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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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:
- “When your will becomes active and ardent, bind it at once to obedience to Christ.” (Lest I do anything of my own accord.)
- “Reject any feeling of your own responsibility for success or failure.” (We simply do our duty.)
- “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.)
- “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.)
- “…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.)
- “…never give up your struggle or constraint however you fail or whatever your temptations.” (We are responsible for our efforts, not our success.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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…