Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Getting Help in our Battle with Thoughts

As several of you have pointed out in earlier discussions, controlling our thoughts is not a easy task.  Assuredly, if we can do it, our mind becomes clearer, quieter and we are better able to discern.  As a  result we can become more holy.  True prayer demands a silent mind free of thoughts so we can listen to the wordless voice of God that comes from our heart.  It is in this way that we can do the will of God. But being able to control our thoughts is something that seems to elude us.  It is something that we cannot do by ourselves. We need help.

Saint Heychius tells us,
The spirit cannot conquer a demonic fantasy by its own unaided powers, and should never attempt to do so... The demons are a sly lot: they pretend to be overcome and thin trip us up by filling us up with self-esteem.  But when we call upon Jesus Christ, they do not dare to play their tricks with us even for a second." (Philokalia vol 1, p. 166)

Those of us who have tried to master our thoughts can affirm that, no matter how much we progress, we are either defeated by more thoughts that gain our attention, or we begin to think about how well we have mastered our control of thoughts.  As soon as we begin to think about how well we are doing we have lost the battle.

The key is what Saint Heychius tells us – we must call on Jesus Himself for help.

Saint Theophan the Recluse tells us,
Whenever we appeal directly to the Lord with fear, reverence, hope and faith in His complete activity without entering into a verbal battle with the passionate thought, the passionate thought then moves away from the mind's eye, which is fixed on the Lord.  When it is cut off from the mind through such attention, the passionate thought departs of its own accord...

The act of calling on the Lord for help plants a more powerful thought in our mind and forces the one we want to ignore into the background.  Without attention given to the thought and given instead to God asking for His help, it disappears.  The demon trying to plant the unwanted thought in us is defeated. This is one reason why the practice of the Jesus Prayer is so important.  God helps us counteract unwanted thoughts when we call on His Name.

Saint Theophan uses an example of a legend he knew of.
An elder lived in the desert of silence.  The demons visibly attacked him, and began dragging him our of his cell so as to completely drive him out of the desert.  The elder himself began fighting back at them, but they moved him and had already dragged him right up to the very door.  Just a bit more, and they would have turned him out.  Seeing his extreme danger, the elder called out, "Lord Jesus Christ! Why have you abandoned me?  Help me, Lord!"  As soon as he called out, the Lord appeared immediately and chased away the demons, and said to the elder, "I did not abandon you, but because you did not call on me and thought you could cope with the demons yourself, I did not come to your help.  Call on me, and you will always receive ready help."  After saying this, the Lord disappeared.  this incident is a lesson not just to the elder, but to all of us: Do not struggle with passionate thoughts through your own spiritual altercations with them, but turn immediately to the Lord with prayers against them. (The Spiritual Life, p. 246)

A final thought from Saint Theophan
Lasting purification of the thoughts is a gift from God, but this gift is not given without intensifying one's personal labors.  While you will not achieve anything just by your own labor, God will not give you anything if you do not labor with al your might.  This is the fundamental law. (The Spiritual Life, p. 210)

More in the next post on the Power of the Name.

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