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.
- 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?
- 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”.
- What do you think is the relationship between subduing the ego and finding inner stillness?
- 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.
- Why do you think that Fr. Matta emphasizes believing in the simplicity of contemplation (vs. it being “esoteric”)?
- 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.
- 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.
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…