Chapter 15 – Spiritual Languor, pp. 241-255

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.

Who, me?

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.)

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Chapter 15 – Spiritual Languor, pp. 241-255

  1. I very much appreciate your reflections, Mary.
    It is for sure that I didn’t come upon your work by chance.

    Thank you, God, for persons who have learned to use technological advances
    for advancing us all in spirit and in truth.

    (I would have said “in faith,” but the honesty and down-to-earth qualities of your writing are so disarming as well as convincing that faith is not a question for me but a reality — at least as long as I keep reading here. Of course, when I close my tablet, the chaos returns, but I’m learning to remember your approach if not always your words. And I can always return to the words–another blessing of the internet.)

  2. Thanks, Al. I truly appreciate your comments. It is easier to write if I can imagine at least one reader! And your reflections often draw more out of me. I don’t think that is “by chance” either. God designed us humans to struggle together for our mutual enrichment.

    Sometimes when I see how God has interwoven a great many “chance” happenings in order to deepen and transform my life in Him, I can only be awestruck. Even just considering how my spiritual life has grown since I “chanced” upon Fr. Stephen’s blog, discovering the riches within Orthodoxy, overwhelms me with gratitude.

    A simple “googling” of a notion from a C. S. Lewis novel and, four years later, I remain entrenched in reading Orthodox insights into prayer, monasticism and holiness. My life has been changed – and keeps changing and growing in a way I could never have anticipated.

    Not a chance that it is by chance… 🙂

    All glory to Him…

  3. Hello again, Mary. If I may, here’s a question that has come up for me in the past, and again now as I think about a quotation from Fr Matta (“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.”):

    how are we to reconcile the aggressive assaults of “the enemy” with an apparently passive and somewhat aloof, though loving, Father? Or is the enemy really ourselves, especially in so far as we can’t even recognize God’s active pursuit of us? I remember being surprised when in high school I first read Francis Thompson’s long poem , “The Hound of Heaven.” I had difficulty taking its theme literally. I didn’t think God chased after me. Nor did I understand what it meant to run away from God. But since then I have experienced many times over the inviting lure of sin as well as the almost overwhelming power of what Eastern Christians call “the passions.” And looking back, I can see that God actually has been active in rescuing me . . ,from what, myself? Or from the enemy?

    On the other hand, does it matter? I’m on the rapids and God (through the church? Directly?) is providing a lifeline. Do I need to acknowledge an enemy, an outside force for evil, in order to fully appreciate God’s lovIng care? It is so hard to believe in the devil. There, I said it. It’s not hard to believe in evil; it’s not even a matter of faith because evil is right there, right here in the world, every day, all the time, everywhere. But. strangely, I don’t think of evil in my soul, or even in my mind (well, sometimes there) yet I seem to see it everywhere else in human behavior. A defense mechanism probably. Or yet another example of self-preserving false perspective? Actually, I don’t even see evil in other persons, not evil itself. I see them doing bad things which might have multiple sources. But when I keep hearing about “the enemy,” I have a hard time picturing the reality of an omnipresent negative force, or worse, a god-like (in power) evil spirit.

    So that’s one big question that popped up again as I read your selected passages from Fr. Matta and your commentaries on them. I am not asking you to explain or defend the ever-present enemy. I just started thinking about it again, and wanted to let you know that your words get through. I haven’t gone back to reread, but my impression is that you don’t take that concept as literally as he does. Or at least you don’t stress it. I can relate pretty well to your explanations because you acknowledge ambiguity (of circumstances and understandings, not of principle or of church teaching) and inner conflict, whereas Fr Matta is quite definite.

    Writing this helps me think more clearly. Thanks for providing such a forum!

  4. Al,

    I have come to realize that there is a lot that I don’t understand – and so I am glad that you are not expecting me to explain the enemy. I will share a few thoughts but am neither qualified nor desirous of deep discussion about evil or the devil.

    I tend to use the term “enemy” or “adversary” more than “devil” because the latter term has a sort of folklore, complete with illustrations, that make many scientific-minded people think that it is nonsensical to believe in such a creature.

    But as I wrote in my post on spiritual warfare at apricelessthing.com, it is a good tactic of the enemy to lull us into believing that he doesn’t exist and that we are not at war. If we attribute all of the evil in our world to bad parenting and genetic defects, we cease being watchful or concerned about temptation. Even the word “temptation” has started to sound rather archaic to our modern minds – unless we are talking about the desire to eat too many sweets!

    I think there are several good reason to accept the existence of an enemy force (devil, demons, etc.) Note that I didn’t say “to believe in” because that sounds like an act of faith. I reserve faith for God – but accept that God’s grace is not the only force that may impact us, though certainly it is the most powerful one

    Reasons:
    (1) Christ Himself refers to the devil and demons. He cast out demons and gave His disciples the power to do so as well. I used to dilute this by telling myself that these manifestations were just illnesses not understood at that time in history. But that is really a silly argument – modern medicine knows more than Jesus? I may not understand demons – and I certainly have no desire to study them – but if I believe in Jesus, I must not pick and choose among His teachings. Scripture tells us that the demons knew who Jesus was – and cried out when exorcised – not something one sees in cases of epilepsy.
    (2) The Church’s Tradition has consistently acknowledged the existence of the enemy – Orthodox and Catholic (Protestants too). Who am I to think that I know better than the Church, when the Church was given me by Christ to guide me?
    (3) As a believer, I accept mysteries that my mind cannot comprehend. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead. I believe that I receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist. Not that any or our mysteries are easy to believe in, but if I pull one out because I find it hard to grasp, what happens to all the others? If I believe in a spiritual realm that I cannot see, then it is not such a stretch to believe that God made other beings with intelligence and free will (angels – including those that fell). I found the CS Lewis’s science fiction trilogy, especially the first volume, provides an imagery of such spiritual beings that “feels” more plausible than the folksy caricatures that are so readily dismissed.
    (4) A number of great saints, both Orthodox and Catholic, have documented encounters, attacks and grapplings with demons. Some of these have lived in our own lifetimes and were known to be very holy people – not naive, not delusional. Fortunately, such encounters are quite rare. I suspect that they are largely reserved for those who have reached great spiritual heights. (The rest of us are weak enough to be thrown off track by rather mundane tactics.)
    (5) I have had a few people tell me of very plausible experiences with evil presences (e.g. at the time of someone’s death) or with people who performed evil acts with power that exceeds normal human ability (e.g. causing someone to become ill and die without having direct contact with the victim). This is a personal reason for my acknowledgment of the enemy. And I only recognized these events for what they were because God prepared me to, so that I would be able to understand and help someone suffering from the effects. (Another instance of things coming together by God’s grace – couldn’t be mere chance.)

    All that being written, I don’t think that we need to spend a lot of time thinking about the enemy – as in fearing him, trying to imagine what/who he is, etc. It is enough to know that we must be watchful. We do not need to be afraid – Christ has already won the battle. We need only stay close to Him and call upon His name if we need His help. It is also helpful to know that not every bad thought, feeling or deed is from the adversary – lest we become hypervigilant about unseen forces. Many a sin simply comes from the reality that sin begets more sin, and has done so through many generations. We witness it, we learn it and our nature is weakened by it.

    One last question: why does God permit enemy forces among us? Of course, I do not know – though I suspect it is related to that sticky issue regarding our free will. In any event, He has not been at all passive or aloof about it. His coming among us in the person of Christ, His death and Resurrection, protects and saves us. Even when the enemy “launches an offensive” against a sincere believer, God is always there to sustain the believer and transform this evil into good for his/her soul. Most of us will probably not experience this sort of spiritual attack. We may simply get cancer or something. A more mundane and physical evil – but one that God can similarly use to further purify and sanctify us.

    I wrote much more than I intended. I hope this is helpful. Be blessed in the struggle…

  5. Very helpful. I am grateful, as always. I agree that we need’nt (shouldn’t) focus on this issue. Sad to say, I have spent most of my adult life among skeptics or downright unbelievers. Not atheists exactly, but persons who are convinced that everything evolves, including religion, and that there are infinite paths to God, who’s known by many names. Sadder to say, I am almost embarrassed to tell my friends that I attend an Orthodox Liturgy every Sunday, and read mostly historical material about Christianity and thoughtful contemporary commenters from the Eastern tradition. (Did I tell you that I avoid the word “Orthodoxy” because it seems to say to others that they are unorthodox in their faith, and we are better than they. It only “seems to say” that, but that’s how many, including in my own family interpret it.)

  6. One more thing and then I’ll stop. (And I do not expect you to take more time on this. You are kind in your responding to my “issues,” but you have other readers and many responsibilities.) I have come to terms with the concept of “enemy” by saying to myself– not to others, mind you; not promoting this as a truth or even close–saying to myself, “The enemy is your thoughts and fears, but you won’t win by fighting them. Try laughing them off, or simply letting them alone, and ask God for help doing this.” Yes, I’ve finally gotten to the point that I think it’s OK to talk to myself about these doubts and fears and unwelcome, though still inviting, thoughts.

  7. My finger keeps hitting the “send” button without my permission. Something wants me to shut up. Goodbye, Mary. ( = “God be wi’ye ” from 14th C. England, or earlier)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s