When we say the Act of Contrition at the end of our confession in Sacramental Reconciliation, it contains a phrase that, I think, we don’t often think deeply enough about:
I have a powerful example of this kind of discerning approach, and this time it isn’t related to St. Ignatius! This is an excerpt from a transcript of a talk given by the ever-provocative Orthodox theologian, Fr. Tom Hopko, on the role of thoughts, feelings, memories and external circumstances in the spiritual life. You can hear the whole (55 minute) talk in audio form here. It’s a long excerpt, but it’s so excellent and gritty (which makes it interesting reading!) that I think it’s worth the excess text (which I assiduously try to avoid in this Blog). Because of the length of this post, I will not post tomorrow to give you time, if you wish, to digest this more thoroughly. Now, Fr. Tom:
I knew two young women in my pastoral life over the years who could not go to an Orthodox church and look at the icons. They could not go to communion without having a headache and throwing up and [getting] sick to their stomach and everything. Because when they were little, church was so unpleasant to them. Their mother would pinch them, beat them, drag them to church. The father didn’t want to go. There would be a fight in the family. The mother would throw them into the car. The [kids] didn’t want to go. They got them in church. They made them stand there. And in one of the particular churches, the icons were incredibly ugly. They weren’t nice, beautiful icons. They were… The apostles looked like dwarves, and they were holding the images of their martyrdom: axes and saws and spears and so on. They had big heads and they were very ugly. And Christ on the icon and God the Father was like an old man with a stern look, and his eyes were crossed. And the Holy Spirit was like a big, huge bird with claws. Well, it traumatized and terrified these girls. And they just didn’t even want to go to church. One of them told me—she became a doctor in her old age—she said she could go to a Catholic or a Protestant church where there were no icons or maybe just a few or something, and she could basically hold it together, but the minute she walked into an Orthodox church which was covered with frescoes and icons and the icon screen, she would get sick and want to run away.
Well, those are the kind of memories, thoughts, and feelings we’re talking about, and they have a physical reaction on a person, and a mental reaction, and a spiritual reaction. They do. And we’ve got to deal with them. You can’t avoid them. You can’t repress them. But the method is to flee to God and to bring light, and then the light is stronger than the darkness. The beauty is stronger than the ugliness. The mercy is stronger than the judgment. The comfort is stronger than the pain. That’s what the spiritual life is all about.
We’re going to have prosvoloi, provocations. We’re going to have apyrasmon, trials and temptations. We’re going to have all kinds of attacks of the Evil One and of memories and feelings. We cannot hope for the day when they won’t be there, but we certainly can hope for the day when they no longer touch us. So the exercise, the asceticism, the discipline is all about not engaging them. Not coupling with them. Not giving assent to them. Not joining with them.
One more thing can be said—well, millions more things, but, at least for now just a few things more could be said. One is that usually the thoughts, the memories, the feelings, and the temptations, they have a kind of a routine; they have a kind of a pattern. You might even call it a ritual. I know people, for example, that, if they just go into a room and turn on a television set, sooner or later, or a computer, they will be caught by pornography. So they can’t even turn it on, because if they do that, that’s what’s going to happen. Other people, of course, can’t take a drink. If they take one first drink, they’re shot.
I know a guy who is same-sex attracted, and he struggles with sexual passions of the homosexual nature. But this guy told me that every time when he would not do his spiritual reading and say his prayers, but would go across the street to the drugstore and buy a pack of cigarettes and start smoking them, it was guaranteed that he would act out within 24 hours. The first step toward acting out was not saying the prayer and buying the cigarettes.
I know people who would say if they would walk home from work and take a certain street, go left instead of right to get around the block, they will be in trouble. They can’t go left; they’ve got to go right, because if they go left, they’re going to pass a certain store. They’re going to pass a certain place, a certain bar or something. And then, they’ve had it.
So the spiritual warfare also consists in re-patterning. It’s like a person who’s had a stroke: you’ve got to learn how to walk again. And you’ve got to be courageous about it, and you’re going to fall down. And you have to learn how to fall and get up again. When you fall down, it ain’t the end of the world. It says in Proverbs, “A righteous person falls, a wise person falls seven times a day, but they get up again.” That’s why they’re wise and righteous, because they get up again. They don’t stay down.
St. John Climacus says, “It belongs to God alone never to fall. It belongs to the angels to fall and become demons forever and to be unable to stand up again. But human beings fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” And we have to learn how to fall and not freak out. We have to learn how to be tempted and perhaps even to yield and assent in sin, but the minute we come [to] ourselves, we do not despair. Despair is really the victory of the devil. We stand up again. We start over again. And we break the pattern. We don’t take the first think. We don’t take the first drink. We don’t take the first step. We don’t buy that first cigarette. We don’t go to that person. We don’t go to that place. Because if we do, the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are not going to be able to be contained. They’re going to overwhelm and crush us.
And this can happen even in our own room. This can happen even when we’re all alone. St. Anthony said it. You can be in the middle of the desert, and the thoughts and the feelings and the memories and the demons are going to come upon you. And even there you’re going to deal with food in some manner. And you’re certainly going to have to deal with the weather. You know, heat and [the] thirst that comes from it, and so on. That’s just being in this world.
What’s the teaching? The teaching is: the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are going to be there. The teaching is: it’s not sinful to have them. You just have them. It’s not moral. You just have them. Now, the morality may be that you’re guilty for letting them into yourselves in the first place, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes they were put into you before you even had any kind of choice or moral power at all. They’re in you from childhood. Or they’re in you just because something happens to you, somebody rapes you or something.
But there is a moral dimension when we choose them and cultivate them and assent to them and nurture them. Then of course there’s a moral [dimension]. For example, St. Athanasius the Great, he was asked the question, “Can you go to holy Communion if you’re a man and had emission of semen the day before?” And he said, “If it just came upon you in a dream or some blasphemous thought or something, unwilled memory, put the Cross upon yourselves. Ask for God’s mercy and go. But if you yourselves were engaged in pornography or went to a brothel or brought it on yourselves, then of course you must repent and do penance and endure not receiving Communion as a sign of penitence.” Or, put it another way, relating to the Communion as a penitent by not actually going forward because you’re saying to God you’re sorry that you have defiled your holiness, your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
So it all depends why. It all depends how. And that’s where we need help. That’s why we have spiritual fathers and mothers. That’s why we have friends in spiritual life direction. That’s why we have recovery groups. Because we need support and we need help and we need instruction and we need correction. We need all these things. You can’t do it by yourselves. But you’ve got to do it yourselves. And it’s by grace and by the help of others.
But the key thing here is, number one: know that these things are there. Number two: know that they’re going to be there. Number three: know that your warfare is not to accept them, and know that the whole battle is in not taking the first step. The battle is in not engaging the trial and temptation when it comes. And then the next thing would be to know: you cannot withstand it by will-power. You’ve got to flee to the good. You’ve got to flee to God. And you’ve got to know that you’re going to lose some battles, if you’re going to conquer in Christ and win the war. There will be battles that are lost. So you’ve got to know not to despair. You’ve got to know to keep up the struggle.
St. Silouan said you know the Holy Spirit is in you if you’re a brave fighter. If you hate your sin and struggle against it. And when you do that, it’s a long battle and you’re not going to be victorious in two days.
I heard once a bishop tell some young people that if they had firm resolve, they could come to dispassion and quiet and peace in one month. I frankly don’t believe that. I think the bishop was wrong. Sometimes it’s a lifetime. But you should never say or put a timetable on it. Even [in] the 12-step program, you learn that you can’t do that. You’ve got to say, “Just for this minute. Just for this day. Just for this time.” Just with this breath, I’m not going to engage that memory. I’m not going to engage that feeling. I’m not going to engage that thought. I’m not going to surrender to it. I’m not going to act out on it.
But I can’t do it by myself, so I’m going to flee to the grace of God. I’m going to read the Scripture. I’m going to read the saints. I’m going to read an Akathistos. I’m going to say a prayer. I’m going to walk around. I’m going to get occupied in work. I’m going to care for some sick person. I’m going to do those things that keep the thoughts, the feelings, and the memories from crushing me. And then I’m going to beg God, “Please don’t let me choose them. Please don’t let me actually will to engage them, affirm them, and to go where they are thriving and where they are destroying people.”
And of course, that means we’ve got to cut off relations with certain people. We just can’t be—and St. Paul said this: “If you go into bad company, you’re going to end up with bad morality and bad behavior, and you’re going to be crushed.” And it’s no sin simply to say, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorry, Lucy. I just can’t hang out with you, because if I do, I’m going to be poisoned by your own darkness and your own sin.”
So it’s violent. And the Lord Jesus said, “The kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent person takes it by force.” He said, “If your hand offends you, cut it off. Better to enter the kingdom with one hand than to perish with two. If your eyes offend you, pluck them out.” Now, of course, this was not meant to be literally taken. You don’t take a knife, and—people who are very troubled, they sometimes cut themselves and so on. This is not—this is of the devil. But spiritually, with the sword of the Lord, to cut off all that is evil, all this gangrenous, all this poison, to take the medicine, the pharmakon that is the antidote to the evil poison in our system. We have to do that.
But we have to do that firmly, gently, not hysterically, not with panic. We do it one step at a time. We do it by [being] faithful in the little things. And the most important point for today’s meditation: There’s only one way we can do it, and that is by cutting it off when it first comes. And that’s how the Fathers, like Nilus of Sinai and Evagoras and others, interpreted that line in the psalm, “On the Waters of Babylon”: “Blessed are they who smash your little ones on the rocks. Alleluia.” Because they say if we don’t smash the passions and temptations and thoughts and memories when they’re still little, when they first come, then they will grow up and they will kill us.
You might even say, following the Fathers, like Porphyrios, don’t even try to smash them. Just run away from them. Flee to God. Don’t engage them at all. And that’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about not letting the poison in. It’s all about not engaging the vision, the image, the fantasy, the memory, the imagination, the thought. The cause of it all are logismoi: thoughts, feelings, fantasies, imaginations, provocations. But we can only be victorious when, by the grace of God and by faith in God and by the Holy Spirit, we do not engage them at all. The minute we engage them at all, we’re lost. Sooner or later, we can fight, we can battle, we can struggle, but they’ve got us. So the key is: know that they’re there. Let them babble and buzz all they want, but don’t engage them. Don’t engage them.
Unite the mind and the heart and call upon the Lord and flee to him. And beg for grace. It’s not going to be magic. It’s not always going to work, but this is the only way it does work when it does work. And as they say in the 12-step program when they—you know, sex addiction and food addiction and drug addiction and alcohol addiction—“It works if you work it, so work it. You’re worth it.” But what is the working? The working is to know that there is a power greater than ourselves. There is God Almighty; there is grace.
We can’t do it, but what is impossible with human beings is possible with God. And it’s impossible even not to engage and to join and to assent to all those evil thoughts, memories, and feelings that assail us day and night. With God, all things are possible. And so, it is possible not to live without these thoughts, memories, and feelings, but it is possible not to allow them, by God’s grace, to destroy and to crush us and, ultimately, even to kill us. There is a victory. It belongs to Christ. It’s given to us. We have to plug into it. And we do that by faith and grace in God, and by an unseen warfare, to take every thought captive for the sake of Christ and by Christ.
And not to engage any thought, memory, or feeling that is destructive. In fact, some of the Fathers say that we shouldn’t even engage the good ones, because we can be deceived. It’s better simply to be calling upon the name of the Lord and seeking the light without actually getting into many of these things.
Let me just end by reading something from St. Peter of Damascus in The Philokalia, a treasury of spiritual knowledge. He says:
We should not be distracted by anything: neither by dreams, whether evil or seemingly good, nor by thoughts of anything, whether good or bad, nor by distress or deceitful joy, not by self-conceit or despair, nor by depression or elation, nor by a sense of abandonment or by illusory health and strength. Nor by negligence or progress, nor by laziness or by seeming zeal, nor by apparent dispassion or by passionate attachment. Rather, with humility, we should strive to maintain a state of stillness, quiet, calm, free from all distraction, knowing that no one can do us harm unless we ourselves harm ourselves.
St. John Chrysostom has a homily: “No one can harm him who does not harm himself.” And then he [St. Peter of Damascus] goes on to say:
Because of our conceit and our failure constantly to have recourse to God, we should cast ourselves down before him, asking that his will should be done in all things, and saying to every thought that comes to us: “I do not know what you are. I do not know who you are. God knows if you are good or bad, but I have thrown myself, and I shall continue to throw myself into God’s hands, and he will take care of me. He will take care of me.”
And if we do not have anyone to advise us—St. Peter continues—we should take Christ as our counselor, asking him with humility and through pure, heartfelt prayer, about every thought, every memory, every feeling, every undertaking.
And if our sole purpose is to do God’s will, God himself will teach us what it is, assuring us of it either directly, through the mind or by means of some person or in the holy Scripture, and if, for God’s sake, we cut off our own will, God will enable us to reach, with inexpressible joy, a perfection we have not known. And when we experience this, we will be filled with wonder at seeing how joy and spiritual knowledge begin to pour forth from everywhere. We will derive profit from everything—even our thoughts and feelings and memories—and God will reign in us, since we have no will of our own, but have submitted ourselves to the holy will of God, we become like kings, so that whatever we desire, we receive effortlessly and speedily, from God by his grace, who has us in his care.