Thursday, July 28, 2011

Dealing With Hidden Causes of Our Passions

The Church Fathers consistently talk about controlling our thoughts as a means to control our passions.  These thoughts are not usually predictable but seem to arise out of nowhere like they are hidden from our view.  We do know that when they arise they are given strength by external circumstances and stimulus.  In the case of lust we may have no such conscious thoughts in our heart, but then we receive an enticing look or a stroke of our body, a latent inner thought can be inflamed with uncontrollable passion. Recognizing this reality, the way we control our external circumstances is important for the control our passions.

Saint Theophan gives us the following advice:
1. Do not give free reign to your senses, especially the eyes and ears.  Do not allow them to see everything, hear everything and be concerned with everything indiscriminately.
2. Rush immediately to blot out the stimulus and suppress the thoughts... after the flow of the stimuli has been stopped of course.
3. Once a person has experienced harm from a stimulus, he should not willingly allow himself to encounter the objects that caused it again.
4. Learn to reinterpret everything you encounter so you can encounter it in the spiritual sense. St. Ephriam the Syrian, having encountered an enticingly dressed woman, told his disciples, "You see how she takes care to adorn her body, which soon will be dust; how can we not be concerned with adorning our immortal soul?
To overcome passions does not mean we need to seclude ourselves like a recluse.  We must learn to live with the reality of a full life in this world, lived in the spirit and not for the satisfaction of our passions.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 257-259

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Does It Take So Long?

So often, with great expectations, we will renew our commitment to the Orthodox Way of Life by making significant changes in our life and how we spend our time.  We will increase our time in prayer, participate more regularly in services and sacraments, begin to read Scripture and the lives of the saints daily.  Yet, we find we are still confronted with the same desires and distractions that keep us separated from God.  We expect instant success and we do not find it.  We grumble that we followed the instruction from a wise elder yet do not experience any improvement in our relationship with God.  Why do we expect such instant success? Why is it so difficult?

Saint Theophan says speaking to one of his spiritual children,
"I cannot in any way suppose that your success to have been complete as soon as you began, that your thoughts would be pure, and feelings and desires holy. This is because it never happens like this to any body.  The thoughts will be pacified, the passionate impulses of feelings and desires will become less frequent.  All the same , however, they will erupt and sometimes wit great force.
As he says our thoughts are not pure and desires not holy.  We also have unreasonable expectations.  We are only beginning to overcome our passions and must be patient and persistent.  One thing that is very important is to be humble and remember it is God's will that is to work through us and not just our own efforts.  To often we think we are the doer rather than humbling ourselves to the truth in the work of His grace.  Our task is to follow Grace and not try to force and direct it as our will demands.  We must strip ourselves of all pious pretenses and self-will.

Saint Theophan advises,
Do not try to conceal yourself, covering your nakedness with a fig leaf and hiding in the bushes from the Lord, who comes to you in the conscience and exposes you.  Blame yourself completely, and ask forgiveness without placing blame on anyone else.
The essence of a true spiritual life is humility.  This involves a life where we are continually recognizing the dominating power of our own will and our limitations in doing what is God's will for us.  Jesus calls us to be perfect, but too often we assume we are already perfect when we are far from what he has taught us to become.  Then we too often make the mistake of thinking we can do it through our own power by saying these prayers, or fasting in this way and so forth.  Our spiritual practice is only an aid for us to open our heart to the reality of our condition so that we will fall down in front of God and ask for His forgiveness and help and allow His grace to flow through us.  In this way our thoughts can become pure and our desires holy.

Our spiritual life involves daily effort.  Saint Hesychius says,
At every hour we must weigh our daily affairs attentively, and as much as we are able, without fail lighten their burden through repentance, if we want to overcome the passions with the help of Jesus. It is also necessary to examine whether we carry out all our outward actions through God's will, before God and for God Alone, so that the feelings (passionate) do not deceive us like foolish people.
Keep up your spiritual practices as called for in an Orthodox way of life.  But do it with complete humility and a spirit of repentance.

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Reference: The Spiritual Life, pp 255-256

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Why Does Prayer Need to Be Free From Thoughts?

Why is it important that prayer be free from thoughts?  To have true prayer our minds must be pure, still and totally open for an encounter with the infinite and all compassionate God.  When we have thoughts cluttering our mind in prayer, our prayer becomes focused on things of this world and our prayer time becomes a problem solving session with ourselves.  Our thoughts are like a pollutant that distorts our prayer and confuses our relationship with God with our own desires and needs.  It is a pure open mind that will gain grace that enables us to hear and do His will instead of our own will.

Saint Hesychius writes,
One who does not have prayer that is free from the thoughts is without a weapon for battle.  I understand prayer to be that which is carried out unceasingly within the depths of the soul, so that the enemy who is secretly fighting may be vanquished and scorched by this invocation to Christ.  For you must look with the sharply focused eye of the mind so that you will recognize what has entered into it, and after doing so, immediately cut off the head of the snake through refutation, and at the same time call on Christ with groaning. through experience you will come to know God's invisible help; then you will see clearly the true condition of the heart.
Our challenge is to have the sobriety to be watchful and attentive to the nature of our thoughts and to dismiss them when we enter into prayer.  As Saint Hesychius says, "you must look with the sharply focused eye of the mind" in prayer. This is the true purpose of our mind to enable us to focus on our Creator and discern His will for us.  As we repeat the Jesus Prayer, our  mind will instantly become focused on God and we will receive His grace which helps us deter all distracting thoughts.

One of the reasons we pray is to overcome the domination of our soul by the thoughts roaming thorough our minds, distracting it from a intimate relationship with God.  It is in prayer where thoughts are subdued that we find this relationship our soul seeks.

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Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 252

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What Do Church Fathers Mean By Sobriety?

What do the Church Fathers mean when they use the the term translated as sobriety? This is an important concept in our struggle against the passions -- those desires that lead us away from the will of God and separate us from Him.

Saint Hesychius writes,
Sobriety is the continual situating of the thought at the doors of the heart, so that it sees the thoughts creeping up and understands what form the demons are attempting to inscribe and establish in the mind, so as to entice it through the imagination.
Often we refer to this as self discipline. It is a level of spiritual maturity where we are aways aware of our thoughts.  This awareness is also called watchfulness.  It is where we are always watching for those thoughts that will enter into our minds and stimulate desires that lead us away from the teachings of Jesus Christ. 

How do we develop this virtue?  If we only follow the Orthodox Way of LIfe taught by the Church we will be lead on a path where we become watchful and have sobriety.  This involves daily prayer, practice of the Jesus Prayer, participating in the weekly fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and the other fasting periods specified by the Church. It involves our regular attendance to the Divine Liturgies and participating with proper preparation in Holy Communion and Holy Confession.  It also means we will read the Scripture each day.  This is an easy discipline that trains our mind, builds self-discipline, and subjects our self-will to the will of God.

I was talking with a young family yesterday and they were describing how a priest who came into their parish was firm in asking his parishioners to follow these practices.  There were many in the Church who rebelled and caused him difficulty but they began to follow what he taught them.  This lead them to a higher quality of life and one they found to be much "easier" than trying to make up their own approach to their Orthodox Faith. Their teen age children matured and developed responsibility and the younger ones became curios about the teachings of the church asking questions and seeking information on their own. The found the discipline to always eat their meals as a family and to function as an integral family unit. Their lives changed and their love for God increased. 

Sobriety is the the result of a very simple act and choice.  It involves simply choosing to follow the teachings of the Church about our daily way of life. This simple act will give greater meaning to the crazy world we live in, greater capacity to discern what is right and wrong, a inner quietness and strength to exercise our self-will in conjunction with the teachings of Jesus.

Saint Theophan advises,
I am pointing you directly to the path so that you do not wander all over the place.  Be more diligent in your undertaking and you will soon see success.  However, you must labor with all your might, because without labor there will be nothing.

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Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 251-252

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Escaping from Passions

The most powerful way to develop self control, to overcome the passions that lead us away from God, is to remember the name of God when we are fist enticed by a passion.  As soon as we enter into a situation where we might be subject to anger, lust, gluttony or any other passion we must become very watchful.  When we encounter, as an example, a person that has dishonored us and the idea of revenge or anger arises in our mind, this is the time to act - immediately!  In fact we want to get angry at the thought.  This is the proper role of anger and why were were given this capacity.  Once we have set ourselves against the thought, then we need to call for help.  How do we do this?  We call on the name of the Lord.  "Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!"

Scripture in many places affirms that when we call on the Lord with faith in Him, He will come to our aid.
Because he has set his hope on me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he has known my name.  He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: He also will hear their prayer, and will save them. (Psalm 144: 18-19)
There is another method often taught is to counteract the attack with a negative thought.  If anger is the passion you are struggling with, you could say to yourself, "Anger only separates me from God. You will become irrational and do or say things that are hurtful causing you to sin." Saint Theophan tells us that this approach is a weak one.  He says,
Sometimes they drive it out, but this method is for the most part unreliable.  By exposing the passionate thought we are still keeping it in our mind... 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, the passionate 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 departs of its own accord.
Saint Theophan also gives us as story told by Saint John the Dwarf.
I act as a man sitting under a tree who looks attentively around him.  This man, as soon as he sees wild beasts coming toward him, immediately climbs up the tree, and the beasts, after coming up to the tree, walk around for a while and go away.  And I, as soon as I observe mental beasts coming toward me in passionate thoughts, immediately rise up my mind to the Lord, and the beasts cannot get to me as they are forced to scatter every which way.
This is how the Jesus Prayer works for us.  Once we have made it part of our daily prayer practice it is always at the front of our mind and ready to go into action when we need it.  As soon as we call on the Lord we move away from the thought caused by the passion and sheltered by the prayer.  It is just like we have climbed the tree in John the Dwarf's story.

Reference: The Spiritual Life, p 244-249

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