Chapter 7 – Faith and Perseverance (part 2), pp. 159-168

An abundance of blessings upon you, my fellows readers/pray-ers who have persevered in this journey. May our loving Lord guide us and help us to enter more deeply into the life of faith as we share the challenging words of this section.

If you have not already noticed, I posted “Part 1” for Chapter 7 on my regular blog because the question, “What is faith?” seemed like something that might appeal to a broader readership. If you have not read it, click here to find your way.

I saved a bit more to post here, admittedly the parts of the text that I found more difficult, in that I thought it best to discuss them in the context of the book as a whole. Of course, anyone may read this, but being familiar with the discussion leading up to this point will undoubtedly be helpful.

Yes, we are to take a look at “The Enemies of Faith” as Fr. Matta calls them. Let us approach them one at a time…

Reliance on empirical reason. It is not hard to see how total reliance on empirical reason gets in the way of faith. If I will not accept anything for which I cannot obtain empirical “proof”, I will never know God. I won’t believe in the miracles of Jesus, the healings, the exorcisms, His resurrection from the dead. I won’t believe in anything beyond the material world.

But, I might argue, I don’t take it that far. I can suspend reason for the really big things: I believe in God, I believe in the resurrection. But do I really believe that I can drink poison and not die? Or that a mountain will literally be moved if I have sufficient faith? That sort of thing just doesn’t make sense to me.

And yet I have said that I believe in the resurrection. It makes sense to me that a dead man is no longer dead?

Of course, I am not suggesting that anyone drink poison to test the Gospel passage. People have been known to die doing that.

Fr. Matta proposes to us that the problem is that reliance on empirical reason generates fear and in this way becomes an obstacle. We remain stuck in our mere human “knowing” because we are afraid to step into the divine. We are afraid of what goes beyond our senses and our reason.

It can’t be. It doesn’t make sense. God wouldn’t do that. There’s no evidence.

Each of these statements based on “reason” is an indication that I trust me, my senses and my thought processes more than I trust God.

Hmm…I don’t think that’s where I want to be.

Fear. We have already started talking about how fear can be an enemy of faith. Yet Fr. Matta uses some rather strong words, “Fear is a proof that man still longs to defend his own ego and pities himself. It is a symptom of self-love and stands in opposition to faith.”

Ouch. These words seem kind of harsh, especially given that fear is hard-wired into our brains to help us survive. Should we not want to survive? Is it a sign of self-love or self-pity if someone points a gun to my head and I find my heart pounding uncontrollably and my breath becoming more rapid?

Again, just as we are not being instructed to drink poison, neither are we being instructed to play Russian roulette with a pistol to see if we can do so without feeling afraid. We are not to invite danger for its own sake.

But, despite my reservations, Fr. Matta gives me pause. He cites Abraham on his way to offer Isaac in sacrifice; the 3 young men in the fiery furnace; Daniel in the lion’s den.

Scripture, of course, cannot tell us whether any of these experienced an increased heart rate as they entered the sacrificial state to which they were called. The impression we are given, however, is that they were unafraid.

How could they not have been afraid?

Precisely because they had already surrendered themselves totally, body, mind and soul, to God. Having given themselves completely, there was nothing that God could not take. Nothing was off-limits to Him to whom they had entrusted everything.

If I hold back none of myself for me – all is in the hands of loving God – indeed there is no room for fear.

But does this mean that fear is “bad”, an enemy of faith, something I should feel bad about when I experience it?

I would see it perhaps as a sign of the immaturity of my faith – its incompleteness – rather than something evil in itself. However, fear can certainly lead me to sin which is why it is an “enemy” I should never regard as an acceptable life companion.

I am born afraid. If I carry fear now, that tells me I have more surrendering to do. I pray and ask God to come to my help.

I cannot do it without Him.

Skepticism. Once again, we are called upon to consider fear – and it is not getting any easier. Fr. Matta writes: “Fear is but a symptom of an imperfect knowledge, while doubt is a sin aimed against God: doubt is disbelief in God’s promises. Doubt fosters fear. Doubt is the first weakening of trust in God, but it gives rise to fear, the farthest point away from God”.

I found it a bit ironic that I felt more fear reading the statement that “doubt is a sin aimed against God” than I have from many of the doubts I have experienced! I had not thought of doubt as a sin but rather a natural part of learning to believe.

Just as I experienced a sense of doubt when I first learned of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, my mind has sometimes doubted and wondered about the things of God that it does not yet understand.

This, again, is part of the immaturity of the soul (well, mine in particular) that is still learning to surrender itself completely to God.

However, this passage raised questions for me and I did not want to rely only on my own thinking, as I can so readily rationalize away my sins. So I googled it. 🙂  And found a helpful distinction between “voluntary doubt” and “involuntary doubt”.

The latter is the sort of doubt that afflicts us when we get an attack of wondering if there really is a God. Or we cannot quite fathom how mountains can be moved by faith and we say to ourselves, “Huh?” when we hear these words of Jesus.

We don’t choose to have these thoughts or feelings – and we don’t cultivate them when they occur. We most often find them unpleasant. But they are in our minds and so we are stuck working our way through them.

These are not a sin. They are not a “disbelief aimed against God”. Rather, they are more of an unbelief  for which we seek God’s help. Like the father of the boy afflicted with convulsions, we cry out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 24). Without God’s help, we know our faith is weak.

The voluntary doubt is the one that we own. Whether it started with an involuntary doubt or it was an idea we consciously formulated, we cultivate it and hone it so as to argue against the Truth given by the Spirit.

This sounds like a very foolish thing to do – and it is. So why would any of us do it?

In its most extreme form, “voluntary doubt” could be called heresy and that doesn’t sound like something I would do. But, in reality, all I have to do is have opinions. Opinions?

I’m entitled to my opinions, right?

Try on some of these opinions:

  1. When Jesus cast out demons, the people probably just had epilepsy or some other illness that wasn’t understood at the time. Talk of demons is the talk of people who aren’t educated in modern medicine.*
  2. I’m sure Jesus didn’t mean literally “This is my body, this is my blood.” He could only have meant it as something symbolic.*
  3. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But a four-week old embryo isn’t really a person yet. It’s just a clump of cells. While ending a pregnancy is not an ideal situation, continuing it could be a disaster in this situation.*

*These are not uncommon opinions in some sectors of the Christian world. I have fabricated them here for purposes of illustrating how readily human “opinion” can find itself at variance with Scripture and the creeds given to the Church. 

As I reflect on some of the “opinions” I have held over the years, I begin to understand that “voluntary doubt” is not just the domain of heretics. When something hasn’t made sense to me (see discussion on empirical reasoning), it hasn’t been hard for me to come up with my own “opinion” about what was really the case.

All without the benefit of any serious study of Scripture or the Church Fathers and, most importantly, all without the benefit of humility.

It has only been in my latter years that I have come to an understanding that the vast majority of my opinions on any and every topic are all a bunch of hooey.

It is far better to learn obedience and be chastened than to allow this sin of voluntary doubt to corrupt my soul.

But what of the fear Fr. Matta says comes of doubt? How does that enter in?

I cannot speak for others. But as I reflect back on myself, is not fear the breeding ground for the disease of my sin?

Why did I have so many opinions? Without the humility to submit and be taught, I was afraid when I encountered that which I could not understand. I did not want to reject my faith because there was a central truth there that I believed and never wanted to let go of. But this other stuff…

A scary spot to be in…

So I created opinions to give my mind explanations for what it couldn’t comprehend or accept on its own. To quell the fear that I couldn’t consciously acknowledge that I had.

And not without consequences.

How much closer I could have been to God had I submitted and allowed His Spirit to teach me! Yes, it is so.

Yet He is gracious and merciful. He never left me. And He always allows me to begin again.

And so I do. Today. Every day.

Praise Him.

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These are my reflections on the “Enemies of Faith” section of Chapter 7. I welcome yours…

 

Chapter 6 – Sayings of the Fathers on Contrition of the Spirit, pp. 151-157

Greetings and many blessings, people of prayer. Let us pray now as we begin:

O Spirit of God, guide us as we strive to understand more deeply how to be humble and contrite of heart, that we may experience more profoundly the fullness of Your love and mercy. Amen.

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Our author gives quite a large assortment of sayings from the Church Fathers, with particularly generous selections from St. John Climacus and St. Isaac of Syria. Rather than try to sort through them all in pieces, once again I will write the reflections that are given to me, as always inviting you to do the same.

I can make no argument against the need for humility and contrition. I would be a fool to try such a thing. Yet there is something just beneath the surface, needing to be said – and so I will write and see if it comes forth.

Let us begin with this excerpt from St. Isaac of Syria,

“So long as you are in this life, scorn your self by the constant remembrance of your sins. Confess them before the merciful God in contrition and you will gain intimacy with him.”

Does anyone else feel a tension in this brief passage?

I want intimacy with God more than anything. I believe He is merciful – merciful beyond my imagining.

But then why, I ask myself, would He want me to be constantly remembering my sins and scorning myself?

Not only does this sound very painful, but it sounds like an oddly gloomy way of living, inconsistent with Christian joy. Furthermore, it seems strange that God would want us to “constantly” remember our sins when He has promised to not remember them Himself (Isaiah 43: 25; Hebrews 8: 12; 10: 17).

Are we to never allow ourselves to feel forgiven in this life?

Herein lies the tension: if I am constantly remembering my sins and scorning myself for them, it seems that I am not truly accepting the mercy and redemption offered by the Lord Jesus. On the other hand, if I allow myself to feel forgiven and “forget” my sins, is this not the pathway to a pride in which I imagine myself to be good and no longer in need of redemption?

Yes, this is the heart of it. In order to address this tension, let us consider first what it means for God to remember our sins no more versus what it means for us to remember them no more.

For God to say to us, “Your sins I remember no more,” (Isaiah 43:25) is not to say that He is incapable of recalling them. God does not have memory deficits.

But, in His mercy, God can and does choose to never bring them up again, to not “call them to mind” (the meaning of “remember”, from Latin “rememorari”). Hence, our joy lies in our trust that, having confessed and received forgiveness, God will not be confronting us at the end of our lives with a list of these transgressions. They are gone, as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103: 12).

However, the meaning – and consequences – are quite different if we consider our forgetting or failing to remember our sins. There are two ways in which I might fail to remember my sins (aside from memory impairment).

One is that I make no effort to remember and I literally forget that I did these wrong deeds or cultivated these sinful attitudes. While surely this can happen, I suspect that it is the second route that is more common and perhaps more pernicious.

This second route is when we can, with effort, call to mind our wrong-doings of the past, but they no longer seem like a particularly big deal to us. After all, they have been forgiven, the past is the past and I’m better now.

I was a sinner but I’ve been saved.

The problem here is the past tense. “I was a sinner.” And this is why I think it is probably the more pernicious of the two possible modes of not remembering.

It is unlikely that someone without memory impairment is going to literally forget every sin they ever committed, even if they make little effort to remember. And I don’t think what is essential is that we remember every sin we’ve ever committed – or even most of them.

What is vital is our recognition that we are still sinners, even if we have not knowingly engaged in serious sin in recent times. Without this knowledge, we drift away from that watchfulness (“nepsis”) which keeps guard over our purity and humility.

In other words, without awareness that I am a sinner and must be ever watchful, pride creeps back in.

I am reminded of Fr. Stephen’s writing on the disease model of sin (click here). This forgetting of ours is not unlike the “forgetting” of many people who have a chronic physical or mental illness. Once my symptoms have been in remission for a good while, it is easy to believe that I am no longer ill. “I’m not sick. I don’t really need this medication anymore.”

In our spiritual lives, if we do not make an effort to remember (“call to mind”) our sins, we can easily forget that we still have a disease. Not recognizing our diseased state is extraordinarily dangerous – even more so than in the medical world, because so much more is at stake.

Terrible as it is to have an unnecessary episode of physical or mental illness – or even to suffer bodily death, it is far worse to cut ourselves off from God through pride, blindly believing ourselves to be “good Christians”.

The question might arise in our minds: why am I still diseased if the Lord Jesus has forgiven me and blotted out my sins?

On a practical level, it is usually easy enough to recognize that I am still a sinner – because I sin. However, if pride ever tempts me to think otherwise, I need only ask myself if I am experiencing theosis. After I finish laughing at myself, I must again acknowledge that I am in sin, even if momentarily I do not see the symptoms of my disease.

The broader question of why I am still diseased if Christ has saved me, is both simple and complex. I will leave the complex discussion to the theologians. The simple answer is because the battle is still being fought.

Christ is undoubtedly victorious over sin and death. There is no question. However, for reasons known only to God, the evil one is still at large and will be until time in our world is brought to an end. Our full communion with God will not be complete until the resurrection of the dead (see p. 107).

Hence, except by special gift from God, we cannot expect to be fully healed from our disease while fighting a toxic presence. This would be like expecting a cure from lung disease while actively handling asbestos.

Or perhaps more aptly, while smoking cigarettes – because we still crave our poison and are often ambivalent about getting well.

So if indeed I must remember my sins and “scorn” myself, what does this mean? Am I called to dwell on everything I’ve ever done wrong and hate myself for my failings?

Expressed in this way, no. But there is a truth here that we do not want to miss.

I need to remember always that I bear the disease of sin, not forgetting it for a moment. If I have confessed, my contrition shines with humble gratitude – for I know I have received a great gift. If I have not, I am preparing myself with both deep sorrow and eager anticipation.

If my sins stand constantly before me, wracking me with shame, I pray for the grace to bear my symptoms until God sees fit to relieve me of them. If I cannot see my sins, I pray for the grace to know them, that I might repent more genuinely rather than become proud.

I do not despise myself as does the depressed person, wishing I had never been given life. Rather, I lay my broken, diseased self before the living God with words such as these:

o my Father,

when You made me,

You gave me a heart

that was pure and clean,

holy and beautiful.

and now i have ruined it.

You designed it to find

its joy in You.

but i sought my joy

in everything but You.

You created me for love,

yet i love only myself –

which is no love at all.

i have destroyed

this beautiful heart

and i am ashamed.

i am nothing before You.

i have no right to ask You

for anything.

but they tell me that

a broken, humbled heart

You will not spurn.

and so I bring You mine.

i need a new heart,

o my God.

create for me

a new, clean heart

and put a steadfast spirit

in me.

i am nothing,

but You are mercy,

o endless Love,

my mercy, my joy.

amen.

 

(Comments and questions are always welcome as we pray this book together. Peace to all, in Christ’s love.)

Chapter 6 – Contrition of the Spirit, pp. 145 – 150

Many blessings to you, my friends, who read and pray with me. We embark on most interesting chapter on contrition that has some unexpected twists and turns.

Indeed, an unexpected twist and turn delayed my completing this post – but I return to you a more contrite person and therefore perhaps more prepared to write on the topic. God allowed me to be waylaid and humbled. Seldom pleasant but a valuable experience nonetheless.

Fr. Matta starts us off on this journey into contrition by noting that the “intensity of the saints’ humility, their contrition, and their incessant self-reproach was only a realization of their nothingness before God’s glory”. At the same time, he warns us that we cannot simply copy this in order to become like them. To know who we really are in relation to God, “we have to advance properly in the life of grace”.  The saints, he tells us, did not pursue humility because it was an attractive virtue and neither can we. Rather, we must feel convinced in the depths of our hearts “that we have provoked God to anger”, that we could have grown closer to God but freely chose the “lust of this world” instead.

  1. We are returned to awareness of our “nothingness” before God – that which we were told in an earlier chapter would ultimately free our souls. The saints, having realized this, experienced true humility and contrition because they saw who they were before God. What experiences have I had of so seeing myself? Is it joyful humility – like the self-emptying of a lover? Or is it more painful humiliation that cries out in utter helplessness? Perhaps both – or neither?
  2. Fr. Matta tells us that we must be deeply convinced that we have provoked God’s anger to know contrition. How do you find yourself reacting to the notion of God as being “angry” with you? How would it change if you used a different word – such as “disappointment” or “sadness”? Do you think Fr. Matta is referring to the human emotion we call anger or something else? (What else might it be if something else?)

Fr. Matta offers some examples of thoughts or facts that “should shame us all”, e.g. that God is compassionate toward us and loves us no less despite our persistent sinning. However, perhaps more importantly, he instructs us that, “Contrition cannot be grasped in a day or be taught from a book. It is life that flows between the soul and God.” His teaching hints at his own experience on this path, reassuring us that, as difficult as this road appears, once cleansed of our pride, “the life of contrition becomes a poignant, sweet melody that makes shorter the soul’s long journey to God…A contrite soul is full of peace…Any perversion toward pride or vainglory makes it shudder as a musician shudders at a discordant note in a beautiful symphony.”

  1. This talk of contrition involving shame (a most unpleasant experience) but also melodies and symphonies may leave us feeling confused. Or at least it left me wanting to take a few steps back to ask myself: what is contrition, really? Let’s pause for a moment and reflect on this…
  2. Our secular dictionary defines contrition as “a state of being remorseful” – and I think this is what many of us associate with the word. As a child being prepared for confession in the Catholic Church, I was taught the Act of Contrition, a prayer in which I told God I was sorry for having offended Him with my sins. There is nothing wrong with this; but Fr. Matta’s words suggest that he is telling us of something broader, deeper, than remorse for specific sins – and that is why we cannot learn it in a day.
  3. If you are at all like me, sometimes you may not feel contrite. At some moments, we may minimize the degree to which we have separated ourselves from God, e.g. “I’m not really so bad”, etc. At other times, we may pay lip service to the reality but be unable to conjure up much feeling about it. And there may be other times when we become lost in a toxic shame that is not true contrition, as it is born more out of self-hatred than love for God. Let us find comfort in knowing that the desire to be made right with God, even if experienced only faintly, will be developed into true contrition if we pray for that grace.

It is interesting that Fr. Matta refers to the “biblical idea” of contrition using the word “crushing”, clarifying that contrition does not mean to break down or damage the soul created in God’s image. I have virtually no knowledge of ancient languages and was fascinated to learn that “contrition” comes from the Latin contritus (“ground to pieces”). If there is any destruction, he writes, it is “aimed against the parts of the self that are false and conceited. In this way, the soul can return to its authentic and simple bounds.” Destroying this false self enables a rebuilding of authentic self in its original image – a very good thing. Fr. Matta tells us of two levels of contrition. One level, referred to as the “negative, voluntary honing of the soul”, is our responsibility as we seek to rid ourselves of the false parts of ourselves found in our character, behaviors, ambitions, etc. The other level, “positive, involuntary honing” is a great gift from God in which He humbles us to our “original littleness and authenticity”. No matter how diligent our efforts, we could never bring ourselves to this humility properly without God’s gift.

  1. As I ponder this, the question arises in me, “How did I become so false?” I am sure there are a great many answers to this question but pursuing them would serve only to distract from the task at hand…

I do not wish to pause too long here because the next few paragraphs are extraordinary. Fr. Matta writes: “Honing one’s soul is a delicate and serious operation that requires faithful discernment. In practicing lowliness, man should learn how to stop at the level that is proper to his soul.” He explains further that one of the dangers of contrition is that we can engage in hypocrisy “under the pretense of humility”, e.g. pretending to be weak when we are not so weak, etc. Hence, we are to confine our spiritual sight (as St. Paul calls it), “with discernment and balance, within the limits of the gifts that Christ has apportioned to us”. We should not deny God’s grace and work in us, ambitiously portraying ourselves to be below the level of gift and faith we have been given. If we do this, our soul will lose contact with God and “faith will then shrink, and grace will withdraw”. It is true and authentic contrition that “leads to true contact with God and to the fullness of grace”. Contrition is “a reality to be lived out”. Fr. Matta acknowledged that his descriptions of it sound dreadful: “Words about it are as bitter as gall, but its taste is sweeter than honey.” 

  1. You might wonder why I described these paragraphs as “extraordinary”. Perhaps as much for the questions they open up as for the answers they give. I do not know how others experienced it, but for many of us receiving Catholic education years ago, much emphasis was put on both humility and false humility (have the former and not the latter). When one is in second grade, these concepts are very hard to understand! Even in adulthood, for those of us blessed with obsessive minds :-), a potential quagmire exists in such quotes as this delightful one by William Law: “You can have no greater sign of confirmed pride than when you think you are humble enough.”
  2. My reading of this segment is that my humility needs to reach all the way down to my nothingness before God – and therefore is limitless on the one hand. On the other hand, I must gratefully acknowledge God’s gifts and work in me and not pretend that His goodness in me is not good. On the other hand (I must have 3 hands here), I need to faithfully work at my humility while never taking pride in it – for I could never do it properly myself. I am to be always ready for God to “hone” me further, directly or through the circumstances of my life, knowing that it may hurt – but the joy of the healing far exceeds the pain.

There are many questions I could ask – but none of them have answers.

May God continue to bless us on our journey to Him. I welcome any comments or questions you might like to post here for our small community of praying readers.