Noetic Battles Revisited

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.


Ostrov Again

Been doing some watching of Ostrov again. I got the Film Movement copy from Netflix which has much better English subtitles. I did some more ‘net searching and found this interesting tidbit at Ostrov (film) – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

Pyotr Mamonov, who plays the lead character, formerly one of the few rock musicians in USSR, converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the 1990s and lives now in an isolated village. Pavel Lungin said about him that “to a large extent, he played himself.” Mamonov received a blessing from his confessor for playing the character.

I would love to meet Mr. Mamanov. His portrayal of the fictional Fr. Anatoli has been powerful for me, creating some fruitful reflection.

Elijah, Ostrov and Things Not Seen

poster.jpg I have been watching Ostrov (The Island) again (link is official movie site in Russian only). I’ve written about it before. It had a powerful impact on me in the beginning (last fall), and it’s impact has only grown, particularly during this past February.

That impact, put simply (and it joins nicely with the feast day of St. Elijah): the Christian life is more about what is not seen than what is seen. So the writer of the letter to the Hebrews:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. . . . By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible. (Hebrews 11:1,3 NKJV)

In the movie, itself a piece of fiction, Fr Anatoli “sees” that the young woman standing before him is pregnant, though she has just found out herself and has not told him. He “sees” that the old woman’s purportedly dead husband is alive though unwell in France and wants her to come to him. He “sees” that the woman who brings her son to be healed need not go back to her job, because the company is on a three-day furlough due to busted plumbing. He “sees” the spirit inhabiting the young woman’s body, and, in a marvelously depicted scene, wages invisible battle against it as he casts it out. There is an aspect of reality that escapes most of his fellow monks, but one which, due to his dedication to God and to his own ascetical struggles, Fr. Anatoli apprehends. Even knowing ahead of time the day of his own death.

This isn’t the only, but it is, I think, a main difference between most of us Christians and the saints: the eyes of such saints see more than the empirical reality that is the sole focus of most of our days; these saints see the invisible reality that makes the visible possible. Saints like the Prophet Elijah. St. James tells us Elijah prayed and it ceased raining; and he prayed again and it started raining. The writer of the books of the Kings tells us of St. Elijah’s raising of the dead boy to life. And there are all the pyrotechnics: Mt. Carmel, the two fifty-man squadrons, the horses and chariot of fire. The Prophet Elijah saw what most of us do not see.

How did he do it? Well, by grace. But that grace came to him, as Father Patrick related in his homilies of Vespers last evening and the Divine Liturgy this morning, in that Elijah had a single-minded devotion to God. “Seek first his Kingdom,” says our Lord. Or, to say it another way, we see that for which we look.

In other contexts, this is called confirmation bias, or the believe-see-believe loop. We filter what we see, accepting what we expect to see, and failing to see (mostly unconsciously) what we do not expect (or want) to see. This loop is broken only by trauma or by careful conscious self-reflection. That is to say, either we willfully examine what we see and attempt to look beyond our expectations, or events pile up on one another, creating enough pain and dissonance that we are forced to reevaluate our paradigm, the grid by which we filter our experiences.

This is why, it seems to me, we encounter suffering and pain with such sharp feelings of disorientation. For us, what is real, what is true, is that which we can see and feel and taste and touch and hear. And so long as those things go along pleasantly enough, we are not forced to reconsider whether or not, as Christians, our attention to our reality is properly anchored. But when, either because of random human acts or natural events or because we finally realize that the consequences of our paradigms are not getting us our good but our pain, we are confronted with the shifting sand of tangible reality, then we have the opportunity to refocus our gaze and to look for things not seen, that bedrock of our daily reality.

This is a most difficult step. On the one hand, to immerse ourselves in the invisible reality of God and his saints which underlies the universe without also taking care of the visible reality, can lead us to madness and self-delusion. But on the other hand, to immerse ourselves in the visible reality of our lives and to fail to take care of the invisible, can lead us to faithlessness and despair.

One needs one’s feet firmly planted in, if I may say it this way, both realities. And this is not, we have it on the words of the saints who practice this, difficult to do, for both realities, the visible and the invisible, interpenetrate one another. We believe, after all, in the Incarnation: that the divine is one with the human and the human is one with the divine. We consume bread that is also Christ’s Body, and wine that is also his Blood. Ours is not a two-sided reality: as though one could separate the visible from the invisible. It is, rather, one reality consisting of two things, just as the Incarnation is about one Person and two natures.

So, one takes care to attend to the visible reality which is integral to our moment-by-moment living, and not to let it go. But one also takes care to attend to the invisible, also essential to us, and to seek it first. So, while there is no dualism or separatism here, there is an order, a priority. It is the invisible which founds our visible. It is the Kingdom we must seek first. And to this will be added that which is visible.

Such an orientation, such a single-minded focus will have us looking the fool to the world. But there comes a time when one has one’s fill of worldly wisdom which fails to account for the divine. This wisdom, so-called, is the language of power and leverage and compromise and winning and self-preservation. But there is another language, another wisdom, which orders and prioritizes the wisdom of the world. It goes by the name of Calvary and Golgotha. Against all human reason, that wisdom resulted in the Resurrection, the rebirth and renewal of all things.

For what it’s worth, here are some links that fill in some other details about Ostrov‘s lead actor, Pyotr Mamonov:
The Wikipedia article
An article from the Washington Post, which gives some biographical details
An article from The Moscow Times, which blends some film summary with biography

Noetic Battles

A few days before my birthday in 2005, I purchased and received Anthony M. Coniaris, Confronting and Controlling Thoughts According to the Fathers of the Philokalia (Minneapolis: Light and Life Publishing 2004). It was a providential purchase. For this is a matter about which I am much concerned presently. I may offer some thoughts on it in a subsequent post. But for now, I just want to post an extended quote.

The church fathers, who spent their lives resisting the devil’s onslaughts (logismoi) have a deep understanding of how Satan attacks us through the mind. They list the following four stages of how Satan attacks us through logismoi:

1. The mind receives a suggestion or stimulation, which is another word for temptation. This is called prosbole in Greek. It is like Satan knocking on the door. If the mind is vigilant, attentive, it will notice the provocation and will close the door on temptation, or, as some church fathers say, “If the devil knocks on the door of your mind, send Jesus to the door.” By this they mean the Jesus Prayer. There is no sin involved in this first stage. Even Jesus was tempted.

2. If we do not close the door, the soul will enter into dialogue with the suggestion/temptation as Eve did with the serpent. The fathers warn us about the great danger of dialoguing with Satan, since he is far wiser than we are with countless years of experience in seducing victims. This second step is called syndiasmos or dialogue. Yet even in this second stage of tempation there is no accountability, since no sin has been commited. It is a conversation, albeit dangerous, between Satan and the soul.

3. There is a union or coupling with the thought in which the mind consents to the temptation (logismoi) and begins to dwell on it. The decision has been made. This is called synkatathesis, or consent. It is the begin of sin. It is the stage Jesus referred to when He said that if you look upon a woman lustfully and covet her in your heart, it is as if you have already committed adultery.

Yet we are still in the third stage of consent. No action has taken place. It is still possible by God’s grace to be liberated from this stage of consent. . . .

4. The fourth and last stage in the process of sin is the stage of captivity. Here we fall so completely under the power of temptation that we are no longer free to resist it. It becomes a passion, an obsession, an addiction. We become its captive. We are imprisoned by it.

St. Hesychios describes this process of temptation as follows in the Philokalia:

The provocation comes first, then our coupling with it, or the mingling of our thoughts with those of the wicked demons. Third comes our assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit sin in practice. Fourth comes the concrete action–that is, the sin itself. If, however, the intellect is attentive and watchful, and at once repulses the provocation by counter-attacking and gainsaying it and invoking the Lord Jesus, its consequences remain inoperative; for the devil, being a bodiless intellect, can deceive our souls only by means of fantasies and thoughts. . . .

Intellect is invisibly interlocked in battle with intellect, the demonic intellect with our own. So from the depths of our heart we must at each instan[ce] call on Christ to drive the demonic intellect away from us and in His compassion give us the victory. . . .

How can we best resist the logismoi or evil thoughts that attack us? Every day we need to make a decision as to which thoughts we will allow to enter our minds. We need to screen them carefully and with great discernment: What we read, what we watch on TV; what movie we see; what company we keep. We need to “take every thuoght captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). The mind of Christ can, through the Holy Spirit, control our thoughts, our intents, and our actions, if we submit to Him daily. . . .

Because God’s help is ever just a prayer away from us, St. Philotheos of Sinai was able to say,

Be extremely strict in guarding your intellect. When you perceive an evil thought, rebut it and immediately call upon Christ to defend you; and while you are still speaking, Jesus in His gentle love will say: “Behold, I am by your side ready to help you.”

For a great audio account of the above, listen to Mother Melania in her Illumined Heart interview.

Ostrov Has Come

poster.jpg Well, I got in the mail today, my copy of Ostrov (The Island) (link is official movie site in Russian only; the IMDb link is here; and you can order it from Amazon here, but ensure that you are ordering the NTSC version). The movie is only in Russian, but the distributor included a very helpful guide to setting up the English subtitles (for dialogue only).

This movie is absolutely phenomenal. Our beloved deacon purchased a copy and a handful of the parish men saw it a bit more than a week ago. I’ve seen it a couple of times and will watch it again tonight, very likely. The cinematography and musical score are incredible. Everything is very very simple and austere, and yet incredibly beautiful.

It is a fictional tale, but is definitely built on the Orthodox tradition of the holy fool, on the life of repentance and prayer, on humility and suffering. I know nothing about the director or the lead actor (Pyotr Mamanov), let alone of the scriptwriter, but somehow this team captured quite well a truly Orthodox picture of life. (Disclaimer: I’ve only been Orthodox for a few months, so the evaluation is only as good as that.)

The beauty and goodness of the movie so captivates one that one is moved to centering one’s life around simple repentance and prayer. The movie starts with the main character praying the Jesus prayer, and cuts away as he lies face down in the frozen moss, continually reciting the prayer. The movie ends with his blessed and holy, and understated, death, and his fellow monks rowing his body to the very place where the movie starts–and the place where he faces the climactic battle against the devil.

As my blog readers know, I have wrestled so much with the move from head to heart–and still do; I’m so unstable. This movie has helped me immensely by providing fuel for my imagination. As a metaphor, it pictures for me that toward which I must strive: simple and humble holiness of life, infused and suffused with prayer and repentance.

I cannot highly enough recommend that everyone see this movie, and, if possible, acquire it for your own use.

Road Trip CD Mixes

Back when I was a teenager (now more than two decades ago), I used to make cassette tapes of my favorite songs (some 80s hair bands, pop songs, a little Led–I was an eclectic) for listening while on vacation.

Well, I’ve moved from 80s hairbands to 80s talk–AD 380s, that is. Or, well, podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio. Here are a handful of “CD mixes” I’ve burned for recent road trips. (All links are mp3 files.)

These two interviews from The Illumined Heart podcast make great back-to-back listening on one CD.
God: Essence and Energies, a discussion with Dr. David Bradshaw.
The Passions: How We Got into This Mess and How We Get Out, a discussion with Mother Melania.

And then for three CDS that deal with the Jesus Prayer:
Fr. Seraphim Rose – Prayer and Orthodox Spirituality (the third in the Father Seraphim series of interviews, from The Illumined Heart podcast, which deals with prayer more broadly, but discusses the Jesus prayer)
Interview with Abbot Jonah on the Jesus Prayer, Part 1 (the first of a two-part interview from the guys at Our Life in Christ with Abbot Jonah of St. John of San Francisco and Shanghai Monastery)
Interview with Fr. Jonah on the Jesus Prayer, Part 2 (part two of the above)