“Glorify the LORD with me; let us exalt his name together.” (Psalm 34: 3)
Indeed, let us glorify Him as we move forward in our discussion of impediments to prayer – for every impediment also offers the opportunity for grace in abundance.
Included in Fr. Matta’s teaching on “loss of purpose” is considerable exposition on the proper motives and aims of prayer. Hence, we have much to look forward to and little to fear.
As we begin, it is important to differentiate between “motives” and “aims” in the context of this chapter. I pondered this for some time before settling into the broader discussion, though the distinction may be perfectly obvious to other readers.
Our “motives” are what urge us on to engage in prayer – why do I do it? Our “aims” are our goals – what do I hope will be the end result of my prayer?
As an aside, I wonder if this distinction is a challenge to the modern mind because we so often do things solely for the purpose of what we get out of them, making the motive and the aim essentially the same thing.
Unfortunately many people have been taught, directly or indirectly, that purpose of prayer is to ask God for things. If getting what we want is the primary motive for our praying, it is quite probable that we will discontinue the practice rather quickly.
But I get ahead of myself.
Fr. Matta instructs us that “we must always question the validity of the reasons that press us to pray” and “to probe the genuineness of the aim or goal we seek after in prayer”.
Why is this so? Because, like everything undertaken by us fallen humans, our reasons and goals for praying are subject to corruption. We may begin prayer with faulty motives and aims. Or our healthy prayer may lose direction or become infected with unworthy aims – without our even noticing.
Unless, of course, we are watchful. And awake and watchful we must be. Our enemy is prowling.
I must confess that the first “sound motive” for prayer that Fr. Matta provides did not really occur to me. I recognized it as true but, given my disobedient nature, I did not come up with it on my own.
And that motive is to pray because God has commanded us to pray. When we read the words of the Lord Jesus, we see that this command is repeated over and over.
While our modern minds tend to not like the idea of being “commanded”, this instruction is not presented to us as something optional. If we are on the side of the Christ in spiritual battle, we pray because our commander has told us to pray.
It is not simply advice that we may consider and discuss, making up our own minds as to whether we think it a good idea. We are to do it out of obedience – and without delay.
If our discussion of the topic were to stop here, we might easily think, “This doesn’t sound particularly appealing. I don’t know if I can stay enthused about doing something for my entire life just because I was told to.”
And this is why our aims or goals in prayer are so very important. Motive alone, even with the grace inherent in the command, is not enough to keep us in fervent prayer. It may not even keep us awake.
Fr. Matta gives us some examples of worthy aims for our prayer. While I didn’t test myself prior to reading his answers, I doubt if I would have responded so well to the question. But, again, I recognize in his words the true aims that live in my heart.
I long “to live perpetually in God’s presence” and “to surrender myself to him always so that I may be rescued from the grip of sin by his mercy and help” and so on (p. 257).
Although my goal for prayer may change some over the course of my life, when it is properly set, my prayer will be fervent and enduring.
As long as I have a suitable motive, that is. This may sound a bit circular – but my prayer will stumble if both are not genuine and spiritually sound.
For “corrupted motives do not stop prayer, but they make it null and void” – such prayer “becomes futile” even if carried out with faith and enthusiasm. And prayer without a healthy aim is likely to lose its zest and pleasure, becoming so burdensome over time that it eventually ceases altogether.
Thankfully, all of this becomes a bit clearer in the examples Fr. Matta gives.
If the motivation for my prayer is for the acquisition, retention and enjoyment of worldly goods, I am off track. Similarly, if I am motivated to attain “success in projects, business, or problem situations”, I am heading in the wrong direction. Prayer motivated by a desire for the destruction of my enemies is not only unhealthy but “from Satan”.
But aren’t these the sorts of daily things we pray about? And have not the people of God sometimes celebrated “answered prayers” when enemies were defeated? (Ouch. I won’t go there.)
There is no problem in us bringing these cares and concerns to God. We are meant to. However, the trouble begins when our motivation for prayer lies in self-interest.
Well, yes. Am I not to want things to go well for me? Am I not to desire healing rather than death for those I love? Am I to be unconcerned when enemies threaten to overtake me?
It is normal, on a human level, to have these desires and concerns. And so we present them to the Lord. But as followers of the Christ, we are to humbly entrust them to God “so that he might do about them whatever he sees fit”.
In other words, we are to trust Him more than we trust ourselves.
Indeed. We know what happens when our lives are governed by our passions and desires. If the life of self-interest is what we seek, we need not pray.
Before moving to aims (goals), let us take advantage of the work Fr. Matta has done for us by distilling from Scripture six other sound motives for prayer. I list all seven for our consideration:
- “We pray because prayer is a divine commandment” – and our prayer “must be accompanied by obedience to the spirit of that commandment”. Reading the words of the Lord Jesus exhorting us to pray will readily remind us that the spirit of the command is not self-interest but much more – as we shall see.
- “We pray because prayer is the only means through which we may enter into God’s presence”. How is this so, if God is everywhere present? Prayer is a great deal more than simply recognizing God in His creation. It is how we contact Him and have relationship with Him. It is in this contact that He becomes to us more than a mere idea. He is “Person” – Person Who knows and loves us, Person from Whom we learn the life of love. No greater priority can there be than maintaining and deepening this relationship with Him in prayer.
- “We pray because prayer is the means prescribed by God for enjoying his protection”. This is not to suggest that we will be protected from worldly harm or enemies. Rather, prayer, along with our “constant watchfulness”, helps protect us from temptation and raise us up when we fall.
- “We pray because prayer is the only channel through which God will listen to our requests and look at them in the light of his mercy…” On one level, it may see odd that we must pray to make known to God our requests – certainly God already knows all that we want or need. However, the purpose of our prayer is not to give God new information but to approach Him with a longing for His help. As we experience both our own need and His loving response, we are drawn into closer relationship with Him – and ultimately, union.
- “We pray because prayer is the hidden way for providing spiritual help to others…” It is interesting that Fr. Matta here quotes James (5: 16): “Pray for one another that you may be healed.” We might wonder how this differs from the motive of self-interest that may arise when we pray that our loved ones become well rather than die. If we read again, we will notice that prayer is our way of providing spiritual help to others. Self-interest expects God to fulfill my wishes. Prayer motivated by the urge to offer spiritual help to others seeks only what is spiritually best for them, trusting that God knows what that is and we do not.
- “We pray because prayer is the ministry of thanksgiving to God laid upon servant and son alike…”
- “We pray for our enemies who oppose us and seek to do us harm because it is our duty to do so.” While we might accept this duty as another command we are to obey (and it is fine to do so), we may wonder why we have been given a duty that appears to subject us to great danger. Fr. Matta tells us that prayer for our enemies “is a means of disarming hostility”. And, to pray with a motivation to defeat the other, is incorrect and a sign of self-interest. He takes this further. We are reminded of how we humans typically react to being badly treated – we become angry and preoccupied with the offense against us. Such a reaction, of course, becomes a hindrance to prayer. But from the command of Christ to love our enemies, He provides us with a way to turn this hindrance into a motive for prayer – one that strengthens our prayer and enables us to “be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5: 45). Fr. Matta instructs us that when man prays for his enemy, he is taken “from standing before his enemies to standing before God”. We find peace in His presence and hostility drops away.
Now for the proper aim of our prayer.
This is so simple – because God has set the purpose for us! Yes, God has designed for us a purpose for our prayer and spiritual lives: “…the life of communion with God forever.”
Fr. Matta tells us that, “This life begins the moment a man accepts the mystery of faith in Christ, the Savior and Redeemer, and is sealed with the seal of the Holy Spirit.”
As we pray from day to day, our communion with God “grows in strength” and through our prayer, “God reveals what [we] ought to do so that this communion may be complete.”
If you are like me, you may be thinking, “This sounds very good indeed…but I’m not sure that I see my communion with God growing. Nor have I noticed Him revealing anything to me about what I should do.”
This is one of the reasons, of course, why it important for us to always be paying attention to and examining our aims. But even if we are on track, Fr. Matta tells us that grace may not reveal everything to us at once – and, in fact, may only reveal a little at a time.
Further, there are many different steps of grace “upon which the purpose of prayer is graded” and they are not the same for everyone.
Generally, the first “grade” of the beginner, i.e. his suitable aim, is a great “longing to get rid of the bonds of sin along with the habits, images, and traces it may have left in his heart or mind”.
Awareness of one’s sins fills one’s thoughts and prayers during this grade, with much effort directed toward uprooting the causes of sin, as well as tears and pleading for freedom from them.
At some point, grace completes this process of purification and this intensive aim of prayer ceases. Since this is not the decision of man, he may feel that something is wrong that he no longer feels this lamentation.
But, according to Fr. Matta, it is being replaced by a new purpose – “a desire for self-denial and humility and the rejection all worldly pomp and glory”.
Grace continues to guide the faithful soul until “the end of all seeking” is reached and the “purpose of every prayer” is fulfilled in its union with God.
Although the concepts behind these aims are not complicated, unfortunately, we are. Grace has many steps “upon which the purpose of prayer is graded”. The order in which things happen will not be the same for each person.
Moreover, “it is not within the reach of man, however holy or intimate with God, to prefer one step before the other in such a pursuit, which is so full of mysteries.” Grace takes us wherever it likes – and, at points, this may not be to our human liking.
Hence, the aim of purity of heart is always an aim we ought to seek in prayer, according to the Fathers of the Church.
Clearly, it is not hard for a person to forget or lose sight of his purpose for prayer. And it is not always obvious to us at first – or to those who guide us – the difference between the ardent prayer of proper purpose and that which has become narrowed into concern for the self.
Sadly, we being who we are, we can rather readily slip into prayer that is oriented toward gratifying our egos. Fr. Matta gives a few examples. “…the desire to be commended, praised, or revered in people’s eyes” may creep in, making for enthusiastic prayer – as long as the pleasure from this imagined self-glorification continues.
Or our prayer may take on false aims such as seeking to become a saint or a worker of miracles. This may not seem so bad – until it becomes apparent that its aim is for the self and not God. God can and does choose how to make His glory known – our prayer ought not be occupied with helping Him decide.
How devious our egos can be! With corrupted purposes such as these, often the soul loses its interest in prayer when fulfillment of the ego’s desires are not forthcoming or enduring.
The outward observance of prayer may continue but there is no joy. In fact, Fr. Matta tells us that when this occurs, the person becomes increasingly bored with private prayer and may blame the faults of others for his difficulty in communal prayer.
Prayer thus becomes so unpleasant and burdensome that it may be abandoned altogether.
So, again, to avoid this fate, we need to be ever watchful – examining even the sources of pleasure we find in prayer, lest they be something other than the joy given us by grace.
Once more, Fr. Matta gifts us with very helpful sayings from the Fathers. I will share here from a couple of them that inspired me. Both are from the Homilies of St. Macarius (see our text for specific citations).
We have in our religious culture the timeworn saying, “Be careful what you prayer for.” However, from St. Macarius, we hear a very different admonition, suggesting that we be careful what we do not pray for – as a person may find himself unchanged despite much saying of prayers.
“He has no meekness because he did not seek it with effort and did not prepare himself beforehand to become such. He has no humility since he did not ask for it and did not push himself to have it. He has no charity toward all men because he was not concerned with this and did not strive for it in his asking for the gift of prayer. And in doing his work, he has no faith nor trust in God, since he did not know himself that he appeared without it. And he did not take the pains to seek from the Lord for himself to have a firm faith and an authentic trust.”
And, if this is not enough to chew on, St. Macarius contrasts the person who measures progress by pride with the person of humble spirit.
“The person, however, who truly loves God and Christ, even though he may perform a thousand good works, considers himself as having done nothing because of his insatiable longing for the Lord. Even if he should tear down the body with fasts and vigils, he considers himself as though he had never even yet begun to develop virtues. Although various gifts of the Spirit or even revelations and heavenly mysteries may be given to him, he believes that he has acquired nothing because of his immense and insatiable love for the Lord.”
May our prayers be ever offered in humility and may grace guide us through the maze of our delusions until, at last, we discover that the gift of eternal communion with God has been showered down upon us when we least expect it.
(Dear friends, we are approaching the end of our book, with but one chapter to go. God willing, I will be starting to blog another book soon thereafter – so be watchful! However, take whatever time you need here. This site isn’t going anywhere and I will still respond to any comments you might care to leave…)