Monday, July 15, 2019

Saint John Cassian on Controlling Thoughts

Troubled by negative thoughts? Saint John has a solution. Follow the Orthodox way of life and you will fill your mind with godly thoughts.

Our mind is constantly being filled with thoughts. This we cannot avoid. Often in prayer, when we want to concentrate on God, we become distracted by these thoughts. This is also an issue in our daily life. Our thoughts can keep us from following His commandments. We err because we are tempted by some these thoughts. Therefore, to be able to live a virtuous life in unity with the will of a God requires that we are vigilant and careful about which thoughts we choose to act on.

Saint John Cassian writes,
It is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, but it is in the power of every earnest man either to admit them or to reject them. As then their rising up does not entirely depend on ourselves, so the rejection or admission of them lies in our own power. But because we said that it is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, you must not lay everything to the charge of the assault, or to those spirits who strive to instill them into us, else there would not remain any free will in man, nor would efforts for our improvement be in our power: but it is, I say, to a great extent in our power to improve the character of our thoughts and to let either holy and spiritual thoughts or earthly ones grow up in our hearts. 
In the beginning chapter of his Conference he tells us that the first step is to have clearly in mind our goal. Just as in our education, our work or business a goal is essential to keeps us focused so we can excel. This is also true in the Orthodox way of life. So, what is our true Goal? As the Apostles tell us and Jesus showed us, it is the kingdom of heaven. But what is our immediate aim? Saint John says it’s “purity of heart.” Jesus told us in His sermon on the mount that with a pure heart we can see God,
He’s writes,
The end of our profession indeed, as I said, is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven: but the immediate aim or goal, is purity of heart, without which no one can gain that end: fixing our gaze then steadily on this goal as if on a definite mark.
With this as our aim we must organize our life to eliminate anything that restrains us from this and amplify those things that move us closer to it. Thoughts temp us, cloud our heart, distract us and hold us back. Therefore to attain a pure heart we must find ways to properly deal with our thoughts. Knowing that our aim is to have a pure heart so we will enter the kingdom of heaven, and having the zeal to attain this goal, we will be able to direct our energies towards this end.
Saint John writes,
And so when this object is set before us, we shall always direct our actions and thoughts straight towards the attainment of it; for if it be not constantly fixed before our eyes, it will not only make all our toils vain and useless, and force them to be endured to no purpose and without any reward, but it will also excite all kinds of thoughts opposed to one another. For the mind, which has no fixed point to which it may return, and on which it may chiefly fasten, is sure to rove about from hour to hour and minute to minute in all sorts of wandering thoughts, and from those things which come to it from outside, to be constantly changed into that state which first offers itself to it.

Saint John gives us a key insight about how to deal with the distractions we experience because of these many thoughts entering our mind. In effect he says the best way is to continually fill our mind with godly thoughts.
He writes,
For for this purpose frequent reading and continual meditation on the Scriptures is employed that from thence an opportunity for spiritual recollection may be given to us, therefore the frequent singing of Psalms is used, that thence constant feelings of compunction may be provided, and earnest vigils and fasts and prayers, that the mind may be brought low and not mind earthly things, but contemplate things celestial, for if these things are dropped and carelessness creeps on us, the mind being hardened with the foulness of sin is sure to incline in a carnal direction and fall away.
This is why the Church fathers are constantly reminding us about the importance of all the elements of the Orthodox way of Life. We need to live in a way that our our mind is constantly filled with godly thoughts. The more we fill our mind with godly thoughts the less chance there is that we will be led astray with other thoughts. We must learn to make time to read the Scripture daily, to read the psalms every day, to participate in all  the services that are available to us, to spend more time in our daily prayers, to follow the fasting recommendations of the church so we can strengthen our ability to follow the will of the soul, to only spend time in dialogue with fellow spiritual orthodox seekers so we won’t be misled by erroneous teachings. In this way our thoughts will be more inclined to be filled with good thoughts and the evil ones will be fewer and easier to discern.

Reference: The Conferences of John Cassian, Conference 1 with elder Moses

Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of Life

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