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…

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8 thoughts on “Chapter 2, Contemplation II, pp. 57-59

  1. “. . .talk with their spiritual father/mother” – Good advice (for those who have one or the other). Reading by itself can lead to immoderate and eventually anxiety-causing expectations, even despondency.

    In the absence of the kind of relatiinship that you are referring to, Mary, I have learned that if I try talking to myself as if I were someone else, sometimes the advice that helps most and leads forward instead of inward (where it is so easy to get lost) is the simplest; e,g.,

    “Take it easy. God loves you–the way your parents did [I was so blessed], and the way you do now with your family, but unimaginably more so. You are not going to reach God by all those efforts. God is the one who reaches you, and is already here. God is a person, not a force or an idea. Not a test to be passed, Not a program to complete.Slow down. Listen. Look. Say thank you a lot, and please. Then go ahead and read if you still want to. And don’t be reluctant to talk with friends whom God sends to share your experience. Don’t think you are imposing on them – or on the priest who seems distant and scary. God sent you to him, didn’t he.”

    Well, that’s an extended version of my advice. It may seem presumptuous, but its the best I can do for now. And it seems to keep me going. (Writings like yours do too.)

  2. I like this.

    It reminds me of how my expectations are often inflated. I think after I read of some of the great Orthodox saints who were spiritual fathers, I came to think that that was what I needed – a spiritual father or mother who was someone of extraordinary holiness. What I have come to realize is that God works through whoever is at hand and of sincere heart. God knows how to take care of me.

    Sometimes I have had questions where I didn’t know anyone who could answer them – and the answer unexpectedly appeared in the book I was reading. Or the priest or confessor whose weaknesses I could readily see said something simple that, if I listened, was something I needed to hear and could learn from.

    I am not saying this of anyone but me, but I have realized that it is part of my own vanity that I think I need someone “special” to direct me. The important thing is that I be humble enough to know that it should not be ME that directs me. The Holy Spirit is always there to guide me – and, as you have indicated, He will guide you in His own way, using whatever resources are at hand, even your own prayer.

  3. Right, you cannot direct yourself. I cannot be a spiritual father, or brother, to myself. That way lies danger, deception, ruin. We need others, if only to talk through periods when prayer of any kind seems almost impossible. If we don’t have access to holy guides–as in monasteries, religious orders, or certain trained and wise individuals–then we make do. Who knows how to recognize holiness anyway? And not all living saints are wise. So we make do with “whatever resources are at hand, even your own prayer.”

  4. Very true. Yet I might also suggest that to say we “make do” sounds as though we are living in a deprived stated and scraping by as best we can.

    It often feel like that, I admit. I imagine how much better I would be doing if only… But, of course, this is a deception. Not that it is not a great gift to have a good spiritual father – of course it is. But God is not at all constrained in what help He gives us, regardless of circumstances. We could be in solitary confinement in prison, as were some under communism, and receive great graces amidst our suffering.

    On the other hand, I don’t mean this to suggest that, if we are struggling with prayer or any other problem that it is our fault. God, in His wisdom, may be at work in us through our struggle and we may be making great progress that we are totally unable to see. In fact, I have come to believe that the progress that we do not see ourselves making is the very best kind.

    I sense that God knows that I will grow more by not having the spiritual father or mother that I imagine I should have. If nothing else, I am pushed to trust that He is indeed taking care of me perfectly and with complete understanding of my needs.

  5. “. . . USING WHATEVER RESOURCES ARE AT HAND” – That’s it. Right on summary of what I am learning to do. After all, we believe that God is “Spirit of truth, everywhere present and filling all things.” [from my pocket prayer book]

    Surprisingly, or perhaps not so, my best guides in the past have been persons whom I came in contact with for other reasons: work, service projects, mutual interests, social activities, church-related matters . It was their evident values, their reflectiveness, their commitment to practice what they believed, and the simplicity of their outlook that inspired me. I observed, listened, and thought to imitate. These unacknowledged guides took me along circuitous paths, some with obstacles, some with lurking dangers, but – – as I look back now–always though imperceptibly forward (if it is accurate to describe interior lives that way, and it probably isn’t)

    For actual guidance i consulted professionals. It turned out that unless there was something of what I experienced in the relationships listed above, the guidance was standard and reliable, but not always moving (i.e..inspiring of confidence and the impetus to change) – – in other words, guidance that I could have found in a book or a sermon.

    Not meaning to denigrate spiritual fathers /mothers /directors, or pastors/ministers /confessors. Their place is established in tradition.

    I hope I am not talking too much here.,

  6. Do now worry about “how much”, only if it is fruitful and of the Spirit. May God guide us in discerning such things.

  7. “God, in His wisdom, may be at work in us through our struggle” – good reminder!
    Thank you.

    I just came across this, & thought of discussions here:

    “Mother Alexandra was born Princess Ileana of Romania. She married and bore children, https://i2.wp.com/commons.orthodoxwiki.org/images/9/9a/MotherAlexandra.jpg
    established hospitals, and wrote books before joining a monastery later in life. A little later still she founded Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Pennsylvania. This year marks 25 years since her repose, and Frederica Mathewes-Green shared this quote from one of Mother Alexandra’s handwritten notebooks:

    ” ‘I sometimes think we give too much importance to our outward attitude of prayer. We expect too much emotionally of ourselves, much more than God is asking for.

    ” ‘God is only asking us to remember Him at all times, in good and bad periods to offer Him this moment of our time–this moment, not the following one. The present is what He asks; not in great gestures of surrender, but in a continual natural stream even as we breathe.

    ” ‘The great moments will then be vouchsafed us by Divine grace when we are reaching for them, when prayer quickens into a life of its own and carries us with it to unexpected heights, and above all peace and joys. Prayer carries us–not we our prayer.’ ” (from https://gretchenjoanna.com/2016/04/12/offer-this-moment/ )

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