In a previous post, I cited some ancient Christian teaching regarding the mind and the spiritual battle waged in the arena of thoughts. I want to return to the topic again, this time with some personal reflections.
The past three months in particular have been a rather specific engagement with the notion of spiritual warfare of the mind. Life itself, of course, for the Christian is a matter of continuous warfare, as St. Paul notes in Ephesians 6:12. And that warfare begins first in the mind. As Jesus himself notes, the sin that one does begins first with the thought of it, the dwelling on it in one’s mind (Matthew 5:28). This is why the Christian must be so very careful what he puts in front of his eyes: on the TV, books and magazines, movies; and what he listens to with his ears: talk radio, conversations and music. For what his mind is engaged with will be what he does with his mouth, his hands and his feet.
But not only must the Christian guard what goes into his eyes and ears and into this thoughts, he must also guard to what thoughts he pays attention. Memories of past sins which come to his attention, or thoughts which do not give place for God’s love and providence. The dwelling, for example, on depressive thoughts is for some a most difficult battle. (Here, of course, I am speaking strictly of thoughts of hopelessness and depression. I do not touch on the biochemical component to depression which requires a different sort of therapy.)
As Solomon exhorts (emphasis mine):
My son, give head to my word and incline your ear to my words, that your fountains may not fail you; guard them in your heart; for they are life to those who find them and healing for all their flesh. Keep your heart with all watchfulness, for from these words are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:19-22 SAAS)
Or, in the more familiar King James rendering:
Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23)
This spiritual warfare of the mind is absolutely crucial if one is going to live a mature Christian life. Nearly the entire first volume of the English translation of the Philokalia is about nepsis or watchfulness of thoughts, the guarding of one’s heart.
As Father Anthony Coniaris writes:
Logismoi, thoughts, come to us from both God and from Satan. The church fathers tell us that the best way to discern whether the thoughts come from God or from Satan is to remember that the thoughts that come from God generate peace and joy, whiile the logismoi that come from Satan cause anxiety and turmoil.
Mother Maria said once that she thought she had only one appearance of Christs in her life. It was when she was particularly depressed one day. Christ appeared to her and said, “Maria, take it easy. Relax. It ain’t what you think.” Thoughts that come from Satan cause much turmoil. Then Jesus comes sand says, “Relax. It ain’t what Satan made you think.” Satan will almost always present the worst case scenario. (Confronting and Controlling Thoughts, p. 41)
One of the problems with depressive thoughts is not simply the depths of sadness and paralysis that comes upon one, but that it diminishes one’s faith in God and his loving Providence. I can speak from personal experience here: when one posits the worst case scenario one misses the fingerprints of God that are all over one’s day to day living. A loved one will encourage one to make some connections. Those connections will open new resources and renewed ties. Suddenly what had felt as though the horizon had shrunk to the four walls of one’s room, now stretches that horizon to the immeasurable limits of the Kansas prairie. What had felt impossible to face and a foregone conclusion, now opens up many avenues of response and the realistic hopes of pragmatic and favorable ends. When the present strictures had felt confining and diminishing, now suddenly it seems an exercise, a discipline, the moments before the victory (even if that victory may not be precisely how one imagines it).
This deliverance from such thoughts is always supernatural, but it is usually a synergy. That is to say, one practices watchfulness and does not let such depressive thoughts take hold in one’s mind and heart. But it is also the case that the deliverance is always divine. And that is especially the case when such warfare feels beyond one’s capability. The rescue and relief can be as sudden as the joy on morning’s awakening, when one’s heart is filled with divine songs.
The wonderful thing about such deliverance is the seemingly limitless possibilities. All doors seem open, all bridges remain unburned, but too there are many clear pathways to the future. Even if some of them are painful, they are, too, bittersweet. The years the locust have eaten will be restored, the blessings of Job will come, that which was lost will be restored. And even if that restoration is with new goods and different ends, the joy will be as strong and real.
It is when one is free of the control of one’s thoughts, when one disciplines all thoughts by the remembrance of the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who sees all our moments, our sins and virtues, and with all he is works to draw us to himself if only we will be drawn, then one will see clearly. Then one can face whatever task is required, however impossible it seems, and know that the Resurrection follows the Cross.
Glory to God for all things.