Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Overcoming Passions and Distractions in Prayer

Knowing God depends on a pure heart. But, we find ourself filled with negative worldly thoughts that cloud our heart and make it impossible for us to experience Him in our prayers. At the root of our problem are passions.

Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra gives us an incite about how we overcome this problem we all struggle with. It is recorded in a new book, The Mystical Marriage.

To begin with, he wakes us up by telling us that if we are distracted when praying we don’t love God. He says,
When someone says, “l am distracted by thoughts during prayer”... you can be sure that such a person does not love God genuinely and has never loved Him.

Our distraction means that giving our attention to a worldly thought is more important than God. When we find our mind distracted we must search to root out the cause which is a passion. This cause becomes our idol.

The elder says,
When a particular desire continually arises within us, by which I mean a particular chain of reasoning or line of thinking; when the same things continue to stir us up, or when we run into the same problem with people, or when something takes place that we do not like or approve of, what happens? We return, yet again, to the same thing that we have already discussed fifteen or twenty times, or more like fifteen or twenty years, this means we are in the grip of some kind of passion.

Our passions come from our desires. This could be an opinion about our work place, bosses or co-workers, our government, or the Church and it’s clergy, or friends or relatives. If we realize that this object of our thought has a power over us by commanding our attention in prayer like a superior god, we can then begin to seek out to identify and destroy the passion that has this power over us.

Every desire is a passion. Desiring involves turning our Spirit, our feelings, towards something that is controlling our thoughts. In desiring we are binding ourselves to something good or evil. But when this desire is not fulfilled we experience sorrow. Why? Because our ego has been constrained. Our desire is based on “I want.” When blocked, our will is not being satisfied. With the resulting frustration or sorrow we become self-focused, constantly coming back to what is being denied. We are then separated from God. Our spirit is stuck and focused on something constraining our self-will, what “I” feel, believe or want.

This condition can turn into anger. Whatever is denying the satisfaction of our desire becomes an enemy and we become hostile toward it. It can be the inability to get some tangible thing, to be respected, to have our view accepted, or something else caused by another person or institution. The passion or desire becomes stronger in a negative way. We want to do whatever we can to destroy what limits our original desire.

After this can come resentment. When this develops we have permanently established in our mind opposition against someone else. When we see them, think of them, or sit in prayer we have feelings of hostility towards them. These negative thoughts keep reoccurring. As a result we are no longer able to experience love or happiness and unable to show compassion. This also blocks our ability to love God. This why Christ tells us we must love our enemy, otherwise we find ourselves separated from Him.

How do recover from this condition now that even the cells in our brain have been connected is a way that makes this condition seem permanent leading to repetitive negative thoughts? The elder tells us that the way out is to despise what it is we desire, what it is we cannot have or do. He says,
If a person does not despise the thing toward which he is inclined, which he desires, he will remain the eternal slave of his passion, bound by a thousand chains.

To despise what we desire means we need a change in what has become our normal way of thinking. This is the idea of repentance, metanoia. We need to reprogram our brain, change our pattern of thought.

The elder says,
Whatever it is that you think or believe, whatever it is you think you love, of that your mind has become attached to, you must strike it with a divine passion, with hate, and then your passion will be set aside by divine power, by divine grace, and you will lay the foundation that will enable you eventually to love God.”

He gives us an example. Suppose someone says something to you that causes you to think they are egotistical, a hypocrite, or someone who has bad thoughts. What does this imply? It simply means that you disagree with him or what he does. It’s the “I” at work. It’s your ego based view opposed to his. This is rooted in a passion and you must be able to totally despise this way of thinking. 

When these negative thoughts develop about another person it will do little good to talk with him about it. It won’t even help to seeing his view as right. This will solve nothing as the negative attitude will only appear again later. Elder Aimilianos says,
A thousand excuses and explanations; a thousand confessions to the person in question, or to my spiritual father, or to the icon of Christ; a thousand tears; an endless number of prostrations, will accomplish nothing. If, that is, I don’t change the way I think about others and learn to live with them.

So what are we to do?
We need to learn how to feel and think as they do, he tells us. We must be able to identify our own thoughts with those of the other. This means we must “enter into a fullness of relation with others. My disposition toward them must be one of love.” Remember how Christ said to love your enemies?  Unless you do this you will remain imprisoned by your passion, your own self-centered way of thinking.

He then raises the obvious question, “what if the other does not think correctly?” Never mind, he says, as long as a sin is not involved. When you are with him conduct yourself in a manner that is consistent with how he thinks even if it causes tension in you. When you are by yourself then do what you think is right.

One example I found in myself is about following the proper rubrics or typicon for our services. I serve with many different priests. Each priest has a slightly different interpretation of what is right that differs from my understanding. It is easy to judge them with negative feelings. Maybe they are poorly trained, self-centered, or don’t respect the role of a deacon. I had to learn not to make such judgements but simply follow the way they think is right when serving with a particular priest, rather than hold any ill feeling about why they don’t do it “my” way. Anther common situation involves visiting a non Orthodox who knows nothing about fasting and prepares a special meal on a fasting day. Instead of judging or feeling more spiritual, you must find a way to appreciate the offering they have prepared for rather than giving them a lesson on fasting and imposing your discipline on them. There are so many common examples where we hold some expectation about another person’s behavior and make negative interpretations about their motivations. When these feelings become permanent we are enslaved by our own desires or passions.

We must remember that there is no middle ground between what I want and what the other wants. There is no ground for compromise no matter how you may attempt to do so. Both views are rooted in the ego. The real issue is the realty of your separation from the other and God if you harbor any form of resentment. He advises,

 “the way I order and regulate my personal, inner journey is one thing, and the way I order my relationship with my fellow human beings is another.”  

We must learn to make these distinctions with love and respect for the other as the image of God.  He says that we must be able to venerate the other as a saint and ourselves as the sinner.

The process is one of denying ourselves. When we do so we are acting like God. Just imagine all the different conditions God must see in His children without withdrawing His love. To be able to do this we must continually work to uncover our passions which are hidden from us. This means we must look deeply into ourselves, to become aware of what our mind keeps returning to and then recognize that this is not truth.

The lesson here is that once you understand there is a cause for your recurring thoughts, you distractions in prayer, you can be assured that this cause is a passion. Once you know this cause you know in very practical terms the passion.

It is not difficult to find passions. What is difficult it to want to do something about it. This is because, he says, 
we have become dependent on a false image of our self that we have, and we hold on to it tightly in order not to lose it.” 
Seeking God, knowing our thoughts separate us from Him, we must true repent and arouse our inner motivation to hate, despise the passion. This involves the difficult task of changing our mind. When we do we will feel freed, born again. God will give us the grace to free us from this passion.

“If we want to, we can correct ourselves, we can change our minds. If on the other hand, we don’t want to do this, if we don’t want to disdain and despise the things that keep us down and hold us back, we will remain in the grip of the passions for all eternity… We will be separated eternally from God, having embraced and idol in the place of the Lord.”

Reference: The Mystical Marriage: Spiritual life according to St Maximos the Confessor, by Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Newrome Press, 2018, 

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.