By Fr. Maximos (Constas)
There have been times when I was in line to receive Communion, and some of the most horrible, dark, even blasphemous thoughts came into my mind. Is that me? Why would I think such things, that I’d never thought before in my life, when my entire self is concentrated on receiving Communion? It breaks my heart even to know that I had such thoughts. I feel so bad that I have wounded God in some way. The pre-Communion prayer says “I stand before the doors of Thy temple, yet I do not put away evil thoughts”—is that us? Some people think they need to leave the line at that point, but we should simply make the sign of the Cross, ask God to forgive us, bemoan the fact that our humanity is corrupt and fallen, and hold our ground.
I had a student that walked to school every day and had to cross a bridge. Psychologically she was very healthy, but every time she crossed that bridge a voice came into her mind and told her to jump off. When I was sharing ideas like this she was so relieved to understand that that thought was not her. Another story: Years ago when I was a young student in college, I went to the Holy Mountain and spent time with an elder and his disciple in a small skete. We had to walk somewhere, and the elder who was eighty-five years old but spry as a mountain goat was in the lead, the disciple behind him, and I was in the back. We were on a path which was like a ribbon threaded on the side of a sheer cliff face. This path was about a foot-wide and on one side was the cliff face and on the other a thousand foot drop. We were walking along and at one point the disciple said, “Elder, a thought just came into my mind and I’d like to share it with you,” and the elder said, “My child, tell me what it is.” I was shocked. He says, “The thought just came into my mind to throw you over the cliff.” My first reaction was, “Oh my goodness, don’t say that!” Don’t be transparent, don’t be pure, don’t be empty—keep those things inside and let them accumulate until you have a thousand thoughts about killing your spiritual father, and then you leave because you can’t stand living with him. The old man chuckled and said, “That’s just the devil telling you that because he knows if you kill me you’ll wind up in lots of trouble, and you’ll have ruined the rest of your life. And that was it. There was no resentment or fear from the spiritual father. There was openness, freedom, and lack of attachment. Someone else would be suspicious for the rest of their life. That’s why Mark Twain said that we all have secret thoughts that would shame the devil. I think to the extent that we live in denial of that reality we don’t live a fully human life, and we don’t engage with our deeper selves.
I could have an image of myself as deserving some level of treatment—I’ve gone to university, I have a doctoral degree, I’m published, I’m invited to conferences. You won’t put me in a four-star hotel, but in a five-star! I’m an Athonite monk, I wear robes. If you come along now and don’t treat me in a manner consistent with my self-image, and you insult me or affront my dignity and honor, what are you really hurting? Is it me, or is it the image? The simplest solution to this problem is to get rid of the image. We can widen this—a husband and wife have an image of each other that they expect one another to conform to, and any deviation from that image is cause for a fight. Parents have images of their children and want to live vicariously through them, and when they don’t meet the image they’re shocked and scandalized. If we have these images of ourselves and others, is there real relating going on? Am I relating to my true self if I have this image of myself? Are you relating to your spouse if that image is intervening? The answer, of course, is no. We’re not free to experience the person for who they are, and they’re not free to be who they are because we impose an expectation upon them. That’s another problem with the images in the mind.
What to do about this? We should never engage these thoughts or worry and fret about them. Don’t think there’s something wrong with you. Just continue about your business. How foolish it would be to be led about by your idle, stray thoughts. Don’t couple with them. There’s a sexual metaphor here in a lot of the Patristic literature. To unite with these things is to enter into a profound union with them. Tell yourself you’re a Christian and you will not touch these unclean thoughts that come into your mind. We hear about shattered communities because of some huge scandal, and they all began with a single thought. That’s why the custody and stewardship of heart and mind is so important, so as not to allow these things in.
This is the image of crushing the babies in the Psalms, and the Church Fathers use the image of a flame in your heart. It’s as if you’re in the forest at night, and all the critters are going to be drawn to the warmth and light of the fire. When you see the critter stick its head in, cut it off from the outset. Don’t think about your thoughts, and don’t think about not thinking about them. You can spend your life running in fear from them. Don’t think about them and don’t think about not thinking about them. Another image for this is that of the fly. If you’re sitting in your house and the windows are open, flies will come in. Thoughts come in and out of the windows of your ears and eyes and all your senses. If the room is swept and clean and in order the fly will make its circuit and go back out the window. But if the inside is unclean, and food has been left out, then the fly will come in and lay its eggs everywhere, and soon you’re infested with all these wild, upsetting and agitated thoughts. The modern edition of the story is the airport. Planes fly over even Mt. Athos, but they say, “We don’t build a landing strip.” We can be temporarily disturbed by the plane flying overhead but we don’t build a place for it to land. For many of us our hearts have fifty runways. We have to learn to accept that they’re part of our experience and just don’t pay them any attention. In the monastery we say that if a thought bothers you for a day or two, struggle with it, but if on the third day it’s still there then go tell someone. It’s when you hold onto a thing that it gets harder to reveal—I’ve been dwelling on this for twenty-five years. But after two or three days it’s not so hard.
St. Isaac the Syrian says that the dispassionate man is not the man who has no passions, but it’s the man who doesn’t act on them. I might have an impulse to anger or lust or anything else, but I must be committed to not act on them. When I’m angry I try not to speak at all. But some people have no impulse control. To be dispassionate is to not act on your passions, not to hope that someday God is going to scrub all that stuff out of you. All those things will be there until the day you die in some form or another. The work from St. Hesychios in the Philokalia is one of the best works on the thoughts. It’s a series of short aphorisms dealing with different aspects of the thoughts. If you read those texts in order you’ll get to it at the appropriate time, and it will be very educational.
In English, as I said, we call these “thoughts”—but that might sound a little weak. What’s harmful about concepts or ideas? But it’s not just the mental equivalent of a word—it’s an image connected to an experience we’ve had. Imagine I had a terrible relationship with my father and I felt he didn’t love or recognize me, and it was impossible to please him. There are a lot of memories associated with my father, but there are feelings that go with these thoughts. Fifty years later if someone mentions him, I relive all of that pain, anger and resentment. That’s why I called it a thought-feeling. The thing inside me which generates that anger is still there, even if someone read a prayer of absolution over me. That mark is still there and there’s more work to be done. You’re forgiven for acting on the passion, but the passion itself remains. You’ve got to do more work to get through that, to really forgive your father from your heart, and understand better what happened.
~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.
Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.