Matthew the Poor(Father Matta El-Mesken) wrote this book not as a work of a scholar speaking about prayer. It is the product of his 55 year solitude in the desert making prayer the focus of all his might.
He set out on the solitary life in August of 1948 to make prayer itself his food.
His starting point was a 122 page manuscript given to him by a British pilgrim to Jerusalem. The manuscript contained sayings of the Russian Fathers with some sayings from some Eastern saints as well.
Father Matta El-Meskeen(Matthew the Poor) then would read and re-read these sayings again and again until they became imprinted on his mind. He would then stand up and turn the sayings into prayer then sit down to read again.
This became his routine: reading, reciting and praying these sayings along with other psalms and praises accompanying this all with countless daily prostrations.
After some time, desiring to add to this 122 page manuscript, he searched out for the sayings of other Fathers of the East and West from all the sources at hand.
As he gathered these sayings, collecting them, practising them, and so forth, he also was making notes for himself regarding his observations and his experience with these sayings and the life he gave to God around these sayings. These notes became the substance of this book on the prayerful life.
This book is rich in depth and weight. Contained in its pages are the experience of a master of prayer.
I will now provide for the reader the entire Preface, written by Matthew the Poor to explain in his own words what this book is about.
This post officially marks the beginning of a series on this book.
I was initially hesitant to to post on this book for the simple reason that Matthew the Poor is a Copt and our churches are not in communion. Debating back and forth whether to post I nonetheless continued to read it. I was struck so many times by so many things in this book that I almost felt compelled to post on it.
So here it is.
The frequency of these posts will not equal the pace of Christ is in our Midst as this book is not set up in the manner Christ is in our Midst was.
Most likely I will break up the chapters into several posts and will offer my own commentary as I feel I ought and will withhold commentary as I feel I ought as well.
This book is not composed by an intellectual who sat down to write what he had gathered or visualized about prayer. Rather, it is a record of my overflowing experience. At first, prompted by the Spirit of God, I wrote notes and passages as reminders to myself and for my own spiritual benefit. From time to time I would return to this record to gaze at its beauty and delve further into its depths. I had no idea that it would one day become a book to be read by others.
The story began in August 1948.1 had just embarked on the solitary life. My longing for such a life could never have materialized had it not been for the direct intervention of God. It is he who had miraculously absolved me of all my responsibilities in the world.
It is said, "Not everything one desires one attains." However, I have attained all that my soul yearns for by winning such a thoroughgoing solitude with God. This is the thing for which I had been praying for four years. What had attracted me to the solitary life and absorbed my mind was the idea that once I had attained it I would turn it all into prayer—and prayer alone.
I would like first to give the reader an idea about the wonderful way in which God met my hopes and expectations.
A few days before my departure for the monastery that God had chosen for me, I was visited by a young engineer1 who carried with him a gift. It had been given to him by a British pilgrim2 to Jerusalem who had lived in Russia and mastered the Russian language. In old manuscripts, he had found sayings of the Russian fathers, both ancient and modern, on prayer. He translated them into English together with some other sayings of the Eastern saints. This typed manuscript was only 122 pages. The young engineer handed it to me with his best wishes for success in my new life.
I did not open the manuscript, as I was in a hurry getting ready for my long journey. I only included it in my belongings.
No sooner had I settled in my new residence than I realized the great blessing in which I found myself. I stood on my feet to thank God in tears for the mighty hand that brought me out of this world. I marveled at how God had snatched me from its cares in such power and compassion! This was the first spark that ignited my spirit with prayer.
Renunciation of the world and its possessions had been my greatest concern. I thus left the world without keeping the least connection with it. My belongings were nothing more than a Bible, a copy of St Isaac the Syrian, and some empty notebooks. The monastery also exchanged my poverty for its own. There were no books at all of any kind except a single copy of The Paradise of the Fathers, which was read aloud during meals in the refectory.
I thus realized at once that what I had asked for had materialized. Prayer was now the only profession of my life—not by way of choice but by way of obligation. Prayer indeed became now my only anchor.
I do not wish now to bother the reader with my affairs. Let it suffice to know that God meant to besiege me with prayer. Whenever physical hunger turned cruel against me, I found my gratification in prayer. Whenever the biting cold of winter was unkind to me, I found my warmth in prayer. Whenever people were harsh to me (and their harshness was severe indeed) I found my comfort in prayer. In short, prayer became my food and my drink, my outfit and my armor whether by night or by day. This was all the more true in my case, for I had no spiritual father or friend. I had neither a colleague nor a comrade for my journey. The voice of God was the only answer for all my needs. It was the voice of father, friend, comrade, and guide. No sooner did I feel the need for his voice than I heard it speaking inside me a thousand times stronger than an ear would ever hear. For what the ear hears, the mind forgets. But what the heart hears, time can never erase.
When I finally opened the manuscript of the English pilgrim and found that it contained sayings on prayer, my heart leapt for joy. A wave of happiness and exhilaration overwhelmed me. How did God bring this treasure into my hand? This was my only inheritance from die world. I did not believe my eyes when I began reading of experiences that most strongly told of my own. They expressed my hope and the joy of my life. So I decided to pray in the words of these sayings. I sat down to read each of them many times until they became impressed on my mind. I would then stand up to turn them into prayer, and then sit down to read again, and then stand up to pray in the words that I had just read, and so on. My spirit thus became aflame as if with fire. I never stopped thanking God, while my soul remained full with the utmost joy.
Thus would I spend the whole night in prayer, reciting one or two passages together with other psalms and praises and making countless prostrations. While reciting the sayings of this or that Father, I would visualize him before me. I would then beseech him to clarify further to me the meaning of his words, and God would answer my plea. I would thus emerge every night with a new friendship with the spirits of these saints together with a knowledge and illumination that grew day after day. This knowledge evolved into an awareness of the different stages the spirit of man undergoes a fife of prayer. However, I would seldom record on paper the knowledge I gained. I had not the least idea that this could be published one day. I considered it for my own life only, limited to the purpose of rectifying my journey toward God.
However, I heard God telling me in prayer that what he gave me was not for myself but for others. If I keep such spiritual knowledge exclusively for myself, it would be held back. I thereupon began to translate and edit in Arabic the sayings of those saintly fathers, blending them with my own experience and commentary. I then divided them into chapters and added a prelude to each. If the reader examines my editing and commentary closely and compares it with the words of the Fathers on the relevant topic, he will notice how my spirit has been molded by theirs. It might be difficult for him to discern my language from their own. He will thus realize that the spirit of the Fathers and their thought have been deeply impressed on my own spirit and mind. This is the result of the extreme veneration I had for these saints. I was deeply devoted to their life, sanctity, and savor, which arrested my soul, heart, and mind. I thus lost what is mine to gain what is theirs. It is as if I were a robber—robbing the Spirit and life in the Spirit: "The kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force" (Mt 11.12).
However, I soon found that what was contained in the notes of the British pilgrim was not enough to cover the wide panorama of prayer. I thus began to collect other sayings of the Fathers, both of the East and West, from all the sources that reached my hand. I wished to present to the reader what should suffice for covering the whole course of a prayerful life. But I never resorted to intellectual authorship. Apart from my experience, I never dared to write anything. For I considered writing on prayer as prayer per se. This is what I have learned and what God has taught me.
And now the reader may understand the reason why I wrote this preface. The purpose behind the quotes and all that is written on prayer in this book is not for reading but for prayer. The mystery of this book lies in turning the sayings on prayer into prayer. This is why the words "prayer life" are included in the title.
Matthew the Poor
1Eng. Yassa Hanna, manager of Marconi Co. at that time.
2Archimandrite Lazarus Moore. "
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