Our Thoughts, Feelings, and Memories
Fr. Thomas Hopko · September 25, 2010
Today, Fr. Thomas Hopko reflects on the nature of our thoughts and emotions in this fallen world.
According to the Scriptures and the saints, our entire life as human beings, made in God’s image and likeness, human beings who are spiritual as well as psychic and bodily and fleshly, who have a mind and who also have a brain, the kind of beings that we are, it is certainly the teaching of the Christian faith that our communion with God, our life, which is life indeed, depends on our co-working with God. It depends on our faith in God, our trust in God, our desire to praise God and obey God, worship God, adore God, to realize that we’re creatures, that we do not have life in ourselves. And, especially it would be the teaching, certainly it would be the Christian teaching of Scriptures and saints that we human beings, certainly of the 21st century, we were born into a world, however old we are, that was already in rebellion against God, was already corrupted. It had already been perverted.
Our humanity, our minds, our spirits, our feelings, our emotions, our passions, our bodies have already been all screwed up. We have been messed up by humanity that went before us, beginning with the very first human beings whoever they might be: Adam and Eve. Right from the beginning there is this rebellion and apostasy against God that we inherit. I always point out that we should remember the fifth chapter of Genesis in the Holy Scripture, which is telling us basically how everything got to be the way it is now. In fact, I would say the first chapters of Genesis, the main purpose of them, is to say, “If God is good, why is everything so bad? If God is good, why are we all so messed up? If God is good, why do we suffer and die? If God is good, why are there diseases? Why are children born with diseases, with predispositions to sins and evils, with all kinds of damage and disease in their very human members?”
And I think the fifth chapter of Genesis says it well. It says, “This is the book of the generations of Adam, when God created man—anthropos, human being, Adam, the earthling, the earth-creature—he made him in the likeness of God—en homoousis Theo, in the likeness of God, to be God-like.” In fact, St. Paul will say, “The likeness of God is Christ himself.” So we can say that God created human beings to be sons of God, to be by grace and by faith everything that the Son of God is by nature, the Lord Jesus Christ. Not sinless, but perfect in communion with God, filled with divine virtue, love and peace and joy and patience and kindness and goodness. This is how we’re created, and this is what we are made to be. That was our destiny. That was our calling from the beginning.
But then it says, “Male and female he created them, and he blessed them, and named them anthropos, Adam, humanity, when they were created.” But then it says, “But when Adam had lived 130 years, he became the father of a son in his own image, according to his likeness, and he named him Seth.” And this means that outside Paradise, so to speak, in the symbolics of the Bible, being in the perverted, corrupted, if we want to use that term, fallen world, we’re all messed up, because we are now in the image and likeness of our parents and their parents and their parents. There’s a whole generational string of sin. That’s what the Scripture means.
In the prophets, for example, Ezekiel, where on the one hand the teaching is: God does not punish children for the sins of their parents. That is not a Scripture teaching. God is not punishing me because I inherited bad things or that my father was evil or my grandfather. But at the same time, the Scripture is clear that the sins of the parents are visited to the fourth generation. That means if my great-great-grandfather was a sinner and did evil and was wicked and that affected his children and that affected their children and those children were my parents, then they affect me. And when they affect me, they also affect my children. And these could be spiritual things, emotional things, psychological things, and physical, bodily things. You inherit diseases. There’s genetic diseases.
But there’s also inheritance of what the holy Fathers call “prolipseis”: predispositions to certain types of behavior. Let’s say, to alcoholism or to sexual addiction or to anger or to greed. I mean, these are within our body; they’re in our DNA. They’re in our brain cells. Our brain cells not only have physical realities. We hope that our brain cells would be free from diseases and sicknesses. We hope we’d have no tumors in our brain; some people do. One of our daughters does. But at the same time, in our brains are implanted and patterned all kinds of modes of behavior, because we’re not angels. And our spiritual life is connected with our physical life.
Our spiritual life is connected with our bodily life. Our souls are connected to our bodies, to our flesh, to passions of the flesh, to what’s in us. And that has to do even with things like brain chemistry and things like that. And we know very well that one of the most difficult problems, challenges, is to understand how the human spiritual life is connected to the physical life. How the mind and the spirit relate to the brain and the body. We have to work on those things.
But one thing we know, and at least Christians would be convinced of: we are not completely determined by our bodily existence or by our fleshly existence or by our DNA or by our genes. We are not. And even people who write books about genes will say so, because one of the great proofs of it is is that we’re talking on the radio right now and we’re analyzing these things. We have a certain type of—the word which I don’t like because it’s sometimes misunderstood—but we have a certain transcendence toward our own self. We have consciousness of our own self. We can ask the question: Am I determined or not? And that proves right there that I’m not, because I couldn’t ask the question.
And if you say, “I’m determined to ask that question,” it simply becomes absurd. There’s only then an illusion of freedom. And some people would hold that, but they live in absurdities. They claim, “Well, I really don’t have freedom. I think I’m free, but I’m really not. I’m only acting the way I was conditioned and determined to act.” Kind of like Pavlov’s dog. But we’re the ones who can study Pavlov’s dog. And we’re the ones who can study and reflect upon human behavior. That shows that there is a kind of a freedom in regard to it. And then, of course, we have teachings of philosophers and wise men. And then we have the revelation of God in Israel and in Jesus Christ, where God gives us commandments and says, “Listen to me and behave in this way and this is how you have to deal with your mind, your brain, your body, your flesh as you have received it.” And you have to deal with it in some way.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say, “The whole of human life is: how do you deal with what you’ve been dealt?” And what you’ve been dealt is the actual humanity into which you have been born. And St. John Climacus, he even defined Christianity as a warfare against nature itself in its present, corrupted form. Now, our nature should, and if it’s not corrupted, it would just naturally know God and be in communion with God, and we would see the glory of God filling all things, including the birds in the trees outside the window of my room here. The sky, the moon, the sun are all declaring the glory of God, but I don’t see it because I’ve been perverted.
My mind has been darkened. My heart has been obscured and darkened, but I can hear that teaching that would say: “Hey, your mind has been darkened. You’re screwed up. You’re perverted. You’re living a life not the way you ought to be living. Something has gone wrong.” And you can even have the feeling about that. And then comes the Gospel. Then comes the good news of Jesus Christ, that God Almighty has saved us from this fallenness, this corruptedness.
He has given us insight and wisdom and understanding about all these things. And he has taught us, also, how to deal with these things, or at least how we’re supposed to deal with these things. And we can only deal with them in the freedom of our humanity, while at the same time absolutely accepting, acknowledging, confessing, and taking responsibility for the actual life we have received. Our brain, our body, our feelings, our emotions, our, I don’t know, sexual parts, or whatever it is that make us up: we take responsibility for that, and we work with that. And that is the very center of spiritual life.
St. Maximus the Confessor said somewhere—I tried to find the actual text, but I couldn’t; but I know he said it somewhere—he said there are really four things that really, pretty much determine our human life. There’s four things that we have to deal with. The first are thoughts, feelings, memories that come into us primarily through the senses and through the inheritance of our bodies from our parents before us. Then there are the demons, and we should never forget that one of the extremely central issues of the Christian faith is that there are dark, evil spirits; there are spirits that are out to destroy us. And that’s part of the plan of God, that there would be principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness in high places and that Satan would fall [like lightning from heaven] and be prowling around the earth like a roaring lion, seeking whom to consume.
And you could say, “Well, why did it have to be that way?” Well, I don’t know, but there’s a couple of possible, plausible answers. One is that God had to create every possible being that could possibly exist, whether they would be faithful or unfaithful, obedient or disobedient, whether they would be righteous or sinful or wicked or good. And he does that, because he’s good. God doesn’t say, “If you’re good, I’ll love you.” He says, “I’ll love you even if you’re bad. I’ll love you if you hate my divine bowels of mercy. I’ll love you if you cannot stand the glorious beauty of my face.” God does that.
So, in a sense, there has to be a spiritual world, but it also is the case that human beings have to be tested. Human beings also have to show: whom do we want? Do we really want God? Do we really want truth? Do we really want beauty? Or are we willing to surrender to all kinds of lies and fallacies and falsehoods and so on? Are we choosing, well, putting it scripturally, death instead of life? Curse instead of blessing? Or we could put it this way: are we choosing the devil or God? Are we choosing God or are we choosing the Enemy: the enemy of God, the adversary, the liar, the accuser, the tempter, the seducer? That’s all part of the human drama from the Christian perspective. And it’s pretty much proved just by behavior.
St. John of Kronstadt, one of our great saints in the Orthodox Church, a priest in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century, a parish priest, he said, “If anybody has any doubts about whether or not the devil exists, just try to keep the commandments of Christ. Just try to pray. Just try to fast.” Just try to keep yourselves away from the Internet porn and the stupid television, where on a Saturday morning you can click on and see some kind of teen-age show of the most gross sexuality that you ever want to possibly see. I saw it this very morning, I have to honestly admit. It’s madness. It’s tragic. And of course, St. John Climacus said if we would get to the point where women would start attacking men, sexually, lusting, then no flesh would be saved, he said. And that has happened historically, it seems to me, at least in the Western world, in the middle of the 20th century. It used to be that boys seduced girls. Now it’s equal. We have “equality” now, and I’m not even sure we have boys and girls and men and women. We just have humanoids with genitalia, without any upper-story at all. As C.S. Lewis would say, it was the abolition of man that was brought on through our human rebellion and apostasy against our [very own] nature in the second half of the 20th century.
But in any case, be that as it may, Maximus says that we have our thoughts, feelings, memories. We have demons that attack us day and night, all kind of powers who speak to us in dreams and every possible way to destroy us. It’s a huge battle going on. And then he, Maximus said—it’s kind of even… I find it rather comforting and maybe even a bit comical—he said [that] there are two other things. One is that the thoughts, feelings, and memories, predispositions to certain diseases and sins and troubles. Then you have the demons who are just attacking us day and night, especially, St. Paul says, he finds it to be a law that when we try to good it becomes even more ferocious.
And then you have, Maximus says, food and the weather. Now there’s not much you can do about the weather. You’ve got to live with it. I’m speaking right now on a day that is extremely hot, humid, and muggy. But you’ve got to deal with that, and that’s going to affect your life. And people know that weather changes, and barometric pressures and storms and cold and darkness and light definitely affected people’s spiritual lives. There’s just no doubt about it.
Now when it comes to the food… Weather’s not in our control. We do have the freedom of how we’re going to deal with the weather, but food is much more in our control, usually. Certainly [for] Americans, because we can pretty much choose what we’re going to put into our bodies and what we’re not: what we’re going to eat, what we’re going to drink, what we’re going to imbibe into our cells, into our body. And there could be good food and good drink. Even, the Apostle Paul says, “Take a little wine from time to time for your stomach. God made wine. It rejoices the heart of man.” Bread to strengthen man’s heart. Oil to soothe him. Wine to make joyful the heart.
However, excess and misuse and abuse is always a sin. And St. Maximus says it very clearly again and again in his centuries on love, his centuries on theology. He says, “All sin and wickedness is a misuse and abuse of what is fundamentally good.” St. Maximus says very clearly even the devil was created good, but he misused, abused, and destroyed his noetic nature, his spiritual nature, and became a demon.
Now, we also can make decisions about what we put into our body. We can abuse it or we can use it properly. And so all wickedness and destruction is misuse and abuse. So we could put good stuff into us or bad stuff into us. So if we have bad food and bad chemicals and bad drink, not to speak only of alcohol in excess, but pharmaceuticals and drugs and narcotics in any form, unless they’re medicinal and therapeutic within certain doses, this just destroys our body. And we know that we live in an addicted society. We’re addicted to all kinds of things: sex, work, activities, greed, possessions. But we’re also addicted to alcohol. We’re addicted to drugs. We have obesity, and it’s such a national problem that the first lady of our nation is leading the fight against childhood obesity.
I read recently in a magazine where, in Great Britain, they had on buses that people are supposed to stand up to let pregnant ladies sit down, and 80% of the pregnant ladies said that the people didn’t get up to give them a seat. And when the researchers investigated further, they discovered that the answer of many people was, “There’s so many obese women, we don’t know who’s pregnant and who’s not.” That’s where we are right now.
But if we put drugs, alcohol in excessive overdoses and so on, if we eat too much, if we eat the wrong kind of stuff, then our spiritual life just goes haywire. We have no control of our reality. And here it would be a very clear teaching of the holy Fathers and the modern recovery movements and psychological insights, that if a person is in fact addicted to alcohol or drugs or sex or food or whatever, until that action stops, you’re wasting your time talking with them. To talk to an alcoholic who’s drinking, or to a drug addict who’s using, or to a sex addict who is every day on Internet porn or something—you might as well talk to the wall, because you’re not talking to them. You’re not talking to that free person made in God’s image. You’re talking to a drug. You’re talking to a substance. You’re talking to an alien presence which may even be purely spiritual.
Like, for example, when you look at porn, or you look at sex stuff, or you look at the kind of movie that I happened to see part of this morning on TV: it affects your body. It just takes over. You get caught by it. And if you surrender to it, that’s it: you’re gone. And then you’re out of control of your own self and you’re not free any more. You’re possessed. You’re enslaved. So that’s the reality that we live in.
Now as we said already, we must say again that a lot of this is not stuff that we ourselves choose, because we’re born into this reality. In other words, these things are affecting us before we even have a chance to choose, before we’re free, so to speak. In other words, we’re born captive. That’s the meaning of original sin. We’re born already enslaved. We’re born already possessed. That’s why we exorcise little babies at baptisms in the Orthodox Church and in the ancient Christian world. The ancient Christian world prepared people for baptism, including even children, not only by prayer and by fasting and by instruction and catechesis, but by exorcisms, by casting out the demons that are there, that are there through no fault or will of the persons themselves, especially if they’re babies or infants. There’s no fault at all.
If you find a two-, three-year-old child acting obscenely and saying all kinds of rotten things and beating up others and whatever, there’s very little culpability there. They’re just acting according to the passions that they were born in and the people that they live with. And usually it’s the same people who give the nature and who do the nurture, or lack of nurture.
So we’re in this mess. And so we have these thoughts and feelings and memories, and they come through the senses. They come through what has happened to us when we were little. They come to us when we choose them to come into us. I could look at pornography. I could read salacious material. I could let images of all kinds of garbage into my system. And once you let it in, then you’ve got to deal with it. Once you let it in, it’s got you. What goes in must come out. What goes in bears fruit in there. That’s a plain fact. And every single image that we’ve ever seen, every word we’ve heard, every dark and evil reality that has ever entered our system is in us, and we’ve got to root it out. Isaac of Syria says that’s the whole meaning of spiritual life: to root out all the crap and garbage that’s in us.
St. Isaac said if we’re going to go the spiritual path of struggle and unseen warfare with our thoughts and feelings and memories and predispositions to sin and all those kind of things, then we have to be ready to be able to stand the stench. All that is in us is going to come to the surface. It’s going to come to our memory. The minute we begin to pray, all the garbage that’s in us starts coming up. And that is a lifelong process. And the more we pray, the more we read the holy Scripture, the more good, beautiful things enter our spiritual life, the more the clash in our own heart takes place between all that is not of God.
As Solzhenitsyn said, “The line between good and evil is not between classes or races or nationalities or countries. It’s a clash that takes place in the heart of every single human being, whoever they are, in whatever time, whatever place, whatever education, whatever race.” That line is right down the middle of a person’s heart. St. Macarius of Egypt says that battle takes place within the heart.
A lot of times you even hear Orthodox Christians carrying on about how the kingdom of God is within us. There’s this inner kingdom. There’s the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in everyone’s heart. There’s the implanted Word. There’s the spark of divinity and all that. That’s all true, but inside us also is hell. Inside us is not only the kingdom of God, but the kingdom of Satan. Inside us is not only the primordial light that enters into us by being created by God, but the obscuring of that light, the darkness of that light. In fact, on the Sermon on the Mountain, the Lord says, “If your eye be single, your [whole] body will be full of light.” You’ll be healthy. You’ll be holy. But if the light in you is darkness, how tragic is that darkness. How horrible is that darkness.
So there is this battle between light and darkness and it takes place within our own heart. The mystery of Christ and the mystery of iniquity. God and the demons, right in our own heart. And that’s going on, and it’s a spiritual, it’s a mental, it’s an intellectual, it’s a psychological, and it’s a bodily, it’s a physical, it’s a material, it’s a fleshly battle, on all levels for a human being.
When we think specifically of thoughts and feelings and memories that get in us in all different kinds of ways, and the holy Fathers, I think generally would say, certainly Maximus the Confessor, Thalasseus, and others in The Philokalia, they all say that the most difficult—well, that’s even too weak a word—the hardest to deal with are the memories, because they’re already in us. The thoughts and feelings, they’re already in us.
There’s a story in the Desert Fathers, how a young man came to Abba Poemen in the desert and said to the abba, “You know, I’ve had it. I’m leaving. This is crazy. I can’t do this. This just doesn’t work. This is all probably just plain not true. It’s just a kind of madness to come out here and try to live the holy life and to pray and to fast and to learn to love God and neighbor and all that. It’s just crazy.” And the old man says to him, “Why are you saying that?” He said, “Because I came out here and I’ve been here and I just continue having these horrible thoughts and feelings and memories. They just come upon me, and many of them are lustful and disgusting.” Even St. Anthony the Great said you can go out in the desert and the one demon that follows you everywhere is the demon of pornea, the demon of fornication; you never get rid of that till you die. And John Climacus says you never dialogue with it, because it has all the answers on its side. If you try to dialogue with these thoughts and feelings, they win. They always win, because they’re in the fallen world; they’re stronger than you are.
This guy comes to Abba Poemen and says, “I’m leaving. This just plain doesn’t work. It’s always there, and I just can’t get rid of it, and I’m just going to throw in the towel, throw away my monastic cloak and go back and perish.” So the old man said to him, “How long have you been out here?” And he said, “Ten years,” or something like that. And Poemen says, “Really? You know, I’ve been out here 70, and I still have these thoughts and feelings, and these memories. They keep coming back to me all the time. The devil keeps talking to me, blabbing to me, all the time.” Flannery O’Connor even said that the voice in her stories, the demons, are there all the time, telling people the opposite of whatever it is.
When this man comes to Poemen and he said, “I’m just leaving. I can’t deal with these thoughts and feelings and memories,” Abba Poemen said to him, “Well, they’re going to be with you. However, before you leave, this is what I would like to ask you to do. I’d like to ask you to try to breathe without expanding your lungs, without expanding your chest.” The old man said, “I can’t do that. I can’t do that.” Then the old man said—this is number 28 of Poemen in the desert—“Try to catch the wind in your cape, in your robe.” He says, “I can’t do that.” And then the old man says to him, “Neither can you prevent thoughts and feelings and memories from arising, but you can resist them. You don’t have to accept them. You don’t have to engage them.”
And then it says that when Abba Anoub asked Poemen about his impure thoughts, which the heart of man brings forth and vain desires that are within, Poemen said to him—this is number 15—“Is the axe any use without someone to cut with it? If you do not make use of these of these thoughts, they will be ineffectual, too.” And then he said, “Do you see that old chest full of clothes that’s there?”—this is saying number 20—“If you leave them alone, they’ll spoil of themselves in due time. They’ll just disintegrate and rot. It’s the same thing with thoughts. If we do not do anything about them, in time they are spoiled, that is to say, they dis-integrate.”
What’s the teaching? The teaching is: you’re going to have these thoughts, feelings, and memories. You are going to be tempted as St. Anthony says, “to your very last breath.” You’re going to be tried. There’s going to be tribulation. There’s going to be affliction. There’s going to be all kinds of troubles of mind, soul, spirit, and body. That’s part of being in this fallen world, and the claim is that God Almighty has sent his only-begotten Son to die on the Cross, to be raised and glorified, and to give us the Holy Spirit so that we can fight against them, by God’s grace and by faith and be victorious together with Christ and die with him and be raised with him and have everlasting life with him. This is not magic. It’s not automatic. It’s not mechanical. We’re not machines. We’re not robots. We’re not puppets. We’re free human beings. We’ve got to deal with these things freely. We’ve got to co-operate with God. We have to believe in God, trust God, and realize that the power of God is greater than these powers.
But then the question comes: Well, how do you do it? Practically, how do you do it? And here, I think, in a very superficial, simplistic way, there’s certain things that could be said right away without any doubt. Number one, it can be said very clearly: you can’t do it by willpower. You can’t do it by yourselves. You can’t do it by figuring things out. You don’t have the means to figure anything out, and you don’t have the power to overcome this stuff. In your fallen, corrupted condition, this is stronger than you are. Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t think you can control it. Don’t think you can find some human method by which you’re going to make yourselves intelligent, strong, holy, pure, and beautiful. It ain’t going to happen.
However, the next point would be, but by faith in God and by the grace of God, it’s possible. With God, all things are possible. Even not to engage the thoughts and the feelings and the memories that assail us, that fight against us. St. Theophan said, “Like swarms of flies around our head. They keep buzzing all the time.” Well, they’re going to buzz and buzz and buzz forever. Till our very last breath, they’re going to buzz. There’s a saying that when Macarius of Egypt was dying, he was stepping into Paradise and he heard a voice saying, “Macarius, you have conquered.” And he turned and saw it was Satan, the devil. And he says to the devil, “Not yet,” because he hasn’t completely died yet. He hasn’t entered into the kingdom yet. Until both feet are in the kingdom, it’s not yet. As Climacus’ famous fresco shows about the ladder, you can fall off the top rung. You’re never safe until it’s over. As Yogi Berra says, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
There is this battle, but we can’t win it. Only Christ can conquer and win it. All we can do is believe in him, become his servant, pray for grace, and then what becomes impossible for men becomes possible together with God. So it’s by grace and by faith that we’re saved, not by works, lest any man should boast. That’s pretty basic. That’s pretty Christianly basic. St. Paul said it. St. Paul said in Romans, also; he said, “What I don’t want to do, I do; what I do, I don’t want to do.” Who’s going to save me from all of this? I have these other laws working in my members that drive me. And what I don’t want to do with my mind, my body is doing anyway.” He says, “With my mind I serve the law of God and the law of the Holy Spirit and life, and with my flesh I am serving the law of sin and death. Who will deliver me from this body of death?” It’s Romans 7-8. And his answer is Christ. The Holy Spirit. Grace. That we can only receive and believe and live by and die to ourselves in order to live to God.
As Gregory the Theologian would say, “More often than we breathe.” Not only with every breath do we take every thought captive for the sake of Christ. As St. Paul said, “Take every thought, every logismos, every thought captive for the sake of Christ.” But more often than we breathe. We’ve got to positively keep our mind on God and not engage these horrible, destructive thoughts that are within us and are going to bug us and tempt us and afflict us until we die. The more we try to do good, the more that’s going to happen.
So the peace and the joy and the stability and the dispassion that we’re searching for is not when all this stuff goes away. It’s when, in the midst of it, it doesn’t touch us. It cannot harm us. Now here all the holy Fathers’ teaching can be synthesized in a very, pretty simple way. They will say the following. I believe this is totally accurate. They will say, “We have these thoughts, feelings, memories. They’re within us. We don’t know what to do about them. We can’t even assess where they come from.” And the holy Fathers would say only when you’re really advanced can you really see what comes from nature, what comes from fallenness, what comes from the senses, what comes from the demons. That’s a discernment that not any Joe Blow like you or me can have.
But we even would be advised, I think, not even to get into too much “where they’re coming from” and “how they work.” We’ve just got to name them for when they’re evil, and claim them and dump them, as they say in the 12-step program. You’ve got to acknowledge that they’re there. You can’t repress them. You can’t suppress them. You can’t try to flee away from them. You can’t pretend that they’re not with you. Wherever you go, they’re going to be in you and with you. There’s no geographical cure.
What we must do, according to the holy Fathers, because it is something that we can do, by God’s grace: we do not engage them. So as the holy Fathers would say, this is the dynamic, this is how it works. First of all, you have the pyrasmos, the temptation, the trial, the test. You have the logismos; you have the thought, the logismoi. So we have the temptations and the memories and the thoughts, the imaginations. We pray every night at vespers in the Orthodox Church: “to deliver us from the evil imaginations,” the evil memories, all that is in us. But they’re in us. They’re in us.
And then there’s even in us predispositions, these prolipseis, those former sins and the memory and what we’ve received. They’re already working in our carnal members. St. Paul says that they’re already working in this body of death that we live in, this mortal flesh. So we have to put to death what is evil in our flesh: not our flesh, not our body, but the evil passions.
So then there’s passions. When prepossessions really totally control us, then that’s enslavement. Those are evil passions. That could be “addiction” in modern terminology, when we’re really caught by it. But once we realize those things, and realize that there is a way out by the grace of God, there is a new reality that, with our mind we can believe and give ourselves over to, then how does the dynamic work?
Here, the holy Fathers would say—I think they would say, pretty much, the following. They would say: strive to be awake and to be vigilant. Strive to be aware of what’s going on. Don’t try to repress and suppress these feelings by will-power or exertion of your own human effort. You will fail. You will be crushed. But the minute those thoughts and the memories and the feelings hit you, flee to the Lord! Call upon the name of the Lord. Say the prayer of Jesus. Elder Porphyrios, one modern Greek elder, he even went so far as to say, “When they strike you, don’t even pray against them. Don’t pray against them. That gives them too much power. When you think about the temptations and the sins and the memories, you foment them.” That’s the English translation of his writings that I read. “You foment.” I guess that means you give them power. You give them a certain control over you. So Porphyrios would say, “Don’t give in at all. Flee to the light. Flee to the good.” And that’s a classical teaching.
I already quoted John Climacus who said, “Don’t dialogue with it. Don’t pick it up. Don’t engage it.” That would be a technical term, because the holy Fathers teach us that when we have these predispositions and we have these temptations, sometimes they’re called “provocation”: prosvoloi, but provocations come. Then what we must never do is engage them. We have to flee from them to God and not engage them. And there’s even a technical term for that in the Greek writing, The Philokalia writing. It’s called “syndiasmos.” They call it “coupling” or “joining.” If you join it, if you couple with it, if you accept it, if you let it into you, and certainly if you nurture and cultivate it, if you keep sitting there watching the stupid TV program or the stupid computer or you keep drinking the drink or something, or taking the drug, then of course you just become impassioned and you become possessed and you become enslaved.
But the warfare is all about not taking the first drink, so to speak. And sometimes, we used to say at St. Vladimir’s when I worked there, the same way an alcoholic cannot take the first drink, a Christian cannot take the first think. You can’t take the first thought. You can’t engage the thought. You let it go; you let it go; you let it go again. You let it go again and again. As the recovery movement says, “You let go and you let God.” You let go of that and you turn to God, but you do not couple, because if you join and couple with it, if you have syndiasmos, then you have what the holy Fathers call “synkatathesis” which is assent. You actually give assent to it. You not only do not resist it, but you assent [to] it. You affirm it. You receive it. You nuture it. You act out on it. And every time you act out on it, you give it more power and more strength.
What we have to say here is these thoughts and feelings and memories are going to be there, and they’re going to be spiritual, they’re going to be mental, and they’re even going to be physical. There’s such a thing as body memories. I know of two cases that are totally impossible almost to believe, except that people said that they are. I know at least one person who claims that they were discussing with a person who could have a kind of a memory of being in the womb and the mother trying to destroy them with some sharp object, and they were trying to flee it, before they were even born onto the earth. I know another person who, in going through thoughts and feelings and memories in order to grieve them, to acknowledge them, to confess them, in order to get rid of them, [had] bruises [which] actually appeared on the person’s body. I know one person who went to a doctor because she was having trouble in her private regions and the doctor said, “You’ve got to stop fooling around down there, lady. You’re really ruining yourselves.” And the woman said, “I haven’t messed with that for 25 years.” But she was going through a therapy where she was remembering what was done to her as a child, and all the signs of that appeared in her very body.
Because we are embedded and we are embodied. We are not angels. We are not ghosts and corpses. We are living beings in bodies with brains and brain chemistry and so on. You could do a whole [lot] of kind of tricks with your body just by remembering things. If you remember certain things, stuff will happen to your body. You can get sexually aroused or something, just by remembering things. You can get angry, you can get sad. Sometimes it even can strike you. I know people who would say… Well, I knew Anton Chekov, the Russian writer, claimed every time he heard church bells, he wanted to throw up, because his father was a religious fanatic and used to beat him with sticks when he sang the wrong note in the choir. And his father was a choir leader and made him sing in church. Chekov hated church because of his father. The memory of church was nothing but pain and agony for him.
I knew two young women in my pastoral life over the years who could not go to an Orthodox church and look at the icons. They could not go to communion without having a headache and throwing up and [getting] sick to their stomach and everything. Because when they were little, church was so unpleasant to them. Their mother would pinch them, beat them, drag them to church. The father didn’t want to go. There would be a fight in the family. The mother would throw them into the car. The [kids] didn’t want to go. They got them in church. They made them stand there. And in one of the particular churches, the icons were incredibly ugly. They weren’t nice, beautiful icons. They were… The apostles looked like dwarves, and they were holding the images of their martyrdom: axes and saws and spears and so on. They had big heads and they were very ugly. And Christ on the icon and God the Father was like an old man with a stern look, and his eyes were crossed. And the Holy Spirit was like a big, huge bird with claws. Well, it traumatized and terrified these girls. And they just didn’t even want to go to church. One of them told me—she became a doctor in her old age—she said she could go to a Catholic or a Protestant church where there were no icons or maybe just a few or something, and she could basically hold it together, but the minute she walked into an Orthodox church which was covered with frescoes and icons and the icon screen, she would get sick and want to run away.
Well, those are the kind of memories, thoughts, and feelings we’re talking about, and they have a physical reaction on a person, and a mental reaction, and a spiritual reaction. They do. And we’ve got to deal with them. You can’t avoid them. You can’t repress them. But the method is to flee to God and to bring light, and then the light is stronger than the darkness. The beauty is stronger than the ugliness. The mercy is stronger than the judgment. The comfort is stronger than the pain. That’s what the spiritual life is all about.
We’re going to have to prosvoloi, provocations. We’re going to have a pyrasmon, trials and temptations. We’re going to have all kinds of attacks of the evil ones and of memories and feelings. We cannot hope for the day when they won’t be there, but we certainly can hope for the day when they no longer touch us. So the exercise, the asceticism, the discipline is all about not engaging them. Not coupling with them. Not giving assent to them. Not joining with them.
One more thing can be said—well, millions more things, but, at least for now just a few things more could be said. One is that usually the thoughts, the memories, the feelings, and the temptations, they have a kind of a routine; they have a kind of a pattern. You might even call it a ritual. I know people, for example, that, if they just go into a room and turn on a television set, sooner or later, or a computer, they will be caught by pornography. So they can’t even turn it on, because if they do that, that’s what’s going to happen. Other people, of course, can’t take a drink. If they take one first drink, they’re shot.
I know a guy who is same-sex attracted, and he struggles with sexual passions of the homosexual nature. But this guy told me that every time when he would not do his reading and say his prayer, but would go across the street to the drugstore and buy a pack of cigarettes and start smoking them, it was guaranteed that he would act out within 24 hours. The first step toward acting out was not saying the prayer and buying the cigarettes.
I know people who would say if they would walk home from work and take a certain street, go left instead of right to get around the block, they will be in trouble. They can’t go left; they’ve got to go right, because if they go left, they’re going to pass a certain store. They’re going to pass a certain place, a certain bar or something. And then, they’ve had it.
So the spiritual warfare also consists in re-patterning. It’s like a person who’s had a stroke: you’ve got to learn how to walk again. And you’ve got to be courageous about it, and you’re going to fall down. And you have to learn how to fall and get up again. When you fall down, it ain’t the end of the world. It says in the proverbs, “A righteous person falls, a wise person falls seven times a day, but they get up again.” That’s why they’re wise and righteous, because they get up again. They don’t stay down.
St. John Climacus says, “It belongs to God alone never to fall. It belongs to the angels to fall and become demons forever and to be unable to stand up again. But human beings fall and get up, fall and get up, fall and get up.” And we have to learn how to fall and not freak out. We have to learn how to be tempted and perhaps even to yield and assent in sin, but the minute we come [to] ourselves, we do not despair. Despair is really the victory of the devil. We stand up again. We start over again. And we break the pattern. We don’t take the first think. We don’t take the first drink. We don’t take the first step. We don’t buy that first cigarette. We don’t go to that person. We don’t go to that place. Because if we do, the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are not going to be able to be contained. They’re going to overwhelm and crush us.
And this can happen even in our own room. This can happen even when we’re all alone. St. Anthony said it. You can be in the middle of the desert, and the thoughts and the feelings and the memories and the demons are going to come upon you. And even there you’re going to deal with food in some manner. And you’re certainly going to have to deal with the weather. You know, heat and [the] thirst that comes from it, and so on. That’s just being in this world.
What’s the teaching? The teaching is: the thoughts, the memories, and the feelings are going to be there. The teaching is: it’s not sinful to have them. You just have them. It’s not moral. You just have them. Now, the morality may be that you’re guilty for letting them into yourselves in the first place, but sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes they were put into you before you even had any kind of choice or moral power at all. They’re in you from childhood. Or they’re in you just because something happens to you, somebody rapes you or something.
But there is a moral dimension when we choose them and cultivate them and assent to them and nurture them. Then of course there’s a moral [dimension]. For example, St. Athanasius the Great, he was asked the question, “Can you go to holy Communion if you’re a man and had emission of semen the day before?” And he said, “If it just came upon you in a dream or some blasphemous thought or something, unwilled memory, put the Cross upon yourselves. Ask for God’s mercy and go. But if you yourselves were engaged in pornography or went to a brothel or brought it on yourselves, then of course you must repent and do penance and endure not receiving Communion as a sign of penitence.” Or, put it another way, relating to the Communion as a penitent by not actually going forward because you’re saying to God you’re sorry that you have defiled your holiness, your body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.
So it all depends why. It all depends how. And that’s where we need help. That’s why we have spiritual fathers and mothers. That’s why we have friends in spiritual life direction. That’s why we have recovery groups. Because we need support and we need help and we need instruction and we need correction. We need all these things. You can’t do it by yourselves. But you’ve got to do it yourselves. And it’s by grace and by the help of others.
But the key thing here is, number one: know that these things are there. Number two: know that they’re going to be there. Number three: know that your warfare is not to accept them, and know that the whole battle is in not taking the first step. The battle is in not engaging the trial and temptation when it comes. And then the next thing would be to know: you cannot withstand it by will-power. You’ve got to flee to the good. You’ve got to flee to God. And you’ve got to know that you’re going to lose some battles, if you’re going to conquer in Christ and win the war. There will be battles that are lost. So you’ve got to know not to despair. You’ve got to know to keep up the struggle.
St. Silouan said you know the Holy Spirit is in you if you’re a brave fighter. If you hate your sin and struggle against it. And when you do that, it’s a long battle and you’re not going to be victorious in two days.
I heard once a bishop tell some young people that if they had firm resolve, they could come to dispassion and quiet and peace in one month. I frankly don’t believe that. I think the bishop was wrong. Sometimes it’s a lifetime. But you should never say or put a timetable on it. Even [in] the 12-step program, you learn that you can’t do that. You’ve got to say, “Just for this minute. Just for this day. Just for this time.” Just with this breath, I’m not going to engage that memory. I’m not going to engage that feeling. I’m not going to engage that thought. I’m not going to surrender to it. I’m not going to act out on it.
But I can’t do it by myself, so I’m going to flee to the grace of God. I’m going to read the Scripture. I’m going to read the saints. I’m going to read an Akathistos. I’m going to say a prayer. I’m going to walk around. I’m going to get occupied in work. I’m going to care for some sick person. I’m going to do those things that keep the thoughts, the feelings, and the memories from crushing me. And then I’m going to beg God, “Please don’t let me choose them. Please don’t let me actually will to engage them, affirm them, and to go where they are thriving and where they are destroying people.”
And of course, that means we’ve got to cut off relations with certain people. We just can’t be—and St. Paul said this: “If you go into bad company, you’re going to end up with bad morality and bad behavior, and you’re going to be crushed.” And it’s no sin simply to say, “I’m sorry, Joe. I’m sorry, Lucy. I just can’t hang out with you, because if I do, I’m going to be poisoned by your own darkness and your own sin.”
So it’s violent. And the Lord Jesus said, “The kingdom of God suffers violence, and the violent person takes it by force.” He said, “If your hand offends you, cut it off. Better to enter the kingdom with one hand than to perish with two. If your eyes offend you, pluck them out.” Now, of course, this was not meant to be literally taken. You don’t take a knife, and—people who are very troubled, they sometimes cut themselves and so on. This is not—this is of the devil. But spiritually, with the sword of the Lord, to cut off all that is evil, all this gangrenous, all this poison, to take the medicine, the pharmakon that is the antidote to the evil poison in our system. We have to do that.
But we have to do that firmly, gently, not hysterically, not with panic. We do it one step at a time. We do it by [being] faithful in the little things. And the most important point for today’s meditation: There’s only one way we can do it, and that is by cutting it off when it first comes. And that’s how the Fathers, like Nilus of Sinai and Evagoras and others, interpreted that line in the psalm, “On the Waters of Babylon”: “Blessed are they who smash your little ones on the rocks. Alleluia.” Because they say if we don’t smash the passions and temptations and thoughts and memories when they’re still little, when they first come, then they will grow up and they will kill us.
You might even say, following the Fathers, like Porphyrios, don’t even try to smash them. Just run away from them. Flee to God. Don’t engage them at all. And that’s really what it’s all about. It’s all about not letting the poison in. It’s all about not engaging the vision, the image, the fantasy, the memory, the imagination, the thought. The cause of it all are logismoi: thoughts, feelings, fantasies, imaginations, provocations. But we can only be victorious when, by the grace of God and by faith in God and by the Holy Spirit, we do not engage them at all. The minute we engage them at all, we’re lost. Sooner or later, we can fight, we can battle, we can struggle, but they’ve got us. So the key is: know that they’re there. Let them babble and buzz all they want, but don’t engage them. Don’t engage them.
Unite the mind and the heart and call upon the Lord and flee to him. And beg for grace. It’s not going to be magic. It’s not always going to work, but this is the only way it does work when it does work. And as they say in the 12-step program when they—you know, sex addiction and food addiction and drug addiction and alcohol addiction—“It works if you work it, so work it. You’re worth it.” But what is the working? The working is to know that there is a power greater than ourselves. There is God Almighty; there is grace.
We can’t do it, but what is impossible with human beings is possible with God. And it’s impossible even not to engage and to join and to assent to all those evil thoughts, memories, and feelings that assail us day and night. With God, all things are possible. And so, it is possible not to live without these thoughts, memories, and feelings, but it is possible not to allow them, by God’s grace, to destroy and to crush us and, ultimately, even to kill us. There is a victory. It belongs to Christ. It’s given to us. We have to plug into it. And we do that by faith and grace in God, and by an unseen warfare, to take every thought captive for the sake of Christ and by Christ.
And not to engage any thought, memory, or feeling that is destructive. In fact, some of the Fathers say that we shouldn’t even engage the good ones, because we can be deceived. It’s better simply to be calling upon the name of the Lord and seeking the light without actually getting into many of these things.
Let me just end by reading something from St. Peter of Damascus in The Philokalia, a treasury of spiritual knowledge. He says:
We should not be distracted by anything: neither by dreams, whether evil or seemingly good, nor by thoughts of anything, whether good or bad, nor by distress or deceitful joy, not by self-conceit or despair, nor by depression or elation, nor by a sense of abandonment or by illusory health and strength. Nor by negligence or progress, nor by laziness or by seeming zeal, nor by apparent dispassion or by passionate attachment. Rather, with humility, we should strive to maintain a state of stillness, quiet, calm, free from all distraction, knowing that no one can do us harm unless we ourselves harm ourselves.
St. John Chrysostom has a homily: “No one can harm him who does not harm himself.” And then he [St. Peter of Damascus] goes on to say:
Because of our conceit and our failure constantly to have recourse to God, we should cast ourselves down before him, asking that his will should be done in all things, and saying to every thought that comes to us: “I do not know what you are. I do not know who you are. God knows if you are good or bad, but I have thrown myself, and I shall continue to throw myself into God’s hands, and he will take care of me. He will take care of me.”
And if we do not have anyone to advise us—St. Peter continues—we should take Christ as our counselor, asking him with humility and through pure, heartfelt prayer, about every thought, every memory, every feeling, every undertaking.
And if our sole purpose is to do God’s will, God himself will teach us what it is, assuring us of it either directly, through the mind or by means of some person or in the holy Scripture, and if, for God’s sake, we cut off our own will, God will enable us to reach, with inexpressible joy, a perfection we have not known. And when we experience this, we will be filled with wonder at seeing how joy and spiritual knowledge begin to pour forth from everywhere. We will derive profit from everything—even our thoughts and feelings and memories—and God will reign in us, since we have no will of our own, but have submitted ourselves to the holy will of God, we become like kings, so that whatever we desire, we receive effortlessly and speedily, from God by his grace, who has us in his care.