Chapter 3, Sayings of the Fathers on Ecstasy, pp. 77-81

As I post this, the Eastern Church begins Holy Week while the Western Church celebrates the 5th Sunday of Easter. The impact of this juxtaposition is worth noting: the Cross always leads us to Resurrection, but we can only approach the Glory by way of the Cross.

I will offer just a few words here on the Sayings of the Fathers regarding ecstasy. I apologize for the lapse between posts – I am pulled in many directions and delight in each.

An interesting question is raised by the Fathers: when one is caught up in rapture or ecstasy, how can one leave one’s senses? Does the soul leave the body – or just the mind? Is the body in a state between sleep and death – or is the body actually dead until the soul returns? It is posited that there may be two types of ecstasies, one where the mind alone leaves and one where the soul is fully released from the body. St. Paul’s experience is quoted, as the apostle apparently did not know whether he was in his body or not when caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians, 12: 2).

  1. Human understanding of sleep, death and altered states of consciousness is quite different now than when the Fathers wrote. Do you think having the knowledge we have would have changed how they tried to describe the experience of ecstasy?
  2. Mysticism and states of “trance” exist in many religions throughout history. Do you think that the ecstasy of the Christian believer is something beyond these others? Why or why not?

St. Seraphim of Sarov lived in 18th century Russia and is renowned in the Eastern Church. He lived a deeply ascetic life as a monk and elder, was a wonder-worker and experienced many visions. He writes, “…wholly absorbed in contemplation of the uncreated beauty, he forgets all things of sense. He does not even wish to see himself, but desires to hide himself in the heart of the earth, if only he may not be deprived of that true food – God.”

  1. Undoubtedly St. Seraphim is writing as one who has contemplated “the eternal Light”. How does this seem to have affected his relationship to himself and his senses?
  2. As one far less holy, what might I learn as I reflect on his words?

St. John of Dalyatha also attempts to offer us a glimpse into his experience of ecstasy, lamenting as he does so that he cannot describe it. He writes of “being united with the Spirit of the Son” to the point of “knowing within himself that he is God’s son”. He thus is able to speak to his Father with intimacy, “not like one who prays but like one who receives prayer”.

  1. In this description of union, St. John almost seems to lose himself in identifying with Christ. How do you find yourself reacting to this description?

Once again, many blessings to all. Let us pray together during these holy days and share, whether in words or silence.

Chapter 3: Beyond Prayer, Ecstasy, pp. 71-77

Dear people of prayer, we are now invited into a chapter entitled,, “Beyond Prayer”. What could be beyond prayer?

Of ourselves, we cannot know. But Fr. Matta reminds us with a beautiful quote from the first letter to the Corinthians: “…No one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”

So let us pray, opening our hearts to the Spirit, that we might have the courage to follow Christ the Lord, wherever He takes us.

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Fr. Matta begins this chapter by teaching us about “ecstasy” or, more properly “ἔκστασις”, as it appears in Biblical Greek. Original linguistic meanings included bafflement or bewilderment which, oddly to our modern ear, became translated to “dismay” in one of the Psalms. There are also roots in the word that suggest being outside of oneself or out of conscious awareness, as in a rapture or trance.

However, especially relevant to us, as followers of the risen Christ, are the New Testament usages where “ἔκστασις” is translated as “amazement”. “Amazement” at the empty tomb, at the angels saying He is alive; amazement when the well-known beggar, lame from birth, is made whole by the apostles at the Beautiful Gate.

  1. When you read the title of this section, “Ecstasy”, what associations did you have to the word? Did Fr. Matta’s exposition alter how you relate to the word? If so, how?
  2. If there are any Greek-speakers among us, your comments would be particularly welcome here. Is “ἔκστασις” a word that appears in modern conversational Greek or only in ancient texts? If it is conversational, has its meaning shifted over time as “ecstasy” has in English?

Next, our author tells us of the relationship between the inner quietude so emphasized in the last chapter and this ecstasy. Understood as rapture or trance, ecstasy implies a willingness to receive whatever God reveals. Indeed, the person loses control of self/mind/senses in order to be completely connected with God. “It is the Holy Spirit who takes over the lead at these moments. Man’s freedom is thus swallowed up in that of the Spirit.” It was thus that the prophet’s of the Old Testament received messages from God.

  1. Most if not all of us dwell in a culture where we value being in control. Does this loss of control sound frightening, exciting (or both, or neither) to you?
  2. If you have not experienced this yourself, does it seem real to you? Does it seem like something possible for you personally? Why or why not?

When we turn the page (to page 74), Fr. Matta offers us some interesting reflections on this very point. He tells us that, with the Incarnation and the promised outpouring of the Spirit upon all, this grace is offered to everyone. Yet, he tells us, the purpose is no longer to reveal new aspects of the faith, but to increase knowledge and strengthen love ties between man and God on a personal level. Because God’s nature cannot be perceived on the level that our minds and senses operate, when God so manifests Himself to a person, they must be silenced for a time, lest they “interfere with or falsify the reality of God, who transcends them”. Fr. Matta tells us once again that such manifestations by God do not occur because of any worthiness on our part, nor are they reserved for those advanced in the spiritual life. “What is needed is only deep love from the heart, mind and soul…”

  1. Within some movements or denominations in Christianity, reported experiences of “ecstasy” are sometimes common and public. Is this the same thing – the same Spirit who spoke through the prophets, the same “amazement” of the disciples at the tomb? Of course, it is not our job to judge others, but the question is more directed to how we discern such matters, in an effort to avoid following false teachings.

Fr. Matta draws this section to a close with a few words on how spiritual writers view ecstasy as signifying a “process of evolution” and “a mystical ascent of the human nature toward a better state”. He gives us a brief discussion on ecstasy as “involuntary”, a reward for forsaking the world (per St. Dionysius) and another path whereby some souls contemplate the face of Christ with their senses intact, an experience perhaps of less power than ecstasy but “more attached to the life of prayer”. 

  1. I found these last few paragraphs a bit difficult as they seemed loosely drawn together. That we are created for God is not a new idea in Fr. Matta’s writings. However, the “evolution” concept associated with ecstasy would seem to contradict his earlier assertion that the experience of it is not necessarily tied to spiritual advancement. Does anyone else see this more clearly?
  2. Fr. Matta’s brief remarks on the “involuntary” nature and the other path did not (for me) include sufficient elaboration to offer helpful insight. If any readers know more or understand better, please comment for the benefit of us all.

Let us continue to reflect and pray together, with the Spirit teaching us whatever we need to learn about the great gifts God gives to those who love Him…

Chapter 2, Sayings of the Fathers on Contemplation, pp. 66-70

Let us pray…we who are nothing are called to contemplate the fullness of Your goodness, Your beauty, Your love. There is nothing we can say or do to be worthy of such a glorious gift.

And so, with the help of Your divine mercy, we repent of our sins and stand before you, empty and aware of our smallness. Purify and expand our hearts that they might be ready to know You…

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The Fathers have much to say to us about contemplation and yet I don’t feel inclined to comment or ask questions about their words. They write about experience so deep from the heart that several refer to it as being intoxicated by God. What could I say of such experience that would not seem to violate its sanctity?

Instead, I have recorded a couple of the passages. I find that I like to read aloud to others as it enables me to enter the text more deeply. I also like to be read to and consider that perhaps others do too. You may listen if you wish – or perhaps you will want to select some text to read aloud yourself so that you might enter it more deeply.

I have chosen #50 by St. Augustine and #53 by St. John of Dalyatha to offer here. (If you click either of the links below,  you will be taken to an mp3 player where you can click the play button to begin listening. This is the no-cost option!)

St. Augustine:
https://app.box.com/embed/preview/6qnvloctoheye7axd4iwerkdiqcz5tqm?direction=ASC&theme=dark
St. John of Dalyatha:
https://app.box.com/embed/preview/cdcbcm6m9wm55o7wlxpcbfbkbdrjp8dr?direction=ASC&theme=dark

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This post brings us to the end of Chapter 2. As always, take what time you need to reflect and pray. Comments are always welcome. Also, please feel free to communicate with me here or privately if you have any comments about how the process is going or can be improved. My e-mail address can be found in the Guidelines.

Chapter 2, Contemplation III, pp. 59-66

Blessings, my friends in Christ the Lord. As we move further into our reading on contemplation, I seem to be moving through the material even slower than usual, don’t I? It is hard to find words when Fr. Matta has said it so well and my heart wants only to contemplate His goodness…

Once again, we find our author moving us back and forth from the perspective that contemplation is open to all vs. a sense that we can never qualify for it ourselves. He writes, “Before anything else, one has to be free of earthly cares, sins, or bad habits.” He describes the phase of readiness as having two components, “self-denial and victory over passions and evil desires”. Fr. Matta reminds us that there is work involved in contemplation and the spiritual life in general, namely in the practice of asceticism and virtue.

  1. Do you think that Fr. Matta is saying that one must reach a state of perfection (no sin, passions or bad habits) before approaching contemplation? If not, what is his meaning?
  2. Asceticism is virtually a foreign word in our “modern” culture – even among many who attend church faithfully. What is ascetic practice and why is it still important? (Also, we might consider what it isn’t, i.e. what forms it should not take for people living in the world, lest we have an unrealistic expectation that we find ourselves never able to fulfill.)

Fr. Matta writes of the relationship between subduing the ego and subduing the mind so as to learn the stillness that enables contemplation. Yet he is also very adamant about love as “an engine of the soul” (quoting St. Gregory the Great) drawing us to these exercises. He then writes of a point where the souls lets go of concerns with so many things and relinquishes “its dependence on its own self and its own mind in approaching God”. Yet while Fr. Matta tells us of the great delight of contemplation and “tasting” God, he forewarns us that there are long periods during our prayer and contemplation when “the mind may interfere with divine truth”. 

  1. What do you think is the relationship between subduing the ego and finding inner stillness?
  2. Do you think it is possible for us to ever get to a point where we can truly let go of our “dependence” on self/mind in approaching God? Is this something we would achieve through practice or is it a gift from God? Or is it both?

The next section, “The State of Contemplation”, makes it clear to us that Fr. Matta had much experience with contemplation, both in his own prayer and with the many monks who were his spiritual children. As a wise guide, he tells us that we will move forward more readily if we give up the notion that contemplation is “a state of esoteric spirituality”. His descriptions continue to have a hint of the paradox, “The spirit, henceforth, becomes more active and militant in its continuous progression farther and farther along this easy and difficult way.” This continues until the soul approaches “the source of light” at which all activity halts and it falls into ecstasy before Him.

  1. Why do you think that Fr. Matta emphasizes believing in the simplicity of contemplation (vs. it being “esoteric”)?
  2. Fr. Matta tells us that attempts to “investigate” the experience  of contemplation or continue the activities of prayer will only hamper what is to come, perhaps even lead to confusion. How is it that these activities that were once so necessary are now a hindrance?

In his final few paragraphs, Fr. Matta writes of the anticipation, the longing, “the incomprehensible union” of the soul with God.

  1. Allow yourself to absorb the beauty of what you read in these paragraphs. Whether you have experienced this yourself or not is not of the utmost significance now. Rather what is important is to know that this is where we are all heading. Union with God is what we were made for. Absorb the beauty of that truth and cherish it.

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To round out Chapter 2, we have some very beautiful and longer-than-usual passages in our “Sayings of the Fathers” section. I will touch on these in the days to come – but let us not rush. Chapter 3 will still be there waiting for us whenever we are ready…

Chapter 2, Contemplation II, pp. 57-59

Many blessings, fellow disciples. Another glimpse into contemplation.

Fr. Matta leads us next into what he calls “voluntary contemplation”, which is what most concerns us because it involves our effort. However, he is quick to point out that this is only how it begins. We can only persist in this effort with the help of the Spirit. He then backs up a bit further, “…it is a state of inward readiness of the mind and soul to accept the divine truth and its sway over them”. Essentially, its only aim should be “attainment of a certain measure of interior quietude and mental tranquility” that prepares us to accept full contemplation. He then continues on to describe how one might proceed to the contemplative exercise of repeating and focusing the mind on a short verse or prayer (the Jesus prayer is a well-known example).

  1. It seems as though Fr. Matta has given us some mixed messages. After telling us that contemplation is accessible to all, he then instructs us about repeating our small verse with the mind focused on it, “constantly without stopping for long hours every day”. How can anyone outside of monastic life accomplish this? What might this mean for those of us living in the world?
  2. Fr. Matta also tells us that our minds will wander and we must summon them back “without boredom”. (This may be a struggle for some of us, given our lives in a culture that beckons us to constant change and stimulation.) Are there other ideas that may help us train our minds to not “meander”? (I might add the suggestion that we summon our minds back without judgment, a concept used in mindfulness meditation. Often we are prone to becoming upset with ourselves for these perceived “transgressions” and our negative self-judgment may lead us to more wandering – in a negative direction. It may even lead us to discontinue the practice because we conclude that we are not good at it or we cannot do it at all.)
  3. I will issue a little warning here as well. I suggest to anyone who does not have experience with extensive use of the Jesus prayer or similar forms of contemplative prayer to talk with their spiritual father/mother/director before undertaking extensive practice on the basis of Fr. Matta’s instructions alone. I am not saying this, of course, because I think there is anything wrong with what he has written, but simply because I have no way of knowing who is reading this blog or may read it in the future. Anything can be dangerous for one who is not ready for it – just as honey is dangerous for an infant, though otherwise a good food. Fr. Matta writes that contemplation “protects God’s people” and that it strengthens and is “one of the richest means of building up the soul”. Let us therefore not fear it but remain humble and aware of our own need for spiritual guidance.

I’m afraid my time and energy runs short again so this is but a brief post. Continue on, my brothers and sisters! Certainly you are free to read beyond what I have posted and to add comments as you wish…

Chapter 2, Contemplation I, pp. 55-59

Let us give glory to God, my friends, for the opportunity to learn and share about the gift of contemplation. My time this week seems to be available in smaller bits and this is a longer section, so I will post in smaller bits as I am able. Read and comment as you are able, with the Spirit guiding all of us in our longing for Him.

As Fr. Matta has just led us to better understand meditation and how to approach it, he now explains that there is no clear boundary between meditation and contemplation. Rather, meditation is the practice that leads us to contemplation and is its foundation. Meditation is effortful work that activates our spirits. We are relieved of the “effort” in contemplation, so as to experience a more spontaneous activity of the spirit.

  1. Fr. Matta starts us off with the sobering words, “Very few people spend any time practicing being with God.” I find myself feeling sad at these words while recognizing their truth. What is it in our world and our culture that contributes to this? What personally interferes with my “spending time” practicing being with God? (Do I feel like I don’t know how? Do I feel rushed to move on to the next thing, to “accomplish” something? Is my life filled with necessary – or unnecessary – activity that distracts?)
  2. Fr. Matta assures us that contemplation is accessible to people in all states of life. This sounds good in theory but when he continues on to write of “total quietude”, what is the mother at home with a troop of young children to do? Or the machinist, customer service representative or teacher? (To name just a few of the occupations that make inner quiet difficult…)

Fr. Matta tells us that contemplation is normal and natural to our souls, i.e. “…the soul in its original state can contemplate divine truth when it stands quiet and silent before its Maker. In its normal and natural condition, the soul is not presupposed to be positive or negative.” The primary qualification we need is to not be preoccupied with anything other than God. Having left behind its other preoccupations, the soul becomes watchful or “sober”. The “quietude and cessation of all mental and psychic activity” is simple and makes our hearts ready for God. Simple is not easy for all people, however. Yet the Spirit helps us, as do the teachings of the saints.

  1. Depending on our individual personalities and experiences, what Fr. Matta writes here may seem attainable or completely beyond our reach. If you find yourself more in the latter category, it may be helpful to move from “all or nothing” language to a continuum perspective, i.e. rather than expecting a cessation of all mental activity, move toward gradual quieting.
  2. Do you have any personal practices that help you quiet your inner activity? Are there any you might feel comfortable sharing here? [An example from my own experience is taking a contemplative walk with my camera – something I learned from another. A contemplative walk is one that has no particular destination or purpose. I tend to walk in nature with my camera with the notion of “receiving” images, i.e. I am not going to “take” pictures but receive images of whatever might be there, whatever might be given to me in the particular moment that I am passing through. In “receiving”, I am less concerned with the good photo than with the encounter and I begin to see with my heart. I find that the camera helps me focus – yes, I know it’s a pun! – but I find that I am more more watchful than if I walk without it.]

Fr. Matta is going to tell us more about how the soul is to be trained for the quietude of contemplation (itself a form of contemplation) in the paragraphs that follow. To be continued…)