Chapter 2, Sayings of the Fathers on Meditation, pp. 52-55

I pray that all is well with each of you who visit here to read and pray our book. I will offer just a few words on the Sayings that go with this section on meditation. We already have a lot of material…take your time.

Fr. Matta has selected for us quite a few excerpts from St. Isaac of Nineveh, some with overlapping content. St. Isaac tells us that regular meditation will help us understand the mysteries of the Word of God and to know how to approach and talk to God Himself. He also tells us of the strengths and virtues we will gain from this practice. Twice he refers to “constant meditation” on God.

  1. Whether your own practice is consistent or irregular, just beginning or long-standing, have you found meditation on the Word helping you in any of these or other ways (e.g. quieting the mind, understanding life, having strength to bear trials, feeling near to God)?
  2. I was recently talking with someone (not part of this group) who talked about “constantly” meditating on the Bible to the point that it seemed to be interfering with necessary attention to emotions and life activities. Is it possible for one to meditate on Scripture too much or in unhealthy ways? How can we discern what is a health practice for ourselves as individuals?

Both of the excerpts from the writings of St. John Dalyatha are worthy of comment. In the first (#40), we read, “Hush your tongue that your heart may speak [which is meditation], and hush your heart that the Spirit may speak [which is contemplation].”

  1. This gives us a slightly different – and quite lovely – angle on meditation and the degrees of prayer. This “hushing”, to me, has the sense of how one might quiet a very young child, lovingly and gently. Can you begin with vocal prayer and gradually “hush” yourself to stillness?
  2. The second, longer passage by St. John Dalyatha is treasure that may be a useful guide into meditation, as a whole or in small bits, alone or coupled with the Scriptures upon which his images are based.

As always, comments or additional questions for the community are welcome. Also, if you have found meditation on any particular bit of Scripture fruitful recently, feel free to share this as well, as it may help another.

Be blessed.

Chapter 2, Meditation, pp. 43-52

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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”?
  2. 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…
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

  1. 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.

Chapter 2: Degrees of Prayer, pp 39-42

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ. God was indeed willing and so I greet you as I travel, with Internet access being less consistent than at home. My travels are a pilgrimage of sorts and I welcome this opportunity to pray with you as my eyes are opened to see God in new ways.

As we begin Chapter 2, you will notice that there is more text by Fr. Matta between Sayings of the Fathers. It is rich text, so I am approaching it in segments lest we fail to savor even the smallest bite.

Fr. Matta begins with two Scriptural quotes from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians about beholding the Lord. Then, for the first time, he offers us the words of a saint in these preliminary reflections. St. John of Dalyatha was born in Iraq in the 8th century. After 7 years in a community, he received permission to live the remainder of his life in solitude in the mountains of Dalyatha.

1. St. Paul writes of now seeing dimly, but eventually seeing God face to face, and how we are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another. Have you experienced a sense of God changing you, moving you through different degrees of faith and prayer through your life to bring you closer?

2. St. John of Dalyatha, though apparently writing of the angels, could well be writing of us. In your life movement toward God, have you ever discovered that what you thought at the time was a good place was barely a beginning?

Fr. Matta describes the degrees of prayer as vocal and mental, with mental prayer including meditation (or discursive prayer) and contemplation. Contemplation then, he writes, is of two types, acquired and infused. The latter is a gift from God, something that can never be deserved regardless of the degree of preparation made. Fr. Marta indicates that it is difficult to divide prayer into degrees because “they are united by a strong bond”.

1. What do you think this bond is?

2. Why do you think he makes the division anyway? Is is useful?

Many of us in western culture have been raised to be linear thinkers, i.e. to view our path as necessarily moving in a straight line from beginning to end. Yet, Fr. Matta makes it clear that each type of prayer is “a special degree”. Hence, contemplation is not “better” than vocal prayer.

1. How can this be? Are we not to “advance” in prayer? Why do you think he makes this point?

2. Do you ever find yourself comparing yourself, favorably or unfavorably, to others in your “degree” of prayer? Or feel like you have regressed when a seemingly more advanced way of praying dries up for you?

3. Why might God choose to give the gift of infused contemplation to some and not to others? How do we respond to not receiving a gift that others may have in prayer?

(I will pause here. Typing into my phone is not so easy, so please forgive any typos or formatting issues. Blessings to all as we reflect and pray together.)

Chapter 1, Section 4, Sayings of the Fathers, pp. 37-38

May God be with you, fellow travelers of the way of prayer. I prepare for you a few reflections on the Sayings of the Fathers, selected by Fr. Matta, for this final section of Chapter 1. Both are from St. Macarius.

St. Macarius writes, “…we must first beg of God with struggle in the heart through faith that he grant us to discover his riches, the true treasure of Christ in our hearts, in the power and energy of the Spirit.”

  1. Suggestion: place one or both of your hands over your heart and re-read this quote slowly, being first aware of the struggle in the heart, then aware of the discovery of the true treasure. Notice if one feels more prominent to you than the other (struggle or discovery) and allow that reality to be, knowing that our lives always involve both. Allow yourself to beg God for His riches, expressing the depth of your need and desire.

St. Macarius then reminds us that, not only is Christ present within us, but that the Father too is pleased to dwell “in every believer who asks this of him”. The Biblical translation used here indicates that Christ and the Father will come and “make our mansion in him” [the believer]. Other translations I have read have used the word “dwelling” or even “home” instead of mansion.

  1. We all most likely have our own personal sense of Father, Son, Spirit, while understanding the idea of the Oneness of Trinity. Are you able to think of Christ having his “home” within you? Or the Father dwelling in you? Does anything in your sense of Jesus or the Father get in the way of this intimacy?
  2. The Spirit is also very much part of this indwelling as we are “guided in many and various ways by the Spirit” (p. 38) Why do you think Fr. Matta may have chosen this passage on the Trinity-within-us to accompany a chapter on “the efficacy of prayer”?

In the second of the two Sayings, St. Macarius writes of “the heavenly garment” which is the power of the Spirit. Then, a few lines later, he refers to the garment as “the Lord Jesus Christ himself”. Interestingly, he writes of a feeling of shame that we ought to feel if we are “naked” or not clothed in this garment of salvation, comparing it to the shame of physical nakedness. Again, we are instructed to ask for the Holy Spirit and we shall receive.

  1. Fr. Matta began Section 4 with a Scripture quote about the Holy Spirit and now draws it to a close by quoting St. Macarius on the Holy Spirit. Yet his own words in between did not focus on the Spirit. Any further thoughts on why he is emphasizing that we ask for the Spirit?
  2. Do you or have you ever made regular use of a spiritual garment or object (of a tangible nature) such as prayer shawl, head covering or prayer rope? If you have, was the practice meaningful in your prayer? Did you feel “naked” if you were without it – and what might this mean? (mere habit or something more?).

As we end this section, what have you gleaned from the writings and your own prayer/reflection about the efficacy of prayer? What is it that makes our prayer powerful?

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Once again, please add any comments or questions for our prayer community here. Also, as we complete the first chapter, I welcome any feedback on how the process is going or could be improved. God willing, I will be traveling some this week but will still be checking in here – and hopefully posting.

Chapter 1, Section 4, The Efficacy of Prayer, pp. 33-37

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ…we now enter the final section of Chapter One. There is much here for us in which we may find both hope and challenge. Let us pray…

Beginning with the verse from the Gospel of Luke: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke: 11: 13)

  1. As many times as I have heard this verse, I have never really understood before that the Lord Jesus was telling us what a great gift we receive in the Holy Spirit – and that we must ask the Father for this gift. Do I ask for the Spirit and trust the Gift is given?
  2. Let us ponder this as it relates to our discussion of prayer. The only prayer the Father accepts is prayer in Spirit and Truth (see p. 31). Thus, we are told that we need the Spirit to pray fully, deeply.

Fr. Matta begins this section with discussion of the transcendent gifts of the Christian life, both general and personal. Beautiful gifts we are told of, but then he adds, “The strength and efficacy of all these gifts, however, can never be manifested except by prayer.” He goes on to tell us how, through prayer, “Christ’s nature” and “the power of his death and life” appear in us and our works. But “Without a life of prayer, all attempts to declare these divine actions in man’s nature become false, theoretical, and a product of the ego or self-will.”

  1. Is there a difference between “prayer” and a “life of prayer”? What does it mean to live a life of prayer? (I have a feeling Fr. Matta is going to tell us, but let us reflect ourselves on this question first…)
  2. Why is prayer is so essential for God’s gifts and the power of the life and death of Christ to be manifest? Surely God is more powerful than our weakness – can He not make Himself manifest without our help?
  3. Upon reading Fr. Matta’s assessment of what happens without a life of prayer, I found it easy to think, “Yes, this is what is wrong with the Church/society today! This is why so many have stopped believing!” But, of course, I must look at myself and my role in Church/society. (See below.)

Fr. Matta tells us that with sacrifice and effort we will surely attain to all the transcendent mysteries of Christ. He describes this necessary prayer life as follows: “This can be realized only when prayer becomes our supreme concern, our main preoccupation, which outweighs all other cares; our duty, which challenges all other duties; our pleasure, which surpasses every other pleasure. We would then pray at all times, in all circumstances, in all places, in all conditions. We would pray in an insatiable hunger for constant contact with Christ.”

  1. I found this passage very compelling – “yes, let it be so in my life!” But stepping back, I see that my “life of prayer” does not match this description at all. What gets in the way? What external factors in my life make it difficult, (competing responsibilities, demands, distractions, etc.)? What internal factors (moods, temperament, fears, etc.)?
  2. How might I address the gap between this ideal and the reality of where I am in my life of prayer? Consider again the passage from Luke with which we began…

In the paragraphs the follow, Fr. Matta elaborates on what we are to experience as a result of a life of prayer, “Christ then should fill our lives and minds…Thus, he may be truly the one who is alive within us and not our own selves.” (He is virtually quoting Galatians 2: 20 here.) He further writes of us being “like a new creation to conform to his image” and that “He never denies us any desire or petition at all, whatever we may wish or ask in prayer.” Again, these references are Scriptural, but there is a clear sense that Fr. Matta is writing of his experience, not simply a promise he has read about. Fr. Matta also acknowledges the “tears and sorrow…sweat and grief” that precede the sudden awareness of having found “the priceless gem in the field” next to which “everything becomes like a handful of dust…even a man’s own self”.

  1. How do you find yourself reacting to Fr. Matta’s description of what we do or will experience as people of prayer? Is it inspiring or discouraging, both or neither?
  2. Fr. Matta quotes Christ in the Gospel of Luke, bidding us to pray “and not lose heart”. Why do you think the Lord says this – and why might Fr. Matta include this particular instruction, after telling us of the glorious things we are to experience in a life of prayer?

Fr. Matta issues a haunting statement: “Nothing can thwart Christ’s will for us except our failure to pray.” We cannot know Christ’s will for us without prayer, he tells us, so we should expect nothing if we do not pray. We can never be changed or renewed. He also writes, “We do not pull Christ toward us from heaven by prayer. Rather, we discover him within ourselves.” And therefore, “He who does not use the power of prayer never makes contact with the Christ who is within him” and is thus deprived of all of his gifts and graces. At the same time, the prayer life that Fr. Matta writes of is very intimate and inviting, “We should first make him at rest in our hearts so he may live with us. He should share everything with us and manage all our affairs.” And, “Since the soul has been created for immortality, it will thus find in Christ, when it unites with him, its ultimate joy.”

  1. Do I think of Christ being within me – or do I conceive of Him as separate from me in such a way that I have to find Him? Could it be that He is closer to me than I know?
  2. The description of this intimate indwelling of Christ in the heart sounds much like a marriage bond. Yet He is also King, when we allow Him to be in charge of all and the center of our beings. Can my prayer become a talking to Him as to one so close? Or even just a being-together that doesn’t need words?

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I have written a lot and still feel I have not done justice to this rich segment of the book. Please feel free to add your comments, not only about my questions but about anything that moves you in this section of the book. I will try to post a little something later in the week from the Sayings of the Fathers. Blessings to all.

Chapter 1, Section 3, Sayings of the Fathers, pp 31-32

I give thanks for another day to greet all of you and share a few more thoughts on the Necessity of Prayer, the snippets from the Church Fathers that Fr. Matta has chosen for us.

St. Ignatius Brianchaninov was a monk and bishop in the church of Russia and is revered by the Eastern Church. He suffered ill health but was a prolific writer. He tells us that God does not need our prayers – that He already knows our needs and is already merciful and generous even to those who do not pray.

  1. I don’t think any of us would dispute the truth of this. But if it is so, why do we ask God for particular things in prayer?

St. Isaac of Nineveh tells us something very similar when he writes that “It is not by reason of our requests that God dispenses his gifts and blessings.” In other words, our prayers do not lead God to “change Him mind” about what good He is going to do (my interpretation – do you agree?).

  1. In the Old Testament, we encounter stories where holy leaders and prophets prayed and “God repented of the evil” He was going to do (e.g. Exodus 32: 14; Jonah 3: 10). Why do you think the Bible presents God as changing His mind in response to prayer if this is not so?
  2. Does this awareness impact how I pray when I experience a special need? Has my understanding of prayer grown in this regard in the course of my life?
  3. Have you known anyone who lost faith because they did not receive what they asked for in prayer? If they came to you and asked you, how would you try to explain this mystery to them?

Saint John Climacus lived in the 6th-7th centuries. Very little is known about his personal life but his book, Ladder of Divine Ascent, is most widely read in the Eastern Church, though he is honored in both the East and the West.

  1. It is interesting that St. John describes prayer as “a devout, persistent coercing of God”, basing this on parables of Christ. How might we understand this in light of what St. Isaac wrote?
  2. It is also noteworthy that St. John writes this in the context of instructing us to, “Hold on to the staff of prayer and you will not fall. And even a fall will not be fatal…” (Emphasis mine.) What does our devout “coercing” have to do with the fatality of our falls? Hmm….

I may offer my personal responses to my own questions later in the week…in the meantime, let us continue to read, reflect and pray together. Grace and peace to all…

Chapter 1, Section 3, The Necessity of Prayer, pp 29-31

Warm greetings to you, people of prayer. On this Sunday of Forgiveness in the Eastern Church (on which I post this), I ask for your forgiveness for all of my weaknesses and faults. Let us continue to pray for each other with merciful hearts as we journey with Fr. Matta in these desert places.

Fr. Matta creates a metaphor of God as the Gardener whose ultimate hope is that what He has purchased for His vineyard (us) will bear fruit. He relates this to how fruit is what binds the heart of a gardener to the tree he has planted while he is watering and tending it. However, with us, “The ripe fruit of the blood that was shed, and the conscious response to the work of his love and suffering, is our prayer.”

  1. Are you able to relate to this metaphor and see God waiting expectantly for fruit to come forth from you?
  2. At the end of this section, Fr. Matta quotes Christ in the Gospel of John (4: 23) saying that the Father “seeks” worshipers (prayerful people). Why is our prayer so important to God?

Fr. Matta offers some stern words for the state of our world – and the Church – pointing out how we have “fallen back to the worship of idols” and how fear of God is nearly absent from our world. He goes so far as to allege that a person may live their lives entirely without God and escape the notice of anyone – or “even be praised and commended!”

  1. Given this state of affairs, why is prayer so necessary for us?
  2. As we review what Fr. Matta has written on this, perhaps we could reflect on our personal experiences – when we have needed prayer, when/how it has helped us.
  3. As a further step, we might reflect on times when we missed opportunities to employ prayer when facing some of the challenges and provocations that our lives in the world offer.
  4. Fr. Matta writes: “Prayer is an inward light that exposes the blemishes and defects of our daily conduct.” Can I learn to welcome this light and not resist it out of shame?

As noted above, at the end of this section, Fr. Matta cites the words of Christ from the Gospel of John and comments, “the prayer that is in spirit and truth is the only prayer acceptable to God.”

  1. What does this mean, “spirit and truth”? Why is it vital that we pray in spirit and truth?

Much to reflect and pray with here. Once again, God willing, I will offer some comments on the Sayings of the Fathers for this section in a few days. Please share any reflections or questions you have for our community.