Chapter 4: The freeing of the soul, pp. 121-127

May the Lord our God be with you, my brothers and sisters who read and pray. May He bless us in our desire to know Him and love Him.

Many things compete for my time these days so please forgive me if posts are not terribly regular. Our content is deep and even a few pages draws me into considerable reflection as I prepare to write here… (Though we only have 6 pages of text today, I have broken this post into sections, in the event that its length and depth are daunting.)

The title of Chapter 4 holds promise for those of us who long but often find ourselves falling short of our aspirations. Yes – tell me about the “freeing” of my soul! And so Fr. Matta does.

First, he tells us how the human soul really is: “created light and pure” and “quickly responsive to the call of God”“It also has a loving disposition toward its own kind…It is thus extremely loving and openhearted by nature.” Furthermore, he tells us that, “In a human soul that is true to God, the elements of power, quickness, freedom and pure love are unlimited.” What then, I may think, has happened to my soul, that it is so far from its true state? And so he tells us what has shackled our souls, “…it is nothing but the human ego….The human ego (self) can will what God does not will.”

  1. First, let us consider what Fr. Matta tells us about the inherent qualities of the human soul. Does this resonate with me as true – how God made my soul, my essence? Can I believe that He made me with the capacity for such freedom and responsiveness to Him, for “pure love”?
  2. Now, let us consider the human “ego”. Ego is a fascinating word because it has been used in a number of contexts, sometimes to suggest healthy psychological functioning, as in “ego-strength”. Other times, it is used to suggest excessive self-love, as in suggesting that someone has “a big ego”. What do you think “ego” means in this context?

Fr. Matta continues on to explain that the ego is nothing other than the soul, a seemingly puzzling assertion. However, he then notes how our souls can be in either of two states: (1) the soul may be totally subject to God, so that its will and God’s will are one and the same, making it dead to itself but alive to God, or (2) the soul may choose to be independent of God’s will, following its own passions and desires, alive to itself and dead to God. In the latter case, the soul “becomes a perishable ego”. The departure of the soul from God’s will “is only induced by the deception of the devil”.

  1. Fr. Matta presents the states of the soul/ego in very black-and-white terms. Either my soul is totally subject to God or it is living independently, following its own desires. Is there no room for anything in between – for those of us who want the former but aren’t quite there yet? Or not?
  2. Fr. Matta presents the role of the evil one’s deception quite absolutely as well – we depart from God’s will only by the devil’s deception. What does this mean in terms of our responsibility for our separation from God? In a world where many people no longer even consider the devil real, how do I conceive of the evil one and how he operates? Do I understand him as a real force?

The only way we can help ourselves out of this mess, Fr. Matta tells us, is by “total surrender to God’s will, whether as to what has happened or what is actually happening or what will be happening, without anxiety, grumbling, or despair.” Our author clarifies that this does not absolve us from the effort to solve problems or make decisions but, when we have done our best, we accept the results “in total contentment”. 

  1. Wow. This didn’t sound so hard until he spelled it out: past, present, future – without anxiety or grumble. This is true submission, total trust – not holding onto any illusion of control for myself. What makes this so difficult for me?
  2. In some ways, this bears resemblance to the Buddhist concepts of mindfulness and acceptance, now incorporated into much of Western psychology. How is Christian submission to God’s will similar/different from this notion of radical acceptance?

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Fr. Matta provides us with 7 guidelines as to how submission of the ego to God can be effected in our lives. He tells us we are not to rely on our own wisdom or any human strength in anything we do – lest we block “the way of grace to enter you and show you the way of God”. We are not to think highly of ourselves, remembering that God can always use another to do what He has done through us – and do it better. “If you boast of your intelligence or virtue, God will leave them to you as merely human gifts. They will then turn into corruption, loss, and damage.”

Fr. Matta warns us that our egos may hate surrendering to God and try to escape this. To help us, God will send us tribulations for discipline until we surrender in brokenness – and we should consider this great profit. The total surrender and submission we need is a “free gift of grace” – a gift for which we need to pray, trusting that it will be given to us. If we resist, God lovingly chastises us with humiliation that crushes our ego, freeing us from its tyranny. Yet, Fr. Matta advises: “If you wish to free your soul by the shortest and simplest way, sit down every day under the discipline of grace. Examine your thoughts, movements, intentions, purposes, words, and deeds in the light of God’s word.” This work, he warns, needs to be done privately and not for show.

“The moment you realize at the bottom of your heart that you are nothing and God is everything, then the truth shall have set you free.”

  1. There is much here to ponder. How easy it is to question or fight with God! When we read about God as the loving Father who chastises us, it doesn’t sound so bad, However, when we experience actual tribulations, it is hard for us to understand God’s role in this. Does God send me suffering? Or does He allow it in order to teach me? Can He not teach me in less painful ways? (Or is it that I do not learn when the way is too easy?)
  2. The evil one can play with our egos in such insidious ways. How do we manage the subtle thoughts and intentions that may have us relying on ourselves or thinking highly of ourselves (or whatever) – without falling into obsessive scrupulosity? Can I notice these tendencies of my ego and simply turn from them? Or must I fight them more aggressively? (The answer to this may differ from person to person because the enemy plays with our individual vulnerabilities.)
  3. Are there any special challenges here for those among us who may suffer low self-esteem or lack of confidence on a psychological level? Can we know that we are “nothing” before God and differentiate this from the “nothing” we may have felt before people who abused or mistreated us earlier in life?

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Next, Fr. Matta gives us brief instruction on how ignorance and learned habits can further hamper the soul’s movement. Although many (most?) of us probably don’t like to associate the word “ignorance” with ourselves, Fr. Matta points out some areas of knowledge where many of us in the modern world may be ill-prepared: the will of God, the narrow way, the wiles of Satan, the nonsense of the world and transience of its glory and the meanness of sensual pleasure. He also points out how many of us may have learned habits of body (e.g. overindulgence in food, sex, sleep, recreation) and/or mind (e.g. absorption in trivial talk, television, newspapers, worthless books) that may “lead to escape from work, struggle and prayer”.

Although “work, struggle and prayer” may not sound like a particularly joyful lifestyle, Fr. Matta describes our souls as otherwise “shackled”. When tied to things of this world, my soul is like a bird that is tied down so that it unable to fly. If I cling to even one little thing, not surrendering it, I remain bound and am not truly living for God.

Fr. Matta also notes how vulnerable we can be to over-confidence. Thinking we have surrendered to God, we can too easily rush to minister to others, succumbing to a hypocrisy and ill-use of power that leaves us in worse condition than when we began. Although it may seem that we are trapped at every turn, he tells us that when we have at last submitted to God, “This is freedom, absolute freedom.”

  1. What are my areas of ignorance? Or perhaps more accurately, are there any areas in which I am not ignorant? After reading Fr. Matta’s suggestions, are there practices I would like to initiate or deepen to promote the movement of my soul?
  2. What habits of body and mind did I learn in my family? What have I learned on my own in adulthood? Which habits serve my spiritual growth well and which do not?
  3. We know habits are very hard to change. If you have ever changed one, consider how this occurred – did prayer help you? did another person give you aid? did you sever the behavior “cold turkey”? Graces of the past may remind us of possibilities for new grace.
  4. To minister to others is part of our role as Christians. When we see that our surrender to God is imperfect (still in progress), should we continue on or hold back – given the dangers Fr. Matta describes? How do we discern whether we are ready to help others?

Having raised so many questions, I need time to reflect on them myself. 🙂

As always, let us not rush ourselves. There is nothing more important than the work of our souls – freeing them to be united to God. Let us pray for each other and continue on. As always, you are welcome to post comments or questions for our little community to consider.

Be blessed…

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Part Two: Aspects of the Interior Activity of Prayer, pp. 117-119

Greetings in Christ Jesus our Savior.

If you are at all like me, you may be finding it a challenge to sustain the interest and commitment to working through this treasure of a book – not because its content is not worthy, but because its riches take much time and effort to mine.

But that is the work of the spiritual life. So let us pray for each other as we embark on Part Two, that we may be strengthened to persist in this holy work.

Fr. Matta tells us that, in Part Two, we are going to “look at the attributes of the person who prays…the factors that contribute to success in prayer and those that impede it.” In this brief introduction, he tells us that we began the process of dying to the world at baptism and that practicing a life of asceticism and austerity is but an extension of this process. He indicates that, while essential, this “mortification” must be handled with some care.

  1. What does it mean to you to “die to the world”?
  2. If, like me, you were baptized as an infant, does it make sense to you that you began dying to the world only days or weeks after you were born into it? If you were baptized later in life, was “dying to the world” a meaningful aspect of your choice/call to the sacrament?
  3. Up until now, what associations have you had to these words: asceticism, austerity, mortification? Where might these associations have come from and how do they impact your reactions to considering them as part of your prayer life?

I will not restate all of Fr. Matta’s guidelines here. The themes of his comments on ascetic practice are basically as follows: (1) its purpose and the problems that occur if that purpose gets misdirected; (2) the need of having appropriate limits on the severity and nature of one’s practices, plus prudent counsel from a spiritual father/director to help us moderate this; (3) how essential it is that asceticism be practiced in love and joy, and as an expression of our love for God.

  1. As a point of reflection, perhaps I might take each of these three themes and consider them – what are the purposes of asceticism? etc. Then I might want to reflect a bit further on what I may have experienced (or anticipate experiencing) as my areas of vulnerability. For example, I might see myself as vulnerable to taking pride in my “progress”. Or I might see myself as being prone to becoming depressed and joyless. And so on.
  2. As I thus reflect, I may form prayers to ask for help in these areas. If I have a confessor and/or spiritual father/director, I might seek extra counsel in these areas.

Blessings, dear friends who read and pray with me. I welcome your comments if you are so inclined.