Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kind, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.
― Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
I had a remarkable conversation last week with Orthodox author, Frederica Mathewes-Green. We talked about the Orthodox approach to the sanctification of the ordinary, and she gave me permission to share some of what she shared with me.
When I asked her what she thought was the most important piece of spiritual advice she could offer, she shared with me a remarkable experience she had when she was still an Evangelical Protestant Christian. She said she was at a charismatic praise and worship service, and during the songs of praise she began to feel an uneasiness with the overwhelming amount of noise and activity throughout this time of corporate prayer. “As I struggled,” she said,
I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye a strange image completely foreign to me. It was of a glass bowl filled with oil, and floating in the oil was flame. I could see that, in order for the flame to continue burning, the bowl had to remain still. That’s when I first felt the call into inner stillness, which, I was eventually to discover, is the heart of Orthodox spirituality.
I’m convinced that if we do not cultivate peace in our soul, and guard our thoughts by maintaining our focus, and keeping our minds fixed on the light and not the darkness, we can never progress in the spiritual path. We are no good to anyone else if we ourselves are dissipated, spread thin, obsessed with the shadows and without a real center.
Rather, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
We discussed the indispensable spiritual discipline of vigilant prayer for guarding one’s heart, especially the Jesus Prayer. She argued how crucial it was to be discriminating as to what one consumes through the eyes and ears. As St. John of the Cross said, referring to the senses, “Stop the enemy at the gates.” We spoke also of the need for maintaining, even in the midst of the frenetic busyness and din of life, a peaceful heart and integrated thoughts. This is the great value of the prayer of re-collection, of gathering up all of the dissipated energies of our mind and focusing them on the absolute simplicity of God. The greatest gift we can give the world around us, she said, is a peaceful soul that has welcomed God in attentive stillness.
After she and I finished our conversation, I immediately thought of two things. First, I remembered a piece of advice my spiritual director long ago gave me: “Beware, when you are in a place of inner desolation, of spreading your desolation to others by speaking to them out of your darkness. Bring your darkness to God, to your trusted friend or wise mentor, but spare others.” Second, I thought of the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, the “St. Francis” of Russia:
Acquire the Spirit of peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.
You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.
All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other. Instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.
Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.