Chapter 8 – More on Struggle and Constraint, pp. 181-187

Yes, I’m still here, still struggling away ūüôā and if you are reading this, perhaps you are too. May God bless us and sustain us in our struggles.

I found myself intrigued by the very first excerpt from the Fathers for this chapter, in which St. Macarius addresses the question of whether we should force ourselves to pray if we feel no inclination to do so. This is a very rich question for our spiritual lives – so I thought I would begin typing and see where God leads.

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(I discovered a little dialogue developing in me as I pondered this question and it went something like this:)

T: Of course you must make yourself pray, whether you feel like it or not! If you wait until you feel like it, you will probably never pray.

S: But what is prayer for? Isn’t prayer to be the loving union of my heart with God? What kind of lover forces themselves to be with their Beloved?

T: That is valid point – or so it seems on the surface. But how will you come to know God if you wait around for your “inclinations”? With human loves, you have factors such appearance and personality to naturally attract you to want to be with the other. God is different.

S: Yes, it is different with God. But isn’t it true that God seeks us out? I’m not going to get to know God by my own efforts, forcing myself to recite prayers or attend church services. If I feel the inclination, I see that as God calling, inviting me to be with Him.

T: That desire to pray, to be with God is a gift and an invitation. But I am wondering about this…if you do not push yourself to pray, might you not fill up your time and your thoughts so much that you could fail to notice some of the invitations?

S: Hmm… I can see how that could happen. But I also don’t want my prayer to become a bunch of empty words or rituals. I see too much of that. People say the words to get them said but it seems like their hearts are far away. If I force myself to pray, it seems like my heart won’t be in it.

T: It seems like it would be that way, doesn’t it? And that can happen. But the opposite can happen too.

S: What do you mean?

T: Have you ever forced yourself to do something you really didn’t feel like doing out of love for the other? Something like getting up in the night with a baby or listening supportively when you’d rather be doing something else?

S: Sure.

T: Was your heart “far away” when you did these things?

S: Sometimes. At least, at the very beginning. Inside I’d be irritated and complaining.

T: And then?

S: Well, then there usually comes this point where I, like, surrender and accept that this is how it is. I’m going to do what I don’t want to do instead of what I do want to do. There is a sudden feeling of relief and the love pours into my heart. And I know at that moment that love is more important than all of my other wants.

T: And this is why we should pray even when we do not want to. As difficult as it is, this time of prayer is when we begin learning to surrender our will. This opens us up to greater love.

S: But why are you always talking about surrendering my will? I don’t understand. Aren’t there enough people in this world trying to crush each other’s wills? Does God demand this too?

T: No, He doesn’t. It is not a demand.

S: I don’t get it.

T: As you yourself said earlier, God invites. He invites you into His love. He has already surrendered His will in an act of love for you.

S: Oh. That’s right. Jesus didn’t want to suffer and die.

T: He most certainly did not. But He surrendered His will. And now He invites us to do this same.

(pause)

T: What kind of “loving union” do you imagine you could have with God, if He surrendered everything to you and you didn’t give back?

S: Yes, yes. I see.

(pause)

S: But how can I pray, what can I say or do, when my heart feels cold or my mind is distracted or my body is tired and bloated?

T: The exact words probably don’t matter so much. But you can begin with, “God, help me pray. I want to pray.” Or, “God, help me to want You more.” And remember not to judge your “success” but simply do your duty – the duty of love – which is to attend to the Beloved regardless of how you feel.

S: God, help me pray. Thank you that I can pray. Help me want to pray.

T: Amen.

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(May all be blessed and welcomed into prayer. Share any comments or questions – though I may be offline for a couple of days.)

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Chapter 8 – Struggle and Constraint, pp. 175-180

In the name of Christ Jesus, I greet you, my friends of the Way. Struggle and constraint are words that do not naturally seem inviting to our human nature. However, let us pray to the Spirit to guide us that we might find the truth hidden in this holy message.

Fr. Matta offers a beautiful image: he tells us that the blessings of the contemplative life are like “the light of the rising sun”. We are reminded that we will not see these blessings come upon us all at once – we need to be prepared for a long struggle that requires us to be patient and disciplined. As the rising sun, even before it peaks over the horizon, begins to dispel the darkness ever so slightly, so may the progress of our souls seem imperceptible to us, until eventually¬†“it pervades everything”.

Our author forewarns us that the path is “an arid wilderness”¬†without any spiritual comfort whatsoever and there is nothing about it that we should desire it in and of itself. In time, even our faith will not seem enough to sustain us and we will be¬†“overtaken by fear and shot through with doubt”. God will see our growth but all we will see is our weakness. Our soul will crave its former pleasures and we will look for God and not see Him.¬†Our soul will accuse us:¬†“Why have you led me out to the wilderness, to kill me?” Indeed, some will turn back at the onset, unable to bear the prospect of such a path.

  1. How do you find yourself reacting to these images (rising sun, arid wilderness)? Have you known them at any level – or known of others who experienced them?
  2. On many occasions throughout the book, this chapter being one of them, I have found myself wondering why Fr. Matta makes it sound so incredibly difficult to be a Christian. Is it supposed to be this grueling? Jesus has told us both of the “narrow gate” but also that “My yoke is easy and My burden light”? Can both be true?
  3. Being the obsessive sort that I am, I have also wondered if, when my path seems smooth and full of joy, I am not doing what I ought to be doing. Have I taken an easy path that pleases me and convinced myself that it is the Lord’s when it is not?

Because there is so much potential to get tied up in mental knots with such questions, it is good that Fr. Matta has given us some sensible guidelines for what is “a lawful and healthy kind of struggle or constraint”. What he tells us is very simple and not a new message – yet not so simple for us to do, of course. Our aim must always be complete surrender to God – with all things done only for the love of God, no matter what the cost to our ego.

It is so easy to see how readily even a bit of “success” and “joy” experienced in the spiritual life can be subverted by the ego. Without consciously noticing, we begin striving for more success or joy or for greater “abilities”. All of these become a personal agenda apart from the love of God. Regardless of how¬†much we imagine them to be the product of our own efforts, Fr. Matta tells us that “success and spiritual joy are the work of God alone”. Seeking praise or fearing criticism, even trying to maintain our own self-esteem, have no place in this “struggle and constraint” – only the love of God in Christ.

  1. This message is so counter-cultural. We live in a world that teaches us that our success and happiness are the result of our efforts or the lack thereof. Does it feel frightening to accept that this is in the hands of God? Or is it a relief? Do I want to be in control of my destiny – or do I want Him to be?

Abbreviated, here are Fr. Matta’s guideposts:

  1. “When your will becomes active and ardent, bind it at once to obedience to Christ.” (Lest I do anything of my own accord.)
  2. “Reject any feeling of your own responsibility for success or failure.”¬†(We simply do our duty.)
  3. “Christ has left you destitute of nothing…therefore, be contented with the power of Christ, which is with you.”¬†(We may rejoice in any solace God gives us but we do not seek it as the basis for our struggle.)
  4. “Never practice struggle or constraint to gain something for yourself.” (Even if what we are seeking to gain seems to our spiritual benefit, it does not help us abdicate our self which is what we must do in order to rely completely on God.)
  5. “…the more you confine your struggle to surrendering your own will, the more you feel the reality of God at work, managing your life and providing for you.”¬†(I cannot feel God taking care of me while I am consumed with the belief that I can take care of myself.)
  6. “…never give up your struggle or constraint however you fail or whatever your temptations.” (We are responsible for our efforts, not our success.)
  7. Our struggle and constraint¬†“only remove us a long distance from our ego and sever us from the life or sin and transgression”. No matter how well we do them, our actions do not bring us closer to God and do not justify us. God draws us to Him and justifies us freely – not as a result of anything we do..

An important note that Fr. Matta adds is that the person who is relying on himself does not feel that his struggle is egotistical or that he is failing to rely on God. (I can attest to that!) In fact, he erroneously blames his will for how much he stumbles.¬†“Stumbling and falling arise not from the weakness of one’s will but from its power to interfere.” Rather than blaming and spurring on our will, he writes,¬†“we must abdicate our will and lose all hope in it completely”.¬†It is when the will finally hides behind grace that we grow stronger.

  1. I find this last comment particularly intriguing, given how much emphasis our culture gives to “will-power”. So often we humans believe that the way to change, whether sin or bad habit, is through the exercise of our will. Fr. Matta explains why this approach so seldom works – and, in fact, often makes things worse.
  2. Is there some sin or habit that I have been trying to control by my will that I could instead leave completely in the hands of God, trusting that He will help me with it?

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God willing, I would like to return and offer some comments on this chapter and I invite you to share your reflections as well. Let us continue to pray for one another…

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

Blessings, my friends, and praise to God our Father in our Lord Jesus Christ. May we always be open to being taught by the Spirit most Holy.

I am offering this addendum to my last entry as a separate post because I thought it too important to enter as a comment where it might be missed.

I am slowly working my way through an online Catholic Bible study and am learning so much it is mind-boggling. Since one of the things I learned was directly related to my last post, I wanted to share it – both for the sake of its content as well as the object lesson.

When discussing doubt and reliance on reason, I loosely cited the words of Jesus about being able to move mountains if we had enough faith – this being one of those teachings that had left me puzzled. In my current study of the Gospel of Mark, I gained a whole new understanding of what this teaching might mean.

Duh. Perhaps you already knew and were sparing my feelings. (If so, please don’t spare my feelings anymore. Educate me! I’m trying to educate myself but it’s a slow process…)

In any event, I will first cite the passage in question with greater clarity:

“Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‚ÄėBe lifted up and thrown into the sea,‚Äô and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it shall be done for him.” (Mark 11:23, NABRE translation, emphasis mine.)

It is noteworthy, I learned, that Jesus apparently referenced a particular mountain in this well-known verse. He wasn’t suggesting that, by faith, we could all go around moving mountains into the sea if they got in our way. So what mountain was he referring to?

If we look at this verse in context, we discover that it follows that weird passage where Jesus cursed the fig tree for not having any fruit (out of season) and where the tree was later seen to have withered. What does all of this mean?

One thing I didn’t know – but apparently the people of Israel at that time would have known, is that the fig tree is a traditional symbol of Israel. Hence, Jesus was apparently cursing Israel for not bearing fruit and, in the tree’s withering, making a visible prophecy about the future of Jerusalem*. (I will cite my sources at the end of the post.)

So, I learned, this “mountain” is presumed to be a reference to Mt. Zion – the location of Jerusalem*. It is also possible that Jesus was alluding to Zechariah’s vision (4:7) in which there was a great mountain that Zerubbabel had to clear away in order to rebuild the Temple following its first destruction*.

Hence, when Jesus is referring to moving a mountain by faith, He may have been drawing a parallel, suggesting that Jerusalem and its current Temple had to be pushed aside in order to create a new Temple built of Christian believers*.

Not an easy mountain to move but I can now comprehend why Jesus would have said this to His disciples and how faith in this regard was and is so very important.

But what particularly fascinates (and shames) me is how my doubting mind could struggle with Jesus’ words but never take the step of actually¬†studying Scripture.¬†I just assumed that He expected my faith to be strong enough to cast Mt. Everest into the Arabian sea.

Of course, God can cast any mountain into any sea He pleases – and He could, hypothetically, use me as His instrument for doing so. But for me to get stuck on this point without further investigation is, in retrospect, foolish. Should I not be more curious as to why Jesus would say such a thing?

Had He said that¬†I could heal people by faith, that would not arouse quite so much curiosity. After all, He was healing people and sending out His disciples to do the same. But Scripture doesn’t recount casting mountains into the sea as part of the ministry of the Kingdom.

The sad reality is that whatever curiosity I might have had in the past has often fizzled out largely because of two factors.

First, I am lazy and tend to read Scripture as though it were a book that I could understand by simply reading it. And if I don’t understand certain parts, I just skip over them or come up with my own “explanations” (see discussion on opinions in last post).

Second, I have not known where to go to learn more. Although the tides are beginning to turn, the Western Church has (sadly) given little attention to Scripture study. While having received more formal religious education than the average American, I have never taken a single course on Scripture study Рand do not remember ever seeing one offered at the schools I attended.

And so, with doors opening up before me, I wish to share – both about the mountains we are meant to move – and about how we can begin to understand the Bible better. Many individual parishes now offer classes on Scripture. And I will share my online resource. Most of its “Catholic” orientation should make no difference to our diverse readership. But I invite my Orthodox readers, as well as any others, to use the comment section to share any resources that may be helpful and generally accessible.

It may help us be less afraid. And strengthen us in Faith and Perseverance.

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*References:

  1. For online Bible study, I have started listening to some of the audio courses at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Thus far, I have listened to courses on the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mark. Both have been excellent and some of the ideas from this post are derived from the course on the Gospel of Mark.
  2. As a companion to this study, I have obtained the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, second edition RSV. (I am hoping they will come out with an Old Testament edition as well.) This Bible has lengthy footnotes and explanatory pages that generally give an indication as to the general origins of the explanations, e.g. Scriptural continuity of Old and New Testaments, Church’s tradition drawing from Fathers, saints, etc. Much of my content interpretation in this post was drawn from these footnotes.