Chapter 11 – Pray at All Times, pp. 205-213

Grace and peace, my brothers and sisters in Christ. May God be with us as we enter more deeply into the mysteries of prayer with Fr. Matta.

I have neither forgotten you nor our book, but have read and re-read this chapter quite a number of times. It is not so terribly long but its content is rich and my poor soul struggles (delightfully) to understand and to know what to write. May the Spirit guide me.

I will share some here – but not try to summarize what Fr. Matta has written. It is sublime and I fear I might destroy it.

+++

I have in me a deep longing to “pray without ceasing”. It is not, I hope, a vanity of mine – an imagining that I am holy or that I merit such a gift.

Although prayer can be a labor – a labor of love – it is also a gift. I could not pray unless God had made Himself known and invited us to approach Him. I could not pray intimately with Him had He not revealed Himself in Jesus who embodies His personal love for us and in the Spirit who teaches us all things.

 And what does it mean to “pray without ceasing”?

I do not believe that it means that my conscious mind would repeat words of prayer over and over, every moment of every day.

For those of us living active lives in the world, this would be impossible – for our minds must engage in other actions to earn a living, take care of a family and so on. Even for one living a monastic life, such a feat would more likely result in delusion than union with God.

An important distinction to be made here, of course, that it would not be my conscious mind that would pray at all times. A similar distinction is that the ceaseless prayer not always be words.

These distinctions may be confusing, especially to our minds so steeped in Western culture. What else have I but my conscious mind? How else can I pray but with words?

However, I suspect that any among you who have been reading along or who have this interest know that prayer is not limited by these parameters.

We do indeed make use of our conscious minds and words to pray, particularly when God is teaching us. We do not know anything else and so He makes use of what we know.

But, if we follow Him, He will lead us further into the Life, the Communion, for which He made us. We have been reading all along about this, both the work we must do and the grace He gives.

To expound upon this just a little, we are given to understand that God made us for union with Him in love. We have much work to do because our sinfulness has blinded us to both the path and the goal.

Christ has done the work of saving us – but we must do the work that enables us to receive, to accept this salvation. We cannot do that work without Him – but we are not to be passive recipients either.

Receiving His love and being transformed by it cannot be a passive process. For we are being transformed into love – and love cannot be passive.

And so, to pray without ceasing, is a synergy of His gift and our work.

Fr. Matta, both in this chapter and in preceding ones, gives us practical steps to take in approaching constant prayer. Yet he also laments that some have turned it into a technical method with unnecessary complexity that might excite spiritual greed or ambition.

God forgive us if we allow that to enter our prayer. (Of course, sometimes we do and God does forgive us.)

So, if constant prayer is not from the conscious mind, from whence does it come?

It comes, of course, from the heart. Our conscious minds do indeed begin and work at prayer and they do indeed use words at times, but our hearts are where the Communion with God becomes fully alive.

Our hearts…and what does that mean? My heart is the core of my being. Amidst this spiritual discussion, one might think that I am referring only to an abstraction – but I am not.

My heart has both a physical reality and a spiritual reality and, in this life, they ought not be separated. It is no accident, I think, that the spiritual term “heart” is the same word for that glorious pump in my physical center that keeps the life blood flowing.*

That the prayer my mind begins may enter my heart and know God there, is not a simple imagination on the parts of those who have experienced it (I slip out of first person here because I am such a beginner in prayer that I cannot claim the experience.)

Yet we are called to this deeper level of “knowing” – something beyond my conscious mind’s intellectual process of acknowledging God and the truths I have been taught.

Indeed, Fr. Matta tells us that the aim of constant prayer includes: “Perpetual existence in God’s presence…Allowing God to share with us in all our works and thoughts…Gaining a sublime knowledge of God in himself.”

When I pray with my hands on my heart, I feel each beat as prayer. As my words flow with my breath, each breath becomes prayer. His Spirit dwells in me and is prayer within me, allowing my heart Communion in the Father – Son – Spirit fullness of living, dynamic Love.

I write of the tiniest glimpse my heart has realized – a glimpse of an experience it knows to be far greater than anything it knows now. A glimpse for seconds of what is meant to be unending.

And this is why I have within me the deep longing.

Yet I fear that I am too lazy to do the work. God can and does make up for my weakness – but He does not do the work for me. For Him to do so would remove from me the ability to give Him myself as gift. It would render me unable to love.

And so I must work – I must do the work of prayer and trust that the Lord God will lead to what is best for me.

Please pray for me, as I do for you, that I may be strengthened in doing this work with all of my heart. Amen.

+++

* clarification: I am not suggesting, of course, that anyone whose natural heart is diseased or has valves replaced for medical reasons does not have a complete heart in the eyes of God. I am simply making the point that the spiritual “heart” is not simply an abstraction unrelated to our physical selves.

(As always, comments on this post or the chapter we are reading are most welcome.)

Advertisements

Chapter 10 – Holy Silence, pp. 197-203

May our God bring us strength and consolation as we pray, for the path is often not easy.

And let us walk this road together and pray for one another, even when practicing solitude, lest we believe that we are on the path alone.

When I read the title of this chapter, “Holy Silence”, I felt a pleasant anticipation, imagining that I would enjoy reading it and writing of it. It has been much more challenging that I had expected.

But I think the Lord has made me ready, at last, to write. And so I begin…

+++

The question is posed: “How much spiritual fruit have you borne as a branch in the vine?”

This question is challenging enough – but the quote that follows is even more startling: “Do not tell me, ‘I have preached in your name, served your gospel, healed your sick,’ lest you hear the rest of the saying: ‘Depart from me…’ For you have already received your wages – honor, money, fame and good repute.”

And a similar chiding follows for those who might claim as their “fruit” having attended church and offered sacrifice.

I found myself wondering, “what is left?” If the fruit to be borne is found neither in the works of the gospel nor the practice of the faith, where is it to be found?

The response of our author caught me off guard: “…the fruit that the vinedresser seeks is the amount of growth your soul has achieved in grace, as well as your promotion in the faculties of the spiritual life.”

Really?

I found myself reacting to this. Frankly, I thought it sounded rather selfish. It’s all about how far I’ve advanced in the spiritual life? What happened to loving my neighbor as the Lord Jesus has loved me?

What comes next in the text made sense to me. Sort of. This is where the “holy silence” comes in and it doesn’t sound nearly as attractive as I had anticipated.

If we want to learn whether or not we have been fruitful, Fr. Matta instructs us, we are to go into our rooms, close the door and examine the depths of our souls in silence and prayer before God.

We will then see our own image “in the mirror of God”. We will see that we are poor and wretched, naked and ugly, not resembling God at all.

It is only God’s compassion that protects us, shielding us from seeing the full reality of this all at once. Likely we could not bear it.

While this sounds rather gloomy, the discovery of our sins must be viewed as a blessing, even if not an easy one. For in this self-knowledge we become able to truly cry out to God for His mercy, weeping before Him. And “You shall surely not depart from God’s presence unless you shall have acquired every time new hyssop with which to wash yourself until you become whiter than snow.”

Fr. Matta adds some additional comments on the practice of this silence, what it is and what it is not. But I will pause here. Remember that I said it only “sort of” made sense to me?

+++

I have pondered on and off in my life why it is that salvation is portrayed as being so difficult to come by. Or at least I have pondered it often while reading books of this sort, much as I love them.

I read of the great ascetics, their severe fasting and all night vigils. I learn of the holy martyrs – of both body and soul – who forfeit their lives for love of the Lord. I am awed by the tireless servants of Christ who give up their lives to tend to the poor.

Admittedly, Jesus Himself made it sound as though it was going to be rather difficult to enter into Life:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7: 13-14, NABRE)

And yet…and yet, Scripture tells us that our Savior also welcomed into the Paradise a criminal hanging on the cross next to Him – whose only act of faith was to say in the final moments of His life, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23: 42).

No fasting. No vigils. No retreats into holy silence. No great works of mercy.

As I write this, it is the feast of the holy Apostle, St. Andrew. In our (RC) Scriptures for the feast, we read the well-known passage that begins,

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans, 10: 9)

This passage, of course, was oft cited in the great controversy about “faith vs. works”. A controversy which, BTW, I never thought merited the time and effort countless theologians put into it.

Yet my mind drifted in the direction of the controversy despite myself. Though confessing faith in Jesus as the risen Christ was not a safe or simple thing to do at the time St. Paul penned these words, doing so now is a relatively simple process.

I believe. I’m saved.

I’m not saying it always easy to believe but there is nothing in the process that seems to require endless pleas for mercy or rigorous acts of asceticism throughout one’s life.

Certainly, assuming one is not about to die when first accepting the faith, one’s faith must necessarily manifest in good works. To accept the faith is to change the heart and a changed heart must live out its mission.

So to what end is this gloomy going-into-the-closet business, a process whereby I can see how truly horrid my sins are which, BTW, I purportedly believe have been forgiven?

Now I am sure there are many ways this question can be answered. Many good ways.

But I am going to share with you but one, the one that given to me this evening as my mind wandered this path:

It is important – no necessary – that we look at ourselves. And that is something we simply do not want to do.

+++

Of course, our culture is a great help to us in our avoidance of looking deeply into ourselves. Music, movies, games, foods – countless and varied distractions stream at us and can be delivered to our doors or our devices most any time of day or night.

We need not bear a moment of silence or stillness. It is no accident that we have created such a culture.

But those of us in the Faith may be vulnerable to ever more subtle avoidances. “I go to confession,” I may say to myself. “I examine myself and confess my sins. I repent.” And perhaps we do and do so sincerely.

But even here, and I speak from experience, I can go to confession and I can go to confession.

A sincere confession can be prepared for and executed in a relatively short period of time. Then I resume my busy life and distractions.

This is not inherently bad or wrong. But if I have not learned to enter the holy silence, at least episodically in my life, I may be missing something very important.

I write this as a person who has missed (and avoided) some very important things for a long time. (And I’m sure that, even as I sit here, there are more things that I continue to miss and avoid. It is part of our sinful condition.)

And what I might be missing is twofold. First, I may very well be missing vital aspects of the disease in my soul. Because, out of fear or shame or even laziness, I do not look deeply, the roots remain alive and continue to grow – into the same old sins – or new variations.

Second, if I am missing this, I am also missing the deep, deep healing that comes from the “treatment” for my disease. It is not just that I need absolution. I need to be made anew in God’s grace. (That is, of course, what absolution is meant to be. But is will not be experienced as such if I have missed what needs to be healed.)

+++

Faith. Works. Simple. Hard. How do all these seeming contradictions come together in this holy silence?

The man hanging from a cross next to Jesus, to all outward appearances, found salvation with just a few words. How could this happen?

It happened because he looked at himself – in the “mirror of God,” hanging next to him. And Jesus, hearing his words and seeing the truth in his heart, announced it for all coming generations to know. “This is what is needed – enter.”

Profoundly simple, yet I’m sure very, very hard.

Faith or works? It must be both, of course, for they are inseparable.

We recognize his faith. But what “works” can a man do while dying?

He spoke. Aloud. For all to hear.

He could have kept his thoughts to himself, assuming, “He is the Son of God. He will know that I believe in Him.”

No. He spoke. He humiliated himself in front of all. Those who jeered at Jesus likely jeered at him.

But that no longer mattered – for he had looked deeply at himself and then at the Lord. He had to speak.

I wonder how many people have been comforted, if not saved, throughout history because this man acted – because he spoke.

+++

And so we are called to look within. Deeply. In holy silence.

Unless we have reached the final moments of our lives, we will likely be doing this more than once.

We will not want to do it. At least not at first. It takes courage to see what is there.

But when we encounter Jesus there – when we find Him waiting for us in the holy silence, eager to heal us and draw us further into Himself – we will learn to go into the silence despite our fears.

We will forget their darkness in the light of Him.

And in the end, it is only the Light that matters.

+++

(As always, comments or questions for further reflection are welcome.)

Chapter 9 – Bridling the Mind, pp. 189-196

Bless us, dear God, as we open yet another chapter in our journey of prayer. Help us to pray, for apart from You we can do nothing.

+++

Greetings, my friends. Forgive my absence from this blog. For whatever reason, God periodically puts me on sabbatical and I know not why. While often pure laziness keeps me from getting things done, in cases such as this, I only seem to be able to type nonsense until He is ready.

In this short chapter, Fr. Matta gives us but 3 pages of his own reflections and then a wealth of input from the Fathers – for many have written on the topic before us.

The question of what to do with our thoughts, imagination and distractions when we turn our minds to God is not a new one. With the possible exception of imagination, which gets mixed reviews, these entities are generally regarded as trouble-makers to the person at prayer.

In other words, we are supposed to get rid of them, avoid them, strive to be free of them.

First, a word or two on imagination. Imagination, aka “mental imagery”, is traditionally forbidden in the prayer of the Eastern Church. The Western Church, on the other hand, teaches about prayer with far less uniformity. St. Ignatius of Loyola, for example, openly encourages the liberal use of imagination in prayer. However, contemplative prayer traditions in the West are more similar to the hesychasm of the East. (An interesting discussion of East-West differences in this regard is available here.)

I will write no more of this controversy for now. However, even for those in the Western Church who may find imagination acceptable, Fr. Matta’s brief exposition on the topic offers wise counsel. He notes how imagination can be subverted and lead the ego “to attain in fantasy what it could not fulfill in reality”. 

This is so true. Our minds are naturally imaginative, whether we like it or not. If we do not guard against it, what our imaginations generate will likely be in service of the ego. Whether I picture myself as a movie star or the most holy person in my church, whatever I imagine outside of prayer can and will be imagined once I turn my mind to God.

So, East or West, it is fair to say that imagination can be a trouble maker, right up there with the rest of our thoughts and distractions.

The challenging question – and the subject for this chapter – is what to do about these trouble makers. How do we “bridle” the mind?

While some of the Fathers counsel us to “fight constantly” with our thoughts (e.g. St. John Climacus), most of us have probably noticed that attempting to force thoughts and distractions from our minds generally does not work. In fact, it typically backfires.

The more I tell myself to stop thinking about something and attend to God, the more I seem to attend to the forbidden topics.

And the more frustrated and discouraged I become.

Taking this path in prayer may lead me to believe that I am not “good” at praying – and therefore perhaps not good enough for God.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The difficulty, of course, is that we do not understand what it means to “fight” our thoughts and distractions. Being the weak humans that we are, we tend to approach this fight as we would any other human fight.

We cajole ourselves. We point out the rational reasons to stop doing what we are doing. We nag and argue with ourselves. Finally, we just get frustrated and angry. Or depressed and guilty.

But this is a totally different sort of fight. It is one in which I must surrender in order to be victorious.

Striving to control my mind only illustrates to me that I cannot do so. Giving all control over to the Lord allows me to be drawn into communion by His Spirit.

With my breath, I might simply pray with our Savior the words of the psalmist: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

In so doing, I have humbly and gently brought my mind back to Him, knowing that it will wander away again and again.

Only in His hands is there hope for me. Only in accepting that I am incapable of prayer can I learn to pray from my heart where He dwells.

+++

How can it be that Christ dwells in my heart if my mind cannot be still? Do I not insult His presence if I approach Him thinking about so many trivial things instead of Him?

The Fathers tell us that we do not need to have a quiet mind in order to pray (e.g. St. Isaac of Syria). Indeed, if we wait for our minds to be clear and still, we may never begin praying.

Rather than being a prerequisite for prayer, inner stillness is a result of prayer. Bringing my mind back, time and time again, patiently accepting the weakness of my distracted mind and imagination, is like cultivating a plant from seed.

I cannot expect it to bear fruit when I have just planted the seed in the ground. There is much work that I must do. And much trust that God will provide what is needed – for I cannot bring about the harvest myself or in my own time.

So as I humbly bring my mind back to God, surrendering my desire to be in control, moment after moment, day after day, He and I spend considerable time together.

Like lovers in a lengthy courtship, we see each other on the good days and the bad. No longer do I expect my times of prayer to be all joyful – all “first dates” in which everything goes just as I had hoped.

As I discover that He has been in love with me all along, my love for Him deepens and grows. “Yes, I loved you even back then – when you spent all your time with me daydreaming about what you were going to do next,” He whispers in my heart.

And finally, I become more and more ready to be still in His presence. For I want to be with Him and I do not need to search for words to say. It is enough to be together, to know that He is always with me.

+++

“O my Beloved, forgive me!” my heart cries. “How could I ever have wanted anything or anyone but You?”

(Inwardly, I feel His warm and loving smile.)

We both know that my time of wandering is not yet over. But before long it will be – for He has taken my spirit into His hands…

+++

(Comments are always welcome. Many blessings to all.)

 

Chapter 8 – More on Struggle and Constraint, pp. 181-187

Yes, I’m still here, still struggling away 🙂 and if you are reading this, perhaps you are too. May God bless us and sustain us in our struggles.

I found myself intrigued by the very first excerpt from the Fathers for this chapter, in which St. Macarius addresses the question of whether we should force ourselves to pray if we feel no inclination to do so. This is a very rich question for our spiritual lives – so I thought I would begin typing and see where God leads.

+++

(I discovered a little dialogue developing in me as I pondered this question and it went something like this:)

T: Of course you must make yourself pray, whether you feel like it or not! If you wait until you feel like it, you will probably never pray.

S: But what is prayer for? Isn’t prayer to be the loving union of my heart with God? What kind of lover forces themselves to be with their Beloved?

T: That is valid point – or so it seems on the surface. But how will you come to know God if you wait around for your “inclinations”? With human loves, you have factors such appearance and personality to naturally attract you to want to be with the other. God is different.

S: Yes, it is different with God. But isn’t it true that God seeks us out? I’m not going to get to know God by my own efforts, forcing myself to recite prayers or attend church services. If I feel the inclination, I see that as God calling, inviting me to be with Him.

T: That desire to pray, to be with God is a gift and an invitation. But I am wondering about this…if you do not push yourself to pray, might you not fill up your time and your thoughts so much that you could fail to notice some of the invitations?

S: Hmm… I can see how that could happen. But I also don’t want my prayer to become a bunch of empty words or rituals. I see too much of that. People say the words to get them said but it seems like their hearts are far away. If I force myself to pray, it seems like my heart won’t be in it.

T: It seems like it would be that way, doesn’t it? And that can happen. But the opposite can happen too.

S: What do you mean?

T: Have you ever forced yourself to do something you really didn’t feel like doing out of love for the other? Something like getting up in the night with a baby or listening supportively when you’d rather be doing something else?

S: Sure.

T: Was your heart “far away” when you did these things?

S: Sometimes. At least, at the very beginning. Inside I’d be irritated and complaining.

T: And then?

S: Well, then there usually comes this point where I, like, surrender and accept that this is how it is. I’m going to do what I don’t want to do instead of what I do want to do. There is a sudden feeling of relief and the love pours into my heart. And I know at that moment that love is more important than all of my other wants.

T: And this is why we should pray even when we do not want to. As difficult as it is, this time of prayer is when we begin learning to surrender our will. This opens us up to greater love.

S: But why are you always talking about surrendering my will? I don’t understand. Aren’t there enough people in this world trying to crush each other’s wills? Does God demand this too?

T: No, He doesn’t. It is not a demand.

S: I don’t get it.

T: As you yourself said earlier, God invites. He invites you into His love. He has already surrendered His will in an act of love for you.

S: Oh. That’s right. Jesus didn’t want to suffer and die.

T: He most certainly did not. But He surrendered His will. And now He invites us to do this same.

(pause)

T: What kind of “loving union” do you imagine you could have with God, if He surrendered everything to you and you didn’t give back?

S: Yes, yes. I see.

(pause)

S: But how can I pray, what can I say or do, when my heart feels cold or my mind is distracted or my body is tired and bloated?

T: The exact words probably don’t matter so much. But you can begin with, “God, help me pray. I want to pray.” Or, “God, help me to want You more.” And remember not to judge your “success” but simply do your duty – the duty of love – which is to attend to the Beloved regardless of how you feel.

S: God, help me pray. Thank you that I can pray. Help me want to pray.

T: Amen.

+++

(May all be blessed and welcomed into prayer. Share any comments or questions – though I may be offline for a couple of days.)

Chapter 8 – Struggle and Constraint, pp. 175-180

In the name of Christ Jesus, I greet you, my friends of the Way. Struggle and constraint are words that do not naturally seem inviting to our human nature. However, let us pray to the Spirit to guide us that we might find the truth hidden in this holy message.

Fr. Matta offers a beautiful image: he tells us that the blessings of the contemplative life are like “the light of the rising sun”. We are reminded that we will not see these blessings come upon us all at once – we need to be prepared for a long struggle that requires us to be patient and disciplined. As the rising sun, even before it peaks over the horizon, begins to dispel the darkness ever so slightly, so may the progress of our souls seem imperceptible to us, until eventually “it pervades everything”.

Our author forewarns us that the path is “an arid wilderness” without any spiritual comfort whatsoever and there is nothing about it that we should desire it in and of itself. In time, even our faith will not seem enough to sustain us and we will be “overtaken by fear and shot through with doubt”. God will see our growth but all we will see is our weakness. Our soul will crave its former pleasures and we will look for God and not see HimOur soul will accuse us: “Why have you led me out to the wilderness, to kill me?” Indeed, some will turn back at the onset, unable to bear the prospect of such a path.

  1. How do you find yourself reacting to these images (rising sun, arid wilderness)? Have you known them at any level – or known of others who experienced them?
  2. On many occasions throughout the book, this chapter being one of them, I have found myself wondering why Fr. Matta makes it sound so incredibly difficult to be a Christian. Is it supposed to be this grueling? Jesus has told us both of the “narrow gate” but also that “My yoke is easy and My burden light”? Can both be true?
  3. Being the obsessive sort that I am, I have also wondered if, when my path seems smooth and full of joy, I am not doing what I ought to be doing. Have I taken an easy path that pleases me and convinced myself that it is the Lord’s when it is not?

Because there is so much potential to get tied up in mental knots with such questions, it is good that Fr. Matta has given us some sensible guidelines for what is “a lawful and healthy kind of struggle or constraint”. What he tells us is very simple and not a new message – yet not so simple for us to do, of course. Our aim must always be complete surrender to God – with all things done only for the love of God, no matter what the cost to our ego.

It is so easy to see how readily even a bit of “success” and “joy” experienced in the spiritual life can be subverted by the ego. Without consciously noticing, we begin striving for more success or joy or for greater “abilities”. All of these become a personal agenda apart from the love of God. Regardless of how much we imagine them to be the product of our own efforts, Fr. Matta tells us that “success and spiritual joy are the work of God alone”. Seeking praise or fearing criticism, even trying to maintain our own self-esteem, have no place in this “struggle and constraint” – only the love of God in Christ.

  1. This message is so counter-cultural. We live in a world that teaches us that our success and happiness are the result of our efforts or the lack thereof. Does it feel frightening to accept that this is in the hands of God? Or is it a relief? Do I want to be in control of my destiny – or do I want Him to be?

Abbreviated, here are Fr. Matta’s guideposts:

  1. “When your will becomes active and ardent, bind it at once to obedience to Christ.” (Lest I do anything of my own accord.)
  2. “Reject any feeling of your own responsibility for success or failure.” (We simply do our duty.)
  3. “Christ has left you destitute of nothing…therefore, be contented with the power of Christ, which is with you.” (We may rejoice in any solace God gives us but we do not seek it as the basis for our struggle.)
  4. “Never practice struggle or constraint to gain something for yourself.” (Even if what we are seeking to gain seems to our spiritual benefit, it does not help us abdicate our self which is what we must do in order to rely completely on God.)
  5. “…the more you confine your struggle to surrendering your own will, the more you feel the reality of God at work, managing your life and providing for you.” (I cannot feel God taking care of me while I am consumed with the belief that I can take care of myself.)
  6. “…never give up your struggle or constraint however you fail or whatever your temptations.” (We are responsible for our efforts, not our success.)
  7. Our struggle and constraint “only remove us a long distance from our ego and sever us from the life or sin and transgression”. No matter how well we do them, our actions do not bring us closer to God and do not justify us. God draws us to Him and justifies us freely – not as a result of anything we do..

An important note that Fr. Matta adds is that the person who is relying on himself does not feel that his struggle is egotistical or that he is failing to rely on God. (I can attest to that!) In fact, he erroneously blames his will for how much he stumbles. “Stumbling and falling arise not from the weakness of one’s will but from its power to interfere.” Rather than blaming and spurring on our will, he writes, “we must abdicate our will and lose all hope in it completely”. It is when the will finally hides behind grace that we grow stronger.

  1. I find this last comment particularly intriguing, given how much emphasis our culture gives to “will-power”. So often we humans believe that the way to change, whether sin or bad habit, is through the exercise of our will. Fr. Matta explains why this approach so seldom works – and, in fact, often makes things worse.
  2. Is there some sin or habit that I have been trying to control by my will that I could instead leave completely in the hands of God, trusting that He will help me with it?

+++

God willing, I would like to return and offer some comments on this chapter and I invite you to share your reflections as well. Let us continue to pray for one another…

Addendum – Chapter 7 – Faith and Perseverance (part 2), pp. 159-168

Blessings, my friends, and praise to God our Father in our Lord Jesus Christ. May we always be open to being taught by the Spirit most Holy.

I am offering this addendum to my last entry as a separate post because I thought it too important to enter as a comment where it might be missed.

I am slowly working my way through an online Catholic Bible study and am learning so much it is mind-boggling. Since one of the things I learned was directly related to my last post, I wanted to share it – both for the sake of its content as well as the object lesson.

When discussing doubt and reliance on reason, I loosely cited the words of Jesus about being able to move mountains if we had enough faith – this being one of those teachings that had left me puzzled. In my current study of the Gospel of Mark, I gained a whole new understanding of what this teaching might mean.

Duh. Perhaps you already knew and were sparing my feelings. (If so, please don’t spare my feelings anymore. Educate me! I’m trying to educate myself but it’s a slow process…)

In any event, I will first cite the passage in question with greater clarity:

“Amen, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it shall be done for him.” (Mark 11:23, NABRE translation, emphasis mine.)

It is noteworthy, I learned, that Jesus apparently referenced a particular mountain in this well-known verse. He wasn’t suggesting that, by faith, we could all go around moving mountains into the sea if they got in our way. So what mountain was he referring to?

If we look at this verse in context, we discover that it follows that weird passage where Jesus cursed the fig tree for not having any fruit (out of season) and where the tree was later seen to have withered. What does all of this mean?

One thing I didn’t know – but apparently the people of Israel at that time would have known, is that the fig tree is a traditional symbol of Israel. Hence, Jesus was apparently cursing Israel for not bearing fruit and, in the tree’s withering, making a visible prophecy about the future of Jerusalem*. (I will cite my sources at the end of the post.)

So, I learned, this “mountain” is presumed to be a reference to Mt. Zion – the location of Jerusalem*. It is also possible that Jesus was alluding to Zechariah’s vision (4:7) in which there was a great mountain that Zerubbabel had to clear away in order to rebuild the Temple following its first destruction*.

Hence, when Jesus is referring to moving a mountain by faith, He may have been drawing a parallel, suggesting that Jerusalem and its current Temple had to be pushed aside in order to create a new Temple built of Christian believers*.

Not an easy mountain to move but I can now comprehend why Jesus would have said this to His disciples and how faith in this regard was and is so very important.

But what particularly fascinates (and shames) me is how my doubting mind could struggle with Jesus’ words but never take the step of actually studying Scripture. I just assumed that He expected my faith to be strong enough to cast Mt. Everest into the Arabian sea.

Of course, God can cast any mountain into any sea He pleases – and He could, hypothetically, use me as His instrument for doing so. But for me to get stuck on this point without further investigation is, in retrospect, foolish. Should I not be more curious as to why Jesus would say such a thing?

Had He said that I could heal people by faith, that would not arouse quite so much curiosity. After all, He was healing people and sending out His disciples to do the same. But Scripture doesn’t recount casting mountains into the sea as part of the ministry of the Kingdom.

The sad reality is that whatever curiosity I might have had in the past has often fizzled out largely because of two factors.

First, I am lazy and tend to read Scripture as though it were a book that I could understand by simply reading it. And if I don’t understand certain parts, I just skip over them or come up with my own “explanations” (see discussion on opinions in last post).

Second, I have not known where to go to learn more. Although the tides are beginning to turn, the Western Church has (sadly) given little attention to Scripture study. While having received more formal religious education than the average American, I have never taken a single course on Scripture study – and do not remember ever seeing one offered at the schools I attended.

And so, with doors opening up before me, I wish to share – both about the mountains we are meant to move – and about how we can begin to understand the Bible better. Many individual parishes now offer classes on Scripture. And I will share my online resource. Most of its “Catholic” orientation should make no difference to our diverse readership. But I invite my Orthodox readers, as well as any others, to use the comment section to share any resources that may be helpful and generally accessible.

It may help us be less afraid. And strengthen us in Faith and Perseverance.

+++

*References:

  1. For online Bible study, I have started listening to some of the audio courses at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. Thus far, I have listened to courses on the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Mark. Both have been excellent and some of the ideas from this post are derived from the course on the Gospel of Mark.
  2. As a companion to this study, I have obtained the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, second edition RSV. (I am hoping they will come out with an Old Testament edition as well.) This Bible has lengthy footnotes and explanatory pages that generally give an indication as to the general origins of the explanations, e.g. Scriptural continuity of Old and New Testaments, Church’s tradition drawing from Fathers, saints, etc. Much of my content interpretation in this post was drawn from these footnotes.

Chapter 7 – Faith and Perseverance (part 2), pp. 159-168

An abundance of blessings upon you, my fellows readers/pray-ers who have persevered in this journey. May our loving Lord guide us and help us to enter more deeply into the life of faith as we share the challenging words of this section.

If you have not already noticed, I posted “Part 1” for Chapter 7 on my regular blog because the question, “What is faith?” seemed like something that might appeal to a broader readership. If you have not read it, click here to find your way.

I saved a bit more to post here, admittedly the parts of the text that I found more difficult, in that I thought it best to discuss them in the context of the book as a whole. Of course, anyone may read this, but being familiar with the discussion leading up to this point will undoubtedly be helpful.

Yes, we are to take a look at “The Enemies of Faith” as Fr. Matta calls them. Let us approach them one at a time…

Reliance on empirical reason. It is not hard to see how total reliance on empirical reason gets in the way of faith. If I will not accept anything for which I cannot obtain empirical “proof”, I will never know God. I won’t believe in the miracles of Jesus, the healings, the exorcisms, His resurrection from the dead. I won’t believe in anything beyond the material world.

But, I might argue, I don’t take it that far. I can suspend reason for the really big things: I believe in God, I believe in the resurrection. But do I really believe that I can drink poison and not die? Or that a mountain will literally be moved if I have sufficient faith? That sort of thing just doesn’t make sense to me.

And yet I have said that I believe in the resurrection. It makes sense to me that a dead man is no longer dead?

Of course, I am not suggesting that anyone drink poison to test the Gospel passage. People have been known to die doing that.

Fr. Matta proposes to us that the problem is that reliance on empirical reason generates fear and in this way becomes an obstacle. We remain stuck in our mere human “knowing” because we are afraid to step into the divine. We are afraid of what goes beyond our senses and our reason.

It can’t be. It doesn’t make sense. God wouldn’t do that. There’s no evidence.

Each of these statements based on “reason” is an indication that I trust me, my senses and my thought processes more than I trust God.

Hmm…I don’t think that’s where I want to be.

Fear. We have already started talking about how fear can be an enemy of faith. Yet Fr. Matta uses some rather strong words, “Fear is a proof that man still longs to defend his own ego and pities himself. It is a symptom of self-love and stands in opposition to faith.”

Ouch. These words seem kind of harsh, especially given that fear is hard-wired into our brains to help us survive. Should we not want to survive? Is it a sign of self-love or self-pity if someone points a gun to my head and I find my heart pounding uncontrollably and my breath becoming more rapid?

Again, just as we are not being instructed to drink poison, neither are we being instructed to play Russian roulette with a pistol to see if we can do so without feeling afraid. We are not to invite danger for its own sake.

But, despite my reservations, Fr. Matta gives me pause. He cites Abraham on his way to offer Isaac in sacrifice; the 3 young men in the fiery furnace; Daniel in the lion’s den.

Scripture, of course, cannot tell us whether any of these experienced an increased heart rate as they entered the sacrificial state to which they were called. The impression we are given, however, is that they were unafraid.

How could they not have been afraid?

Precisely because they had already surrendered themselves totally, body, mind and soul, to God. Having given themselves completely, there was nothing that God could not take. Nothing was off-limits to Him to whom they had entrusted everything.

If I hold back none of myself for me – all is in the hands of loving God – indeed there is no room for fear.

But does this mean that fear is “bad”, an enemy of faith, something I should feel bad about when I experience it?

I would see it perhaps as a sign of the immaturity of my faith – its incompleteness – rather than something evil in itself. However, fear can certainly lead me to sin which is why it is an “enemy” I should never regard as an acceptable life companion.

I am born afraid. If I carry fear now, that tells me I have more surrendering to do. I pray and ask God to come to my help.

I cannot do it without Him.

Skepticism. Once again, we are called upon to consider fear – and it is not getting any easier. Fr. Matta writes: “Fear is but a symptom of an imperfect knowledge, while doubt is a sin aimed against God: doubt is disbelief in God’s promises. Doubt fosters fear. Doubt is the first weakening of trust in God, but it gives rise to fear, the farthest point away from God”.

I found it a bit ironic that I felt more fear reading the statement that “doubt is a sin aimed against God” than I have from many of the doubts I have experienced! I had not thought of doubt as a sin but rather a natural part of learning to believe.

Just as I experienced a sense of doubt when I first learned of Einstein’s theory of special relativity, my mind has sometimes doubted and wondered about the things of God that it does not yet understand.

This, again, is part of the immaturity of the soul (well, mine in particular) that is still learning to surrender itself completely to God.

However, this passage raised questions for me and I did not want to rely only on my own thinking, as I can so readily rationalize away my sins. So I googled it. 🙂  And found a helpful distinction between “voluntary doubt” and “involuntary doubt”.

The latter is the sort of doubt that afflicts us when we get an attack of wondering if there really is a God. Or we cannot quite fathom how mountains can be moved by faith and we say to ourselves, “Huh?” when we hear these words of Jesus.

We don’t choose to have these thoughts or feelings – and we don’t cultivate them when they occur. We most often find them unpleasant. But they are in our minds and so we are stuck working our way through them.

These are not a sin. They are not a “disbelief aimed against God”. Rather, they are more of an unbelief  for which we seek God’s help. Like the father of the boy afflicted with convulsions, we cry out, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” (Mark 9: 24). Without God’s help, we know our faith is weak.

The voluntary doubt is the one that we own. Whether it started with an involuntary doubt or it was an idea we consciously formulated, we cultivate it and hone it so as to argue against the Truth given by the Spirit.

This sounds like a very foolish thing to do – and it is. So why would any of us do it?

In its most extreme form, “voluntary doubt” could be called heresy and that doesn’t sound like something I would do. But, in reality, all I have to do is have opinions. Opinions?

I’m entitled to my opinions, right?

Try on some of these opinions:

  1. When Jesus cast out demons, the people probably just had epilepsy or some other illness that wasn’t understood at the time. Talk of demons is the talk of people who aren’t educated in modern medicine.*
  2. I’m sure Jesus didn’t mean literally “This is my body, this is my blood.” He could only have meant it as something symbolic.*
  3. The Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” But a four-week old embryo isn’t really a person yet. It’s just a clump of cells. While ending a pregnancy is not an ideal situation, continuing it could be a disaster in this situation.*

*These are not uncommon opinions in some sectors of the Christian world. I have fabricated them here for purposes of illustrating how readily human “opinion” can find itself at variance with Scripture and the creeds given to the Church. 

As I reflect on some of the “opinions” I have held over the years, I begin to understand that “voluntary doubt” is not just the domain of heretics. When something hasn’t made sense to me (see discussion on empirical reasoning), it hasn’t been hard for me to come up with my own “opinion” about what was really the case.

All without the benefit of any serious study of Scripture or the Church Fathers and, most importantly, all without the benefit of humility.

It has only been in my latter years that I have come to an understanding that the vast majority of my opinions on any and every topic are all a bunch of hooey.

It is far better to learn obedience and be chastened than to allow this sin of voluntary doubt to corrupt my soul.

But what of the fear Fr. Matta says comes of doubt? How does that enter in?

I cannot speak for others. But as I reflect back on myself, is not fear the breeding ground for the disease of my sin?

Why did I have so many opinions? Without the humility to submit and be taught, I was afraid when I encountered that which I could not understand. I did not want to reject my faith because there was a central truth there that I believed and never wanted to let go of. But this other stuff…

A scary spot to be in…

So I created opinions to give my mind explanations for what it couldn’t comprehend or accept on its own. To quell the fear that I couldn’t consciously acknowledge that I had.

And not without consequences.

How much closer I could have been to God had I submitted and allowed His Spirit to teach me! Yes, it is so.

Yet He is gracious and merciful. He never left me. And He always allows me to begin again.

And so I do. Today. Every day.

Praise Him.

+++

These are my reflections on the “Enemies of Faith” section of Chapter 7. I welcome yours…