Chapter 14 – Spiritual Aridity, pp. 235-239

Let us remember the promises of our God, my brothers and sisters, as we prayerfully enter this chapter dedicated to the dryness of our souls.

+++

“Spiritual aridity is food that is somewhat hard to digest, but is very nourishing…”

An exquisite metaphor offered by Fr. Matta to introduce us to an otherwise unappealing topic…

“…an important phase that the soul has to undergo, which may be regarded as a kind of pruning to prepare the soul for a more advanced spiritual life, not contingent upon psychological incentives or subjective pleasures.”

Hmm…this is definitely sounding more interesting. “An important phase.” I certainly don’t want to miss something this important. “Pruning” doesn’t sound so terribly bad…

“…spiritual aridity is an experience that grace brings upon the soul so that it might grow in its direct vision of God. This is effected by blocking all the secondary outlets that distract spiritual vision, namely consolations, pleasures, and incentives.”

Intriguing…

“The moment prayer is unshackled from such attachments, it enters upon the phase of purity. Once man attains pure prayer, there is nothing in the world to separate him from God, for the essence of the soul will have been centered in God without an exterior agent.”

I never imagined when I began reading this chapter that I would find myself not only welcoming spiritual aridity, but actually longing for it. How curious…

It is likely that my longing is more based on the end result than on the process itself. That would be so like me.

Talk of “direct vision of God”, “pure prayer” and a soul centered on God…well, it just sounds so wonderful. What joy, what bliss that must entail!

While undoubtedly so, my spiritually greedy self is, of course, missing the point.

The point of spiritual aridity is to prune away my desire for and attachment to consolation and pleasure in my prayer. And it accomplishes its goal by removing what I naturally savor: the pleasing and consoling feelings God allows me when I pray.

I might imagine that I can handle this in bits and pieces. “Pruning” sounds sort of like touching up, not something that should last so terribly long.

But then I remember Mother Teresa (now St. Teresa of Calcutta) whose “phase” of spiritual aridity lasted about 50 years. She continued to faithfully pray and serve the poor with a smile, while feeling nothing from God for 50 years – except a rare and random week or two of feeling His presence.

Recalling having read this in her own words, I am deeply humbled. I cannot imagine.

So I must admit, I do not really know what I am asking for. I might think that my days when sick or feeling “off” count – but they are nothing. Everyone has those.

I am in no way prepared for this pruning. I am not nearly strong enough to peacefully continue a prayerful life in Christ without some sense of Him – to be so certain of His promises, to love Him so selflessly that I ask for nothing in return.

No. I am far too weak for that.

But isn’t that the point? That it is not about me – about what I can do, what I accomplish or how I feel? That it is all about Him?

When it is all about Him, all I long for is Him and what He wants. He may give me joy and consolation, He may take it away. Either is fine because I know He is there and I rest safe in His love, regardless of what I feel.

It is not my strength or brilliance or holiness that sustains me. It is His.

And I must be all His – there is no partial on contingent giving of myself. “I will give You myself so long as…” No, that cannot be.

It is one of the few things in this life that is truly all or nothing.

+++

“But, but…,” my weak and frightened self stammers, “it cannot be truly all or nothing. I am a work in progress. I am not complete. I’m still struggling. God is still working on me. If I am not yet all, does that mean I am nothing to Him?”

See what silly games the adversary can play with my ego? Of course, it can never be that I will be “nothing” to Him. He emptied Himself out in life and death for me.

And why would He bring me through different phases of pruning and growth if He expected me to be complete right now, once and for all? He knows of my weakness.

And He is the remedy for it as well.

The “all” of the all or nothing is about the action of my will. As Fr. Matta so gracefully instructs, we will never be held accountable or condemned for our thoughts, images or emotions.

It is only our will that represents our soul. And it must choose. It cannot say both yes and no.

He is the remedy for all of our weakness as long as the will says yes. That “yes” may experience all kinds of fearful feelings and doubting thoughts but it opens the door to His abounding grace and mercy.

This is so important to remember because, should the grace of aridity come to us, we must know that it is neither our fault that we feel no enjoyment in our prayer, nor is it a chastisement for our sin and weakness.

It is God’s grace at work, preparing us to be drawn into ever deeper union with Him.

We may also be assaulted by evil during such times, Fr. Matta warns. We may find all sorts of dreadful thoughts and images entering our minds. It is not easy to be pruned.

The lack of comfort from God gives the evil one ripe opportunity to afflict us with all kinds of ideas that might never have occurred to us before – and they are not good ones.

Yet we are told that we need not be troubled by this. It is the “yes” of our will that counts, not this involuntary onslaught of thoughts or feelings. Our will needs only to reject these and continue on with our prayer, trusting that God is still with us, even in the dark.

In His own time – the perfect time – He will intervene and we will find ourselves purified and ready to live freely in His presence.

+++

In Him, it is good – it is all good. Let us rest in Him always. Amen.

+++

(Comments or reflections of your own are most welcome…blessings upon you all.)

Part Three: Impediments to Prayer

Blessings, my friends in Christ.

Just a word or two about this new section we are entering in our book as we approach the final chapters. If you are like me, you may have lost track of what the first two parts were entitled. Our slow journey through the text makes such forgetfulness pardonable.

Part One was all about the nature of prayer: what it is, why it is necessary, the different types of prayer – and even a section on “beyond prayer”.

In Part Two, we explored aspects of the interior activity of prayer – with purification, contrition, perseverance, struggle, silence and tears among our topics.

Now, in Part Three, a much shorter part, Fr. Matta leads us into deeper understanding of the impediments to prayer. He entitles the primary impediments: spiritual aridity, spiritual languor and loss of purpose. God willing, I will soon be posting on these topics.

However, I wanted to share just a thought or two on the introduction before we move on.

It occurs to me that, while having these explanations may be very beneficial to us, in our experience, “impediments” may not appear to have separate, easily discernible causes.

Is my problem simply that I am a beginner? Perhaps, if my prayer life is limping along, it is because I don’t know how to go about praying or I have inconsistent habits, distractions and so on, that I don’t know how to manage.

Perhaps, before going further, I need to spend more time with Parts One and Two. Even though I have been posting on this book for nearly a year now, that does not mean, of course, that everything covered is now “under my belt” so to speak.

Fr. Matta also makes the very good point about the variety of physical or mental issues that may hamper us in prayer. Stress, fatigue, pain and digestive problems are just a few of the many potential obstacles we encounter, chronically or episodically, in the course of our lives of prayer.

Not recognizing and treating these conditions can lead us to feel that we are failing at prayer when, in reality, we may need treatment. Or if no treatment is available, a certain inner patience with our limitation.

If someone with a broken leg tries to proceed as though his leg is not broken, things will very quickly get worse. And so it is with our personal obstacles to prayer.

Failure to recognize or accept these troubles, may lead us to berate or accuse ourselves of sin, laziness, etc. which is not only not beneficial but potentially harmful.

And this brings us back, of course, to the great value in having a spiritual father/mother/director that can help us discern, lest we draw wrong conclusions and become confused.

Whether we have such a person in our lives or not, it is, I believe, always valuable to pray about our problems with prayer.

For, in truth, none of us can pray without the help of God.

May He be ever at our side and in our hearts as we limp along…

+++

Chapter 13 – Fasting, pp. 229-232

Grace and peace be with you, my brothers and sisters in Christ! Let us pray that the Spirit grant us wisdom and understanding as we delve into another short chapter of deep significance to our faith.

This chapter is unusually short and the reader is directed to a longer exposition by Fr. Matta in a chapter entitled, “The Deep Meaning of Fasting” found in his book, The Communion of Love. (I do not know who posted this chapter online but click here if you wish to view it.)

God willing, I will write as one informed by both sources, knowing that my treatment of the topic will inevitably be inadequate.

+++

A number of questions come to mind as we enter this aspect of the interior way. What does it mean to fast? Why is it so important to our faith? Does fasting need to be an abstinence from food or may other works take its place?

Often we can become distracted by the external specifics of what it means to fast. Does it mean that I am not to eat or drink at all? Or does it mean to refrain from eating certain foods, such as the Western tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays or the Orthodox practice of fasting from meat, eggs, dairy products, fish, wine or oil on certain days?

If, for a moment, we can set all of this aside, we can understand that fasting involves following Jesus and it has no meaning for us apart from Him. There is no virtue inherent in bodily deprivation if no prayer accompanies it.

And the primary motive of fasting is love. While subjugation of the self is a valued side effect of fasting, it is pointless if love is not its foundation.

To introduce us to the sacredness of fasting, Fr. Matta reminds us that Jesus, once filled by the Holy Spirit at His baptism, was led into the desert where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. There He faced and defeated the tempter for the first time.

It was only then that He began His public ministry, curing diseases, forgiving sins and casting out demons. We are also prompted to recall the words of Jesus when demons resisted His disciples’ exorcisms: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9: 29)

And so we know that Jesus fasted and that His fasting was powerful, “a weapon forged by God” (St. Isaac the Syrian). But this fasting is not a weapon in itself – it is always united to prayer.

In this context, Fr. Matta tells us of three primary phases in the life of Christ: His baptism, which filled Him with the Spirit; His fasting; and His death on the Cross, His final and perfect victory.

Elaborating on the centrality of fasting in Christ’s life, Fr. Matta takes us to the Eucharist and writes: “The Lord crucified Himself for the world before the world crucified Him. He carried out the offering of His body, His self, as a sacrifice on behalf of the world…”

It was because He first crucified His own body in the fasting (prior to His death and resurrection) that He could then offer His body and blood at the Last Supper, as “given” and “shed”. In this, we know that His death was voluntary – truly a sacrifice and not a simple execution.

And Scripture makes known to us that it was a sacrifice of love by telling of His agony the night before. Clearly, on a human level, He did not want to die this death. But mystically, in Eucharist, He gave Himself to us before He was arrested so that we would have no doubt that it was love, not force, that led Him to take this next step.

+++

With this backdrop from the life of Christ, we might then wonder how this relates to us and our need to fast.

Fr. Matta begins “The Deep Meaning of Fasting” with the following words: “The Church imitates Christ. All that Christ has done the Church also does; He becomes its life.”

Invited into total communion with Him, our “yes” cannot be mere words – there must be works. But, “He, as true Bridegroom, did not leave us to invent works for ourselves but laid down the course of our works and life”. He bids us, “follow Me,” as He Himself is our Way.

To follow in this manner is not some theoretical notion, some idea that we are to work out in our minds. It is an action, an imitating of Him, doing what He did. Our fast is thus to be derived from His fast, as our love derived from His love.

Apart from Him, we can do nothing. Or at least we cannot do it rightly.

To follow Him to the Cross, we must resist and forsake our self. Is this not what Jesus did? And fasting gives us a truly physical way to enter this experience. It is following Him with our entire being.

And the meaning of this, Fr. Matta tells us, is “the mental acceptance of death itself”. Comparing this to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, he indicates that we must be fully willing to “experience the destruction of our self” – even if we are not called to carry it out fully.

Hence, if we attempt to offer “anything in place of ourselves it is rejected”. We may prefer to offer some other sacrifice, perhaps service or money. But nothing in this world can take the place of the offering of our very selves.

This is not to say, of course, that there will not be other works for us to complete to give glory to God. The Apostles, after all, “inherited the entire life of Christ” which, in addition to fasting, included night-long prayer, ministry to the sick and demon-possessed, persecution and even crucifixion itself.

+++

Oh my. Having just written all of this, it seems surprising that anyone at all signs up for Christianity…

And perhaps that is part of the problem. Relatively few people truly do. I find it much easier to simply go to church, say some prayers, do some kind deeds and follow the rules.

Tell me what to eat or not eat – I’ll do it. It’s not really that hard.

But this – this giving up of my self to the point of destruction – this is an entirely different thing. Especially given that it is not just some idea in my mind but it actually involves my body too.

So what is Fr. Matta saying? Am I to stop eating and drinking for 40 days so as to imitate the life of the Savior?

Most certainly he is not saying this.

In fact, he makes it quite clear that “we fast not to receive anything or to offer anything, for we have received Christ, and in Him we have already received everything before we fast. In Him we receive everything before we are born”.

Then what does he intend for us to learn about fasting?

While reading the brief passage in our current text, I found myself seeking out dictionary definitions. What are all these things that Fr. Matta says fasting is and is not? (See p. 230.)

It is not deprivation (the damaging lack of material benefits considered to be basic necessities”*). Rather, it is a voluntary abstinence (“the practice of not doing or having something that is wanted or enjoyable”).

It is not humiliation of the flesh (causing to “feel ashamed and foolish by injuring their dignity and self-respect”) Rather, it refreshes the spirit (to “give new strength or energy to”).

It does not fetter the senses (“to restrain from motion, action, or progress”). Instead, it releases them from anything that hinders contemplation of God. (“to set free from restraint, confinement, or servitude”).

Similarly, the purpose of fasting is not to repress the appetite for food (“subdue something by force”). Instead, it is to renounce this appetite (“to refuse to follow, obey, or recognize any further”) and, in doing so, to elevate it (“to lift up or make higher”) so that it may delight in the love of God.

Its aim is joy and magnanimity of heart (“loftiness of spirit enabling one to bear trouble calmly, to disdain meanness and pettiness, and to display a noble generosity”).

+++

And so…how do I fast and why do I fast?

I follow the fast I am given. I follow the fast of the Church.

I follow the fast given me by Christ. (And if the latter differs greatly from that of the Church, I maintain obedience to a spiritual father/mother/director, lest I fall into sin or delusion, setting my own rules to satisfy my ego.)

I fast because my Savior fasted.

I fast to demonstrate in this small work, with more than just words, that I love.

I fast (and pray), employing the weapon given me by my Lord to use in the battle against evil.

I fast so as to refresh my spirit and free it from the appetites that hinder its contemplation of God.

And I fast so as to be taught to give myself completely – body, mind and spirit – so as to be able to accept death without fear.

I fast so that in accepting death I might follow Him – to the Cross and through death into Life.

+++

All of this may make it sound like I fast a great deal. I do not.

As I am taught to not worship myself and not worship pleasure, so too am I taught to not worship suffering.

For it is not by the suffering of Jesus that we are saved but by His love.

In His love, I find joy in the beauty of creation and celebrate the gifts of sight and sound,  smell and taste and touch.

In His love, I also find joy when He holds back His gifts to teach me – so that I might learn to hold them back from myself and thus give Him my love in return.

And so I follow Him…in the very small way He has given me.

To Him be glory.

+++

* all quoted definitions are from online dictionaries. 

(As always, comments are welcome.)

Chapter 12 – Tears, pp. 215-228

Blessings to you, my companions in prayer and struggle. May the Lord Jesus be with us as we enter yet another chapter of deep mystery.

In this chapter, entitled simply, “Tears”, Fr. Matta writes of experiences that largely exceed my personal understanding. His words and those he quotes from the great ascetics, stand as beacons in the darkness clouding my vision.

I do not know how well I can write on such a topic but I will begin and see where God leads me.

+++

In this world, tears are seldom valued. Often, when people cry before me in my professional life, they apologize for their “weakness”. Even when the cause for weeping is universally understandable, there seems to be some shame in not “holding up” or “coping well”.

Frequently these tears are “worldly” tears, tears of depression, loss or despair but seldom are they of the “trivial” type about which Fr. Matta warns us.

Regardless of the explicit trigger, often people weep before me because they no longer know who they are – or perhaps they never have never known. These are tears of anguish. Though not the spiritual tears that are the subject of this chapter, I do not doubt that they too “enter into the presence of the Almighty and speak to him”.

As I read this segment in our book, it became clear to me that I have not wept nearly enough – or at least not for the right reasons.

I have cried many worldly tears in my life, occasionally the tears of anguish I now have the privilege of gathering from others.

But many more times I have cried out of anger or complaint.

I have cried when I have felt overworked, insulted, unappreciated. I have wept over perceived unfairness or loss of attention. I have shed tears when I felt shame and feared another’s judgment.

In other words, I have cried more because of my sinfulness rather than out of my sorrow for my sinfulness.

Pride and selfishness have more often brought me to tears than compunction or spiritual joy.

So I am a beginner. I have not yet learned how to “forsake the things of this world” in order to proceed “in the hidden life of the spirit”.

But I do not chide myself over this. To do so would just be another manifestation of pride: “Alas, I am but a beginner when I ought to be among the advanced!”

Being content with being a beginner is part of knowing that I am but a child before Almighty God. And, like my friend, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I do not need to be afraid – for I know my Father is loving with those of us who are so very small.

But what of these tears of which Fr. Matta writes, these tears that flowed unceasingly from the eyes of great saints?

They are one of His gifts – and thus cannot be brought about by our own efforts and are not a sign of our distinction above others. He gives His gifts as He sees fit. We are not to seek them.

Then why devote an entire chapter to them?

Simply because they are an aspect of the spiritual life for us to understand, whether in ourselves or others.

Has anyone ever taught you about them before? Certainly no one has taught me. Without understanding, the likelihood increases that I will fall into yet more sin instead of maturing in faith, should this gift come to me or someone I encounter.

Hence, I need to learn of these tears, so that if/when they erupt in response to a glimpse given me of the depth of my sinfulness, I will appreciate how they will help cleanse and purify me.

Or, if some wondrous grace should overwhelm me to the point of weeping, I will embrace these tears with neither pride nor shame.

It may also happen one day that my heart will see, in a moment of clarity, the immensity of the sin and suffering in our world. As the tears flow down my cheeks, I will know to whisper prayers of gratitude that the Savior has allowed me to share in His heart’s breaking.

Yes, I am but a beginner, a child before God.

So I pray to Him to take me by the hand and lead me to wherever He wants me to go. To grant me the wisdom and strength to follow.

And, when we arrive at the Cross, where all the sorrows and joys converge, surely there my tears will flow.

+++

(Thanks be to Him who leads me…Comments are welcome as always.)