Blessings, dear friends in Christ! I have returned from my travels and am glad to communicate with you from a regular keyboard. Those of us in the western Church celebrate the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord today and so it is a time of special joy. With our calendars so separated this year, we will celebrate Pascha again on May 1 with the Orthodox members of our community. It is, of course, an eternal joy that we must celebrate daily in our hearts.
We have now reached the section in Chapter 2 on Meditation. This is a longer section of text than we have previously undertaken in a week but I think it makes sense to keep it intact. As always, read at your own rate and remember that there is no need to hurry or “keep up”. Do what is best for you.
Fr. Matta tells us that, “According to patristic tradition, meditation is the key to all graces.” Furthermore, he informs us that human beings should not meditate on anything but the Word of God, studying it deeply and putting it into practice with diligence. If we do so, he tells us, words of the Bible and divine thoughts will flow from us.
- In our world today, we hear (and may ourselves use) the term “meditation” to mean practices other than this deep study of the Word of God. For example, borrowing from Eastern religions, practices such as “mindfulness meditation” are being used to treatment many physical and emotional conditions. Do you feel this is permissible? Do you think such practices enhance or detract from our journey toward God?
Another aspect of meditation in patristic tradition that Fr. Matta shares with us is the practice of “reiteration” or reading the Word in an audible voice, slowly, relishing and repeating the words. He states, “After a while the words actually become one’s own words” and our hearts become “a divine treasury” for the Word of God. Extempore prayer (prayer that we put together ourselves), in order to be true prayer, then must always come forth from this inner storehouse of God’s word.
- Have you engaged in this practice of reading the Word aloud, either as part of family or church duties or in private meditation? Has doing so changed your relationship with the words you read, i.e. do they become a “treasure”?
- Psalm 118 was among the Easter readings in my Catholic church today. As I read aloud and repeated the words, “I shall not die but live”, I found that this did seem to make them mine. Perhaps there is a passage waiting for you to read aloud today…
- Extempore prayer may be as simple as leading one’s family in prayer or as challenging as leading prayer for a diverse crowd in a time of crisis. Does my heart feel properly trained, “imbued” with the Word of God, for this to happen?
- How is this flowing of the Word from one’s tongue similar/different from the memorization of Bible verses that is encouraged in some Christian denominations?
Fr. Matta writes, “persistence in meditation on God’s word inevitably reveals a mystical affinity and, therefore, a true life flowing within one’s heart. On the other hand, the heart to which meditation on the word of God is repellent betrays an impasse and hardness of spirit.” As meditation advances, it becomes detached from reading and introduces one to contemplation, “fathoming the truth that that word contains”. Fr. Matta gives us a number of images of the benefits of continual meditation: our hearts will be “ablaze with divine fire”; our minds and hearts will be filled “sacred thoughts and images”; it gives us a “flaming sword of fire” to cut off sources of evil thoughts, and so on.
- If you are like me, such persistence is easier as an idea than as a practice. What things make it difficult for you to persist in meditating on God’s Word? Are there any things that have helped you that you feel able to share here with our community?
- Growing up Catholic, meditating on the Bible was not part of our prayer life when I was a child, except when the Word was proclaimed at church (although, when I got a bit older, I sneaked the Bible off the shelf when no one was around…) What has been your personal “tradition” and how has it helped or hindered you in this practice?
Fr. Matta’s next discussion of meditation hints at the beginnings of contemplation, as he describes meditating on the divine economy. (For those not familiar with this term, essentially it means how God “handled” the problem of our fallen state). Meditation does not, in this case, deviate from the Bible but it is not restricted to the written word. But he then provides a short segment on “simple prayer”, e.g. when meditation leads us to just start talking or crying out to God. After that, he discusses when meditation is “a voluntary act”, in those times when we must really exert effort or concentrate because we feel preoccupied or at an impasse.
- I found the organization of this particular section a bit confusing, as the author seemed to be leading us one way, only to change direction (contemplation -> simple prayer -> voluntary act). While this could be just an aspect of his writing style, can you think of any reason why he might lead us to the summit of contemplating our salvation, only to drop us back to simple prayer and effort?
- Fr. Matta writes of the “voluntary act”, “When man moves inwardly and willfully to love God, even though somewhat coercively at the beginning, divine love starts to flow on the spot. Divine work always supports human work, becoming one with it at the end.” Have you ever experienced this – after pushing yourself to prayer/meditation, that a “spiritual warmth” often joins in?
- Fr. Matta’s instruction to “cling fast to love” (p. 50) is a reminder that sometimes all we have is love as an act of will, not as an emotion we feel. He tells us that we will be set free from our trials, but we do not know when the time will come.What does this tell us about the nature of love?
In the final segment of this section on meditation, Fr. Matta shares with us a magnificent summary of the Psalms, which he refers to as “as artistic pieces for meditation”. David, he tells us, “digested the lessons of the Holy Spirit in full” and thus gives us a living model of meditation. Not only may we use his psalms in our meditation but we may learn from him about meditation itself as we observe his discourse with God. Fr. Matta also assures us that meditation is something that we need to learn and our perception that we are deficient at it is a grace that protects us from taking pride in our progress.
- Fr. Matta tells us that meditation is an essential part of our spiritual lives and “is incumbent on everyone without exception” (p. 48). Hence, wherever we perceive ourselves to be in the “degrees of prayer”, let us become beginners once again. Let us start very small and allow ourselves to be led, like small children who know nothing of what we are doing or how to do it.
The Spirit will be with us, teaching us all things, our Comforter, our Advocate.
Peace to all. I will try to post a bit more on the Sayings later in the week. Comments are always welcome if you feel moved to make them.