Fruits of Prayer Life – Conclusion, pp. 275 – end.

Grace and peace be with you, my brothers and sisters in prayer.

As we reach the end of this book (but not the end of our journey), may we continue to reap the fruits of the praying, reflecting and sharing we have done here.

Though only a few have shared comments publicly, others undoubtedly share in silence. For, whether the book was completed or not, our prayers brings us together into the presence of God. May it always be so…

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“The contemplative undergoes a total change, which involves both his inward and outward lives together. His senses are most strikingly transplanted from a material into a spiritual existence.”

These enticing words are offered to us by Fr. Matta. If I had read them prior to my exposure to Orthodoxy, I think I would have been most confused.

At best, I would have assumed that he was talking about our New Life after the resurrection of the dead, not something now.

But I have learned. From both reading Fr. Matta and the lives of many holy monks, I have come to recognize that he is referring to our senses here and now, in this life.

And there are similar experiences among the holy of the Western Church. Perhaps I needed Orthodoxy to wake me up to this reality.

As one living in the world, with all of its modern ways, such experiences seem almost unreal. In the world’s eyes, to a psychologist such as me, the sweet odors that come with sanctity would be considered olfactory hallucinations.

Yet, by grace, I have been given glimpses. If only for a moment, I have come to know that my senses, when purified and instructed by the Spirit, are more profound than just the cones and rods, anvils and hammers, that make up the hardware of my sensory organs.

By the grace of God, I can see and hear (and smell, touch and taste) with my heart. 

How this can be is mystery, of course. But most Truth is.

At first I felt a bit uneasy with Fr. Matta’s assertion that the eye that once found its pleasure in created beauty (such as in nature) turns, “from these transient objects with their false, changing beauty to the Source and Creator of beauty. He is the true beauty, which shall never change or undergo a semblance of change.”

My discomfort, I imagine, comes from labeling the beauties of nature as “false”. How can they be? They are reflections of God, crying out His glory by their very existence.

I suspect that the “falseness” belongs more to our eyes and hearts than it does to the majestic earth or the planets and solar systems that God has fashioned. We are too likely to love them for themselves, wanting to hold onto and capture what is, by its nature, transient.

This “holding on” can be a sort of corruption. In art and photography, is that not what I am doing? Trying to make permanent that which is not?

It can too easily become a distraction if not an idolatry. To love the creation more than the Creator.

But I am set right by Fr. Matta’s next words, the eye “is now able to see God’s beauty in everything.”

My heart, transformed and informed by the Spirit, will not cease to see the beauty I now see with my eyes – it will see more. Not just more in quantity but more in depth and meaning and reality.

Given that we have become accustomed to “seeing dimly as in a mirror” (to paraphrase St. Paul), it may be hard for us to fathom that currently we are not truly seeing.

But, as God gives us glimpses, we come to understand that there is a reality that is more real than what we think is real.

It is only in the Spirit that our prayer can take us to this way of being. And we need to be purified to receive the Spirit – yet it is this same Spirit that purifies us in order that we might receive His fullness.

While this sounds circular, it only does so because it is a process – our praying and crying out for help, intermingled with the Spirit’s teaching and comforting.

If we persist, in time, we shall become pure and receive Him fully, learning what it means to “taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Psalm 34: 9)

“When we actually arrive at this point of spiritual perception, we will realize at once how little and childish our spirituality has been.”

Most certainly we shall.

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In addition to this transformation of our senses, there are many other gifts or “spiritual fruits” that may be given “in return for endeavor in the way of righteousness”.

While this may give the impression that such gifts are a sort of reward, it is not to be looked at in this manner. “Such gifts are given for the benefit of others and for strengthening the faith of the weak.”

However, neither is it meant to suggest that there is no relationship between the labor done and the gifts received. Striving for holiness, done rightly, leads to holiness and the gifts associated with it.

We can only properly strive for holiness with utter humility. And gifts may or may not be given to us, as God sees fit – for in His wisdom, He knows when and where they will benefit His people.

Hence, reception of such gifts as clairvoyance, healing and speaking in tongues is never cause for pride or self-glorification.

Which raises an interesting question: is it acceptable to ask God for such gifts?

The Coptic Church, Fr. Matta relates, boldly petitions God for spiritual gifts and fruits “for its children”. We are thus reminded of the reason for asking – to feed the children of the Church.

Still, I recall reading that one of the holy monks of Mt. Athos acknowledged that he had prayed for two years to receive a certain gift. Yet when it was finally granted him, he prayed another two years that it be removed!

The reality is that we don’t know what to ask for because seldom do we understand what it is that we need.

Hence, we should indeed “strive eagerly for the greatest spiritual gifts”, as St. Paul writes (1 Corinthians 12: 31), while always remembering that, without love, we are nothing and we gain nothing (see 1 Corinthians 13: 2-3).

Thus, Fr. Matta instructs us that, “gifts should not be the aim of our spiritual struggle”. We struggle out of love and trust God to give what is needed.

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But yet another question emerges. Why is it that we seldom see in today’s world the spiritual gifts that were so abundant in the early Church?

And, it seems that, when we do hear of contemporary manifestations of God’s gifts, we treat them as “things to be marveled at”.

Why should we be surprised? Have we not believed the promise of Jesus, that “whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these”? (John 14: 12)

Apparently we do not believe it very much. As Fr. Matta writes,  “It is our faith that is weak. There is a decline and negligence in the spirit of asceticism and worship, at least in worship that is free from inordinate desires, goal, or perverse inclinations.”

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13: 8). He has not changed. And the Spirit has not been withdrawn.

What then is wrong?

Fr. Matta tells of a, “coldness that has crept in on the love that binds the group of the faithful together…”  

Yes, we have grown cold and our prayer too often seems to be but a matter of duty and ritual.

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It is fiery love that burns in the heart of the true believer.

This is a heart that has labored and struggled through its own weakness, longing for nothing more than it longs for God.

It is a heart that, even when it feels dry and without the comfort of God’s presence, waits for Him, unwilling to settle for anything else. Not the world. Not despair. Only Him.

It is a heart content with whatever gifts God gives or doesn’t give. God Himself is the gift. Yearning for Him alone, this heart rejoices in putting itself completely at His disposal.

It is a heart so totally transformed by the Spirit that it already tastes the life that is to come – contemplating the divine without feeling separate from what it contemplates.

It is a heart that longs to pray and to pray without ceasing. For to pray is to be in His presence and know union.

Like a lover with her Beloved, the longing to be with Him is an insatiable thirst, ever filled, ever desiring more.

There is no greater joy.

May it be so.

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(This concludes my formal posts for Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way, by Matthew the Poor, aka Fr. Matta El-Meskeen. However, comments will continue to come to me, should you wish to post them, and I will gladly respond. Blessings to all…)

Chapter 16 – Loss of Purpose, pp. 257-274

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.
  6. “We pray because prayer is the ministry of thanksgiving to God laid upon servant and son alike…”
  7. “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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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(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…)

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.

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“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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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…

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(As always, you are most welcome to post any comments or reflections of your own.)

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.

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“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.

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“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.

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

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(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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”).

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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.

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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.

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* 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.

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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.

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