One of the greatest challenges for someone who has begun to pray regularly is detachment from any measurable effects of prayer. There can be nagging thoughts questioning the quality or effectiveness of our prayer. There could be the longing for something extraordinary to happen while we pray: a great feeling, a vision, extacy, transports of love, a voice, etc. There could be disappointment if the intentions we carried with great fervor are not answered perceptibly. These let downs can exasperate us to the point that we give up on anything beyond rote prayer.
The story of Elijah the prophet on Mt. Horeb encountering God is an image of what the heart faithful to mental prayer seeks. Earthquakes, fires, heavy winds, are all noisy and violent displays void of the presence of God. Seeking God in prayer is akin to listening for a “still small voice”, or a “light silent sound.” Our heart is gently roused by the Spirit to a clear adhesion in faith to God.
Again, as we see in the Gospel, the movement of the soul towards God implies a difficult, continual, and subtle work. This work can only be accomplished, provided we are willing, by the Holy Spirit Himself. We have trouble recognizing God’s presence in our lives because our hearts are still so full of weeds. Uprooting the causes of sin leads to purity of heart, and those who are pure of heart see God. The causes of sin are not to be found outside of us, or in our members, but in our soul itself.
EPHREM THE SYRIAN:
This was the purpose of such a revelation: the Lord wanted to instruct the prophet through various figures in order to correct his excessive zeal and to lead him to imitate, according to righteousness, the providence of the most High who regulates the judgments of his justice through the abundant mercy of his grace. From the allegorical point of view this is the meaning of the frightening signs that precede the coming of the Lord: the earthquake and the fire kindled by the strong winds prefigure the type of the dreadful signs that will precede the final day of judgment.1
“When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant.’ ” He stayed at the entrance of the cave because he did not dare approach the Lord who was coming to him. He wrapped his face, saying, “The creature is not worthy of seeing his Creator.” But he did not move from his first thought, even though he saw the image of the benevolence of his Lord in the symbol that was presented to him, and in addition he experienced his admirable mercy and ineffable love for human beings. Who would not have been astonished by the word of the divine majesty who asked him with love, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” But Elijah did not change his mind or shut his mouth. Instead he rose against the sinners once again and complained about the sons of his people before the Lord who asked him the reason for his flight.2
If we see a child holding a knife, though we don’t see him hurt, we spank him and forbid him to ever do so again. In the same way, God removes the licentious look even before the act, lest at any time you should fall in act also. For he who has once kindled the flame, even when the woman whom he has beheld is absent, is forming continually within himself images of shameful things. The images often lead even to the concrete act. Hence Christ takes away even that embrace which is in the heart only.3
Those who care little for their souls do not look sufficiently into their hearts. They do not consider it a sin to get angry with their neighbors without cause and do not think it a sin to lust after a woman who belongs to another provided they do not follow up their lust. But it is a great sin among those who fear God and hold their hearts in high regard. And it is a great sin before God, who looks not only at one’s actions but also at one’s heart. With the inwardness of this commandment the law is not abolished but fulfilled, and without it the Lord’s commandment would be untenable.
So too the man who lusts after a woman who belongs to another has already committed adultery with her in his heart, though he has not had relations with her for whatever restraining reason. He is still an adulterer before God, who looks more at the will than the act. For the overt act of adultery may have been lacking, but not the will. Even those who are unaware of the deeper mystery of human nature can agree on this much: Every carnal nature is subject to these passions. No one, not even a saint, can possibly detach himself from the temptation to anger or lust. Yet they go on to imagine that Christ, as though commanding an impossible thing, is setting up a trap to make people culpable. Anyone who commands impossible things sows occasions of offense and lays grounds for punishment.
Thus when we get angry and feel the force of lust, if we are dissatisfied with ourselves and are quick to suppress either our anger or our lust, it is clear that our flesh alone is getting angry or lusting but not our soul. But if we become self-satisfied in these things and decide to give vent to any anger or lust we feel, then our soul as well gets angry and lusts at the same time as the flesh. Therefore, since God knows that the nature of the flesh is not subject to him, God does not bother to command the flesh as such, as if it stood alone. What knowing person then will give a command to someone who, despite good intentions, is unable to obey? Rather, God speaks to the soul, which is able to obey him in all things and which, despite an angry and lustful flesh, is able not to get angry and not to be consumed with lust.4
As the degree of innocence increases, faith becomes more advanced. For we are advised to be free not only from our own particular faults but also from those things that affect us outwardly. For is it not because of sin that the bodily members were condemned in the first place? The right eye is no less sinister than the left. It is pointless to chastise a foot that is unaware of lust and thus involves no grounds for punishment. But our members indeed do differ from each other while we are all one body. We are here being advised to pluck out inordinate loves or friendships if they are the occasion that leads us further into wrongdoing. We would do well to not even have the benefit of a member, like an eye or a foot, if it furnishes the avenue by which one is drawn by excessive affections into a partnership with hell. Even the cutting away of a member might be beneficial if the heart (figuratively speaking) were also able to be cut away. But if the impulse of the heart is left unchanged, the cutting away of a member would be pointless.5
He speaks about the numbers of the body but employs hyperbole. It is not that one should literally “cut off one’s members.” Rather, one is called to mortify them and render them useless for sin, as the apostle has said. One should not spare even things thought most necessary, if through them any bad activity threatens to occur.6
- ON THE FIRST BOOK OF KINGS 19.11. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 118). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON THE FIRST BOOK OF KINGS 19.13. Conti, M., & Pilara, G. (Eds.). (2008). 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (p. 118). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 17.2. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (pp. 108–109). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INCOMPLETE WORK ON MATTHEW, HOMILY 12. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 110). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- ON MATTHEW 4.21. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 110). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- FRAGMENT 23. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2001). Matthew 1–13 (p. 110). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.