his writing and quotes of the church Fathers in the book are not for reading but for praying. How might I learn to “pray” this book – how might we learn to do this together?
  4. Feel free to comment on anything else from the preface that moved you. Also feel free to simply to introduce yourself if you are not ready to share any other reflections yet.