Bless us, dear God, as we open yet another chapter in our journey of prayer. Help us to pray, for apart from You we can do nothing.
Greetings, my friends. Forgive my absence from this blog. For whatever reason, God periodically puts me on sabbatical and I know not why. While often pure laziness keeps me from getting things done, in cases such as this, I only seem to be able to type nonsense until He is ready.
In this short chapter, Fr. Matta gives us but 3 pages of his own reflections and then a wealth of input from the Fathers – for many have written on the topic before us.
The question of what to do with our thoughts, imagination and distractions when we turn our minds to God is not a new one. With the possible exception of imagination, which gets mixed reviews, these entities are generally regarded as trouble-makers to the person at prayer.
In other words, we are supposed to get rid of them, avoid them, strive to be free of them.
First, a word or two on imagination. Imagination, aka “mental imagery”, is traditionally forbidden in the prayer of the Eastern Church. The Western Church, on the other hand, teaches about prayer with far less uniformity. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, openly encourages the liberal use of imagination in prayer. However, contemplative prayer traditions in the West are more similar to the hesychasm of the East. (An interesting discussion of East-West differences in this regard is available here.)
I will write no more of this controversy for now. However, even for those in the Western Church who may find imagination acceptable, Fr. Matta’s brief exposition on the topic offers wise counsel. He notes how imagination can be subverted and lead the ego “to attain in fantasy what it could not fulfill in reality”.
This is so true. Our minds are naturally imaginative, whether we like it or not. If we do not guard against it, what our imaginations generate will likely be in service of the ego. Whether I picture myself as a movie star or the most holy person in my church, whatever I imagine outside of prayer can and will be imagined once I turn my mind to God.
So, East or West, it is fair to say that imagination can be a trouble maker, right up there with the rest of our thoughts and distractions.
The challenging question – and the subject for this chapter – is what to do about these trouble makers. How do we “bridle” the mind?
While some of the Fathers counsel us to “fight constantly” with our thoughts (e.g. St. John Climacus), most of us have probably noticed that attempting to force thoughts and distractions from our minds generally does not work. In fact, it typically backfires.
The more I tell myself to stop thinking about something and attend to God, the more I seem to attend to the forbidden topics.
And the more frustrated and discouraged I become.
Taking this path in prayer may lead me to believe that I am not “good” at praying – and therefore perhaps not good enough for God.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The difficulty, of course, is that we do not understand what it means to “fight” our thoughts and distractions. Being the weak humans that we are, we tend to approach this fight as we would any other human fight.
We cajole ourselves. We point out the rational reasons to stop doing what we are doing. We nag and argue with ourselves. Finally, we just get frustrated and angry. Or depressed and guilty.
But this is a totally different sort of fight. It is one in which I must surrender in order to be victorious.
Striving to control my mind only illustrates to me that I cannot do so. Giving all control over to the Lord allows me to be drawn into communion by His Spirit.
With my breath, I might simply pray with our Savior the words of the psalmist: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
In so doing, I have humbly and gently brought my mind back to Him, knowing that it will wander away again and again.
Only in His hands is there hope for me. Only in accepting that I am incapable of prayer can I learn to pray from my heart where He dwells.
How can it be that Christ dwells in my heart if my mind cannot be still? Do I not insult His presence if I approach Him thinking about so many trivial things instead of Him?
The Fathers tell us that we do not need to have a quiet mind in order to pray (e.g. St. Isaac of Syria). Indeed, if we wait for our minds to be clear and still, we may never begin praying.
Rather than being a prerequisite for prayer, inner stillness is a result of prayer. Bringing my mind back, time and time again, patiently accepting the weakness of my distracted mind and imagination, is like cultivating a plant from seed.
I cannot expect it to bear fruit when I have just planted the seed in the ground. There is much work that I must do. And much trust that God will provide what is needed – for I cannot bring about the harvest myself or in my own time.
So as I humbly bring my mind back to God, surrendering my desire to be in control, moment after moment, day after day, He and I spend considerable time together.
Like lovers in a lengthy courtship, we see each other on the good days and the bad. No longer do I expect my times of prayer to be all joyful – all “first dates” in which everything goes just as I had hoped.
As I discover that He has been in love with me all along, my love for Him deepens and grows. “Yes, I loved you even back then – when you spent all your time with me daydreaming about what you were going to do next,” He whispers in my heart.
And finally, I become more and more ready to be still in His presence. For I want to be with Him and I do not need to search for words to say. It is enough to be together, to know that He is always with me.
“O my Beloved, forgive me!” my heart cries. “How could I ever have wanted anything or anyone but You?”
(Inwardly, I feel His warm and loving smile.)
We both know that my time of wandering is not yet over. But before long it will be – for He has taken my spirit into His hands…
(Comments are always welcome. Many blessings to all.)