Bless us, Father of all Creation, as we gather to learn more about the impediments we experience on our journey to You.
Help us to trust that Your love is at work in us, even during those times when we see no evidence of Your presence. Be ever close to us and never let us go. Amen.
“Languor”, spiritual or otherwise, is not a word that we frequently encounter in our everyday conversation. Thankfully, Fr. Matta provides us with a clear and concise understanding of the term.
Before continuing on, however, I must first confess that when I read what he meant by this term, my initial reaction was: “Oh my. I hope that never happens to me!”
Yet, as I read further, I realized that I probably need it to happen to me. It is so easy for me to forget that “tribulations” in the spiritual life may be essential to learning the way of God. So much struggle occurs because I am still clinging to my way, the comfortable way, whether I am conscious of it or not.
Unlike spiritual aridity, Fr. Matta tells us that spiritual languor is an attack on our very will. It is not simply that we feel no consolation from prayer but that we may feel unable to pray – the will and power to pray, even the desire to pray, seem to have left us.
“If he [man] knocks at the door of hope, if he clings to the promises of God he had once cherished and lived by, he finds in what he used to find hope has now turned to ice.”
This is a most disturbing prospect. Certainly all of us have experienced twinges of this. We feel a bit “off” for short periods during which we just don’t feel like praying.
Often such episodes as these pass with little fuss. We get a good night’s rest or a distracting stress gets resolved and everything goes back to normal – even if our “normal” is not the ideal prayer we might hope for.
But Fr. Matta writes of something far more devastating: “The enemy seizes this opportunity, striking with all his firepower. He launches an offensive – to convince man of his failure, of the ruin of all his struggle and effort. The enemy tries to persuade man that his whole spiritual life was not true or real, that it was nothing but fanciful illusions and emotions.”
This definitely sounds like an experience I would like to avoid. Not that I’ve never had anything like it. But that was when I was a lot younger. I would like to think that such overwhelming disturbances of soul are permanently behind me.
But, of course, they are not. I have no guarantees whatsoever of such “protection”. In fact, my profound desire for God may make me even more at risk for (read as, “in need of”) this sort of trial.
Before I elaborate on this, however, allow me to present the question that may trouble us all. If I have given up praying, if I cannot even bring myself to concentrate on spiritual reading, if it all seems distasteful or nonsensical to me, how do I know that I have not truly lost my faith? How do I know that my “heart continues to pray” and “is still bound to the God who has forsaken it”, as Fr. Matta asserts?
In the midst of this languor, this complete inertia of the soul, it is quite likely that we don’t know the difference at all. Much of the intense anguish of the experience comes from the whispers of the enemy which seem so utterly convincing.
Yet it is the anguish itself that is the “tangible proof” that we are actually still on the path to God, still making progress.
This seems very counter-intuitive. How could I be progressing toward God if I have given up prayer and spiritual activity, if I no longer will or desire it? How could I be on His path if my mind is overrun with blasphemous thoughts that I am unable to drive out?
What Fr. Matta tells us make good sense. If my fall into this state causes me “extreme, constant grief of the soul”, it seems that, at the core of my being, I do still want Him. Though in the midst of it I will not know this, my relationship with God has gone to sleep – and at the critical moment, my will shall awaken.
This sounds reassuring on paper. However, give me even a brief period in which my will has gone dry and into self-doubt and spiritual despondency I fall.
We might wonder why such experiences occur. Like Job, we might question how God could allow such assaults on His beloved – if indeed we are beloved. Does He not care that the enemy is trying to tear us away from Him?
Once again, Fr. Matta shares with us from his abundant experience, both as one who struggled and one who was spiritual father to many.
First, he assures us that, “God does not randomly bring this tribulation upon man’s soul.” What may seem completely random to us, he explains, is necessary to adjust and straighten our soul’s path and strengthen our faith.
How can being pulled off the path by the enemy bring us more rightly onto the path to our God? Apparently, it is all in how we respond to it…
First, the trial of languor may be “a discipline for the ambitious soul”, the one that, obsessed with its progress, pushes to go beyond what it is ready for, asking for more than it needs or can tolerate on the basis of its experience.
When God brings this to a halt, Fr. Matta writes, it is out of mercy and compassion for the soul that may be about to self-destruct. The resulting languor is a sort of “life insurance” for the soul, a “protection from spiritual pride”.
Finding itself so completely lost and helpless, ambition is stripped away and humiliation takes its place. Definitely unpleasant – but of great benefit to the soul as it discovers humility. It now has no choice but to return to steps more appropriate for beginners.
I am reminded of when I began high school and was assigned a new piano teacher. Despite my having taken lessons for five years before, she began to instruct me on how to position my hands and play scales. I did not like this at all – and did not sign up for lessons the next year.
A lesson in humility not learned. A small one, perhaps, but part of a pattern that certainly infiltrated my spiritual life.
A second issue needing the correction of languor, is “our understanding of the relationship that binds us to God”.
Fr. Matta writes of a danger that arises while one is carefully observing religious practices: “The soul fancies that its own striving and faithfulness in prayer qualify it for the love of God and make it worthy of adoption by Him.”
While God at one time gives man gifts to enable his spiritual practice, He may later withdraw them. The soul afflicted by this misunderstanding and now finding itself unable to pray, is shocked to learn that God has no need of its prayers.
So strong is the denial of this reality that the soul initially assumes that it has been cut off because of some failure in its spiritual duties. It must try harder – but cannot. It has lost its ability to try.
I recall being told at some point in my younger years that I could not earn the love of God. And I remember being startled by this. Not because it didn’t make sense to me but because my childhood religious formation had somehow oriented me otherwise.
I cannot recall a single word to this effect from anyone. But somewhere, in the midst of learning my catechism, I had unconsciously reached the conclusion that I displeased God by sin and won Him over by prayer and good behavior.
I had not known that His love was free.
And despite having been given the more correct understanding decades ago, I cannot say I am completely unaffected by these early impressions. As absurd as it is to imagine that I can control God’s love by my trivial spiritual acts, I seem incapable of fully comprehending a love so freely given.
I suspect that I am not alone.
Fr. Matta teaches that when spiritual languor descends upon us to correct this misunderstanding, the primary fear stems from losing status as God’s children, “at losing His confidence and love”.
Yet, once again, it is the fear itself that carries the reassurance that the soul, rather than being hopelessly lost, still sincerely longs for God. And once the soul understands with certainty that God is Father to us purely out of His goodness, the fear begins to fall away.
There is still another correction brought about by spiritual languor that Fr. Matta notes: “a means for strengthening faith in God beyond material things.”
“Man may find great peace and happiness in God’s complete provision for his physical needs. God may also watch over his emotional state with clear protection in all situations. Man can rest secure, for he is protected by the hand of God.”
This one seems so obvious – except that it is not. “I will never fall for this error”, boasts my ego. I know better than to expect that God will never allow difficulties to come to me.
Easily proclaimed when life is going relatively well. However, according to Fr. Matta, this experience occurs when it appears that God is not providing any help or protection at all.
As one thing and another falls apart in man’s life, he assumes that it will eventually let up and life will return to normal. Except that it doesn’t. Instead, trials upon trials, increasingly severe, from within and without, are heaped upon the soul.
Instead of hope, he “finds nothing save wreckage upon wreckage and a soul ripped to pieces, torn up by a thousand trials”. Indeed, this is more than mere aridity or languor, “It is a complete absence of a spiritual sense, for it is a sense built upon false estimations”.
Out of this absence, flows grumbling, horror and blasphemy. The soul tries to repel the blasphemy but “it finds no power to do so”. It appears to the broken soul that God is not loving but instead a cruel adversary.
I am so glad that I cannot relate to this experience. My worst trials pale in comparison.
Yet it may lie just ahead for me; I cannot know. How could a person survive such spiritual devastation?
Indeed, Fr. Matta tells us, “This debilitating languor of the spirit is by far the direst tribulation of the soul, indeed the climax of its purging experience. It is similar only to death. Only under the wing of the Almighty’s perfect providence can man withstand such a trial”.
Again, one cannot help but wonder why such torments are allowed, how they can possibly benefit us. This is the question at the very heart of the story of Job.
Fr. Matta tells us, that like Job, even the soul on the brink of despair, continually looks toward God, awaiting salvation, becoming “clearer and purer” through the process.
The pure faith that emerges is not based on tangible goods or imagined protection from harm but on the unveiling of God’s majesty, “His love and faithfulness toward the human soul”. And, without exception, every soul that loves Christ will receive this vindication at the end of its trial.
“Trust may fade from view but is never lost. Faith may sometimes come to a halt but never comes to an end. Feelings of love may sink out of sight, yet they are still preserved in the depths of the soul to spring forth at the end of the trial with an invincible power.”
There is much to ponder here. This chapter, like those before it, includes a section of “Sayings of the Fathers” which are well worth reading.
Rather than attempt to comment upon them all, I will just highlight one short observation by St. Isaac the Syrian.
St. Isaac tells us that there is for all trials one immediate remedy available to man: humility of heart.
But what follows next seems to have been written just for me. I say this because in no other excerpts have I found St. Isaac directly addressing his reader – but here he does. Who else could he be speaking to but me?
“Do not be angry with me that I tell you the truth. You have never sought out humility with your whole soul. But if you wish, enter into its realm, and you will see how it disperses your wickedness.”
And so I must. Please pray for me, as I pray for you…
(As always, you are most welcome to post any comments or reflections of your own.)