Sunday, February 16, 2014

Thinking About Not Thinking

You dream of a hermitage. But you already have your hermitage, here and now! Sit still and call out: ‘Lord have mercy.’ When you are isolated from the rest of the world, how will you fulfill the will of God? Simply by preserving within yourself the right inner state. And what is this? It is a state of unceasing remembrance of God in fear and piety, together with the remembrance of death.

The habit of walking before God and keeping Him in remembrance—such is the air we breathe in the spiritual life. Created as we are in the image of God, this habit should exist in our spirit naturally: if it is absent, that is because we have fallen away from God. As a result of this fall, we have to fight to acquire the habit of walking before God.

Our ascetic struggle consists essentially in the effort to stand consciously before the face of the ever-present God; but here are also various secondary activities, which likewise form part of the spiritual life. Here too, there is work to be done, in order to direct these activities to their true aim. Reading, meditation, prayer, all our occupations and contacts, must be conducted in such a way as not to blot out or disturb the remembrance of God.

The seat of our consciousness and attention must also be concentrated on this remembrance of God. The mind is in the head, and intellectuals live always in the head. They live in the head and suffer from unceasing turbulence of thoughts. This turbulence does not allow the attention to settle on any one thing. Neither can the mind, when it is in the head, dwell constantly on the one thought of God. All the time it keeps running away.

For this reason, those who want to establish the one thought of God within themselves, are advised to leave the head and descend with their mind into their heart, and to stand there with ever present attention. Only then, when the mind is united with the heart, is it possible to expect success in the remembrance of God.
St. Theophan the Recluse, The Art of Prayer

Reflection – Well, perhaps you personally do not dream of a hermitage. St. Theophan was writing to a nun, his spiritual daughter, who did feel so called. But in a sense, most of us dream, perhaps, of something anyhow. A little more time to pray, or a more stable, quieter rhythm of life, or for this or that disruption or problem to go away so that we can be more focused, less distracted.

The totality and austerity of a hermitage may or may not be attractive (I confess, it does attract me!), but I would think most of my regular readers want to be somewhat closer to God, and would like at least some more time in their lives given for that purpose. The busyness of life and the paucity of time for prayer is one of the most common complaints I hear as a priest from my people.

So Theophan’s counsel is spot-on and to the point. “Sit still, and call out ‘Lord have mercy.’” That’s it, primarily. The Jesus Prayer (the repeated, silent, rhythmic praying of the sentence ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner’) is not just some exotic spiritual practice of the Eastern monks of the desert; it is the essential movement of the spiritual life encapsulated in that practice.

This is the movement from the head into the heart that he writes of. That phrase is a key one in Russian monasticism—put your head in your heart. Catherine Doherty used it frequently too, along with her famous ‘fold the wings of the intellect, and open the wings of the heart.’ The problem with the intellect is not the intellect itself—the intellect is created by God and is good, of course. It is when the intellect is active disproportionately to its proper function, and displaces the silent activity and remembrance of the heart, that it needs to be countered.

Thinking is good, and anyone who thinks the Church is anti-intellectual or has as a general matter and policy suppressed thought, science, and research simply does not know the history of human thought in any regard. I would refer you to this blog to remedy that.

But thinking ain’t gonna make us saints, and if thinking is all we do, we are going to lose our hearts, and the attentiveness to God that resides in the heart. And by thinking, I don’t just mean high intellectual philosophy and scholarly work. The intellect is activated in all sorts of distractions, diversions, speculations, imaginations, idle chatter. The Internet is a tremendous stimulant to this kind of cheap intellectual activity, which is why we have to moderate our use of it.

To be attentive to God, mindful of God, living in his presence and walking before Him continually in a conscious deliberate way, we need some silence, at least inwardly, and we need to cry out to Him. The Jesus Prayer may not be the whole of it, but it is a good start, and that’s where I will leave you today.


  1. I like St. John Climacus' phrase "the heaven of the mind in the heart" (Ladder, step 29). 'Heaven' is a cognate of 'haven' and 'harbour', that is, the place of rest and shelter. The home where the ship returns after the journey. So, as you say, it has nothing to do with being either pro- or anti-intellectual, it's about where our true home is.

  2. I like to speak of this as living in the ambience of God's presence. It is for me a sense of spiritual presence born out of intention which calls me to a desire for obedience. I find myself there when I look for God in what I am doing or thinking. It is in this ambience that I know and believe. To maintain this relationship requires investing myself daily in pray, study and action or it fads away.

    1. Umm.
      Probably, the greatest struggle of my life has been with my own mind. "Folding the wings of your intellect". When people directed me in this way I used to think: "stop thinking". It discouraged me because no matter how hard I tried I still had thoughts that I did not want to have. I wanted my mind focused on Jesus, whom I love so much.
      I am not saying that I have this all worked out. But as the years pass, mercifully, I have learned to live a little better with my own mind.
      Although, we each have no control over the thoughts that come into our head, we can consciously choose to allow them to be. We don't have to resist our thoughts, believe our thoughts or identify with our thoughts. The truth is our mind only has the power we give it.
      The mind just is as it is. We create our struggle by wanting it to be different from what it is.
      The mind just is what it is. It needs the heart to love it and soothe it so it can become clear. Sometimes God gives us this grace inside ourselves. Sometimes, in his mercy, he sends another to help it become clear.
      ....anyway...this post today sort of got me going about the head and the heart...
      Bless you.

  3. Great comments, everyone - very stimulating and - dare I say it - thought-provoking.

  4. I believe we know God best when we talk to each other. Thanks all.


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