Do Not Engage In Intrusive Thoughts and Feelings
Christ is risen! As we continue looking at Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 Maxims for Christian Living, we come into a few regarding our “thought lives.” Today’s reflection comes from the “Orthodox Way of Living” blog, which is focused on information on how to live the Orthodox way of life from the Saint George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Greenville, South Carolina, and maintained by Deacon Charles Joiner.
One of my biggest struggles is to stop the thoughts that are the source of my sinfulness. I find myself constantly judging base on thoughts about the motivations of others, as well as avoiding situations because of anxiety that comes from thoughts of self-doubt. I asked, “How do I get rid of these bad thoughts that endlessly enter into my mind?”
While at the Paracletos Monastery, which is nearby, the Abbess there gave me a small book titled, Thoughts and How to Confront Them, by Hieromonk Benedict of the Holy Mount Athos
Here are some excepts from this sweet and short book.
First Hieromonk Benedict says, “Thoughts and reasonings are the greatest barrier man faces to achieve spiritual education and perfection.” Well, this raises my attention. He continues saying, “This perfection can by no other mens be achieved than by the continuous invocation of the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.” I like his directness here. He says, “No other means.” This focuses the approach for me.
He describes that what we are dealing with is not with external events but is a “inner war.” The soul is harmed not by external threats but by “diseases which grow inside us.”
Where do these thoughts come from that block our spiritual growth? First, he points to the Fall and the Ancestral Sin of Adam and Eve. Second, he highlights the senses which continually generate thoughts, based on inputs we receive from our environment, that need to be “properly governed by their ruling mind.” Third, there are the passions. And fourth, the primary problem, is the demons. He quotes Saint Gregory of Sinai who says, “Thoughts are the words of the demons and forerunners of passions.”
Next he shows how a simple single thought can lead one to sin. He says,
“We are not held liable for a simple thought or image which passes through our mind, nor is it difficult for us to confront it. However, from the moment that we open the door to welcome in this thought and commence to ponder it, it is then that the thought takes its position within us and become a prevailing thought.”
Sin begins with a single thought, is his point. He next outlines three stage in the path towards sin:
The assault – the arrival of the thought which is normal.
The consent or approval – this is where the sin begins.
The captivity or imprisonment – here is where accept the thought and its attendant actions.
“Thus the thought, which began with a simple knocking of the door (the assault), caused the opening of that door (the consent). In Conclusion, the person was unable to control and dismiss the thought, and he eventually committed the act of sin. This is the path towards sin, which begins with one single thought.”
It is impossible for us not to have thoughts which lead us to sin. He writes, “Up to the point of a man’s death and as long as his soul remains in his body, it is impossible for him not to have evil thoughts.”
Now these cunning thoughts which lead to sin, separate us from God and lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity, fear and many bodily illnesses. The challenge is to learn how to confront these thoughts liberate our soul from their captivity. Saint John Chrysostom tells us not to declare or express them, but to choke them with silence.
Saint Maximos the Confessor tells us to “rid yourself from the passions and you will immediately expel these thoughts from your mind.” For example, to rid oneself from thoughts of revenge, pray for the person who causes you harm.
Saint Basil advises, “we should confront these attacks with intensive care and attentiveness… And even if the tricky enemy, during the hour of prayer, subjects us to cunning fantasies, the soul should not interrupt its prayer.. He should think of the fact that these thoughts are due to the impertinence of the inventor of evil. That person should then intensify his kneeling to the Lord an should plead to God to dissolve the cunning partition caused by irrational and absurd thoughts, so that, unhindered, he can approach God…. If however the harmful attack of the thoughts becomes more intense…we should endure up to the point when God will notice our perseverance. He will then enlighten us with the Grace of the Holy Spirit….”
The Holy Fathers of the Church teach the following methods for confronting corrupt thoughts:
Prayer: “It is not possible for the beginner to rid himself of these thoughts on his own. It is only those perfected in prayer who know how to do this. The prayer of the mind, the monologistic prayer of “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me , the sinner.”, is the strongest weapon….”
Objection: “For those who are able to combat should use objection, which usually muzzles the demons to silence. Our Lord used this method in order to win the three great wars which were begun in the desert mountain by the devil…There are instances when one musters up all yet is still unable to dispel on evil thought…
For this reason it is best for one to resort to the power of prayer and tears…”
Contempt: “If we occupy ourselves wit the thoughts that are imposed on us by the devil, we will never be able to do any good.
To dislike, to disregard and not to be occupied with thoughts imposed by the enemy are the greatest weapon….
There exists no greater victory and humiliation for the demon than this contempt and scorn…”
In addition to these three methods there is also the approach of the “memory of death.” This is a very powerful method for the contempt of these thoughts. This approach creates a “heartfelt pain for our sins and prevents our mind from accepting such thoughts…
Saint John of Kolovos says,
“I resemble a person who sits under a great tree and who suddenly sees a great herd of beasts and reptiles coming to attack him. then, since he cannot easily withstand, runs up the tree and saves himself. This is exactly what I do. I sit in my cell and watch the cunning thoughts climbing to confront me. That is when I climb. ‘The Tree of Life’, to my God with prayer and in by this way I am saved from the enemy.”
So what am I going to do? I am going to focus on my practice of the Jesus Prayer. Hiermonk Benedict said this was the strongest weapon and best for the beginner. But I know I have to work at it and not let my mind be entertained with thoughts as I sit in prayer.