Evangelos Sotiropoulos: Your Grace, Bishop Christoforos; Fr. Maximos; reverend fathers; distinguished guests; family and friends: good evening. My name is Evangelos Sotiropoulos, and I want to welcome you—it’s a great honor to do so—to this church of St. Nicholas here in Scarborough. With the blessings of His Eminence, Metropolitan Sotirios, we’re very fortunate and blessed to have our second annual lenten spiritual homily that will be delivered this evening by Fr. Maximos on the subject of “Our Thoughts and Mental Health: An Orthodox Perspective.”
Just as a short housekeeping matter, our parish council will distribute small sheets of paper in the next few minutes for the question-and-answer session that will follow the homily. Feel free to write any questions that you may have, and we’ll circulate that. I think they’re coming right there. Feel free to write any questions, and we’ll circulate that for the Q-and-A following Father’s homily.
V. Rev. Archimandrite Maximos Constas: Your Grace, it’s good to see you again. Father, thank you for those kind words of introduction. Evangeli, I don’t see him, I’m sure he’s—there he is—managing certain things. Thank you for your hospitality and for helping arrange this event. Of course, I am happy to begin by thanking His Eminence, Metropolitan Sotirios, who, because of other business, could not be here with us this evening, but I would like to publicly thank him for this opportunity and for his friendship and for his support over the years. Some of you might remember that I was here—was it a year ago? I don’t remember exactly—but there was an event in this church, actually, and it’s a blessing to be back.
As Fr. Fanourios mentioned, I was ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood on the feast day while I was ordained, as a deacon, on the feast day of St. Nicholas, and before I became a monk and received the name of Maximos, my baptismal name was Nicholas, so it’s a double blessing for me to be in this church of St. Nicholas. I’ve been to your church before, but this is the first time I’ve been here for an actual service, and it’s such a lovely environment; it’s such a beautiful environment; it’s such a peaceful environment that I feel a little reluctant to shatter the silence of the beautiful vespers service with my words, but this is what you’ve invited me here to do, and that’s what I will do.
As you heard, I’ve been asked to say a few words about the whole question or the whole problem of our thoughts. “Our thoughts” in English means one thing, I suppose, but in Greek there’s a very specific word here: logismoi. It’s not skepsis; it’s logismoi, so the thoughts that we’re talking about here are logismoi, which are a very particular kind of mental phenomenon, let’s say. They’re not thoughts that we ordinarily have. There’s something very different, and often they’re translated as “negative thoughts.” “Logismoi” can often be translated as negative thoughts or thoughts that emerge or arise from our passions; they’re the logismoi a ta pathi ekhoune [negative thoughts that the passions have], and we’ll say more about what the passions are. Or, if the logismoi are not coming from passions, they are leading us to the passions. Oi logismoi oi opioi mas proachthoun kata kapoion tropo, pros tin amartian kai pros ta pathi [the negative thoughts which lead us in some way towards sin and towards the passions]. So those are the kinds of thoughts that we are going to be speaking about this evening.
Is there a problem or…? [Microphone noises] Can everyone hear me? Am I audible? It sounds good from where I’m standing. [Laughter] I flew up from Boston this morning, and my head is a little stuffed from the air travel, so I hope you can hear me a little better than I can hear myself.
It seems fair to say, it seems clear to say that we live—and this is really our curse and it’s our blessing—in a troubled world. We live in a troubled world. It’s hard to turn on the news or look at a newspaper and not be upset, not be unsettled. Zoume s’ena etsi taragmeni epokhe, ena taragmeno kosmo. [We live in a troubled time, a troubled world.] And the source of the troubles that we see, the origin of the troubles that we see, the root of the troubles that we see is our own troubled self. Everything that we see externally, everything that we see outwardly in the world is a manifestation, is a projection of the things that we have within us. If there is greed within us, if there is hatred within us, if there is resentment within us, if there is anger within us, if there is whatever there is, this is what will be manifested within the world.
So I can only attribute the troubled nature of our world today to the troubled nature of the self, to our own inner… It’s our own inner turmoil that has been projected out into the world, into the things that we see. Kai to leei o apostolos Pavlos [and apostle Paul says it]—I’m sorry: Apostolos Iakovos, in the letter of James; James asks the question: What is the source of the wars and the conflicts among you? Is it not your lusts? Is it not your passions that are war in your members? In other words, in your own self. You desire, and you do not have, so you kill. And you covet, but you cannot obtain. So you fight and you wage war. Pothen polemoi kai makhai en ymin? Apo pou einai afta pou vlepoume mesa mas, ouk edefthen, den einai ap’ ekei ek ton idonon ymon ton stratevomenon en tois melesin ymon? Epithimeite, kai ouk ekhete, diladi thelete pragmata kai den ta ekhete, ouk ekhete kai phonevete. Koitaxeis pou to leei o apostolos. [Where do wars and fights come from among you? Where do the things we seen within ourselves come from? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? That is, you want things and you don’t have them; you don’t have and you kill. See where the apostle says it.]
So we’re distracted by things around us. We’re distracted by the news and by the troubled times that we live in and all of the unusual and disturbing things that we see. I think that this is a dangerous thing for us, because it distracts us from our own self. It distracts us from our own inner depth, and we end up living externally; we end up living superficially and not from our own inner depth. Somebody once said—I don’t know the source of the quotation—that every depth has a surface, but not every surface has a depth, which is why we should attend to the depth of things and not to the surface. Kathe vathos ekhei epiphaneia, alla kathe epiphaneia den ekhi vathos. Yia afto na prosexoume okhi stis epiphaneies alla sto vathos, sta vathi ton pragmaton, etsi. Epeitdi kamia phora i epiphaneia einai ta pathi. [Every depth has a surface, but not every surface has a depth. Thus, let us attend to the depth, the depths of things, so. Because on occasion the surface is the passions.]
This is, I think, part of the Christian life, part of the spiritual life, and not even just part of the Christian or the spiritual life, but it’s part of a normal and healthy… I think, human life, a normal human, healthy, psychological, emotional, and spiritual life does not involve being externally oriented all the time and living outside of yourself and being distracted and reactive and all these kinds of things, but it means to live from your center. It means to live from your inner depth, to live richly and deeply and with deliberation from your own self and not to be at the mercy of—what’s the… kalamos [reed]? I don’t know the quote in Greek, but the reed that’s blown about by every wind of change that comes through. We can’t be that person. We can’t be that person; we have to have an inner stability.
But we have a problem. We have a problem when we try to enter into our self. We have a problem when we try to move from the external to the internal, from the outward to the inner. And what is that problem? That problem is that our minds are easily distracted. Our minds are easily distracted. We often find it difficult to pay attention for more than a few minutes. We often find it difficult to pay attention, as can be seen, for example, in the precipitous rise of various attention-deficit disorders which were largely unheard of five or ten or 15 years ago, and now millions of people of all kinds of ages now, not simply just children or adolescents, but older and older people are being diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder and related kinds of disorders.
This is a disorder (ADD, ADHD) that’s not caused by a virus. It’s a social problem; it’s not a genetic or a chromosomal or a viral… It’s not caused by a microbe. It’s a social disorder. Of course, if you put children in environments where they’re distracted by all kinds of electronic gadgets, of course they’re going to have a hard time focusing, of course they’re going to have a hard time concentrating and focusing. But we have this weakness, o nous tou anthropou ekhei afti tin adinamia—den borei na prosekhete, den steketai, den kathetai, den anapavetai [the human mind has this weakness—it cannot attend, does not stand still, does not sit, does not rest]. We’re always seeking something. The mind is always in motion; the mind is always striving, seeking, searching, demanding, wanting, craving.
Most of us have televisions probably with remote controls and other gadgets that give us access to maybe more than a hundred channels, and you can sit there and channel surf—that’s the phrase, right?—and go through hundreds and still not find anything worth watching. Or we go to our refrigerators, and our refrigerators are filled with food and there’s nothing in there for us to eat. Or you go to—I don’t know—Netflix to find a movie, and you spend 25 minutes looking for a movie to watch and you don’t find anything. So all of this excess, all of this abundance doesn’t fulfill us, but it actually leaves us feeling more empty: a refrigerator full of food, and there’s nothing to eat; a television full of movies, and there’s nothing to watch. Talaiporoi eimaste. Talaiporia einai afti i katastasi. [We are distressed. This situation is distress.]
All of this searching, all of this craving, all of this wanting, all of this restlessness—and we never seem to ask ourselves: What are we seeking? We just accept the fact that we’re craving creatures, that we’re looking, searching, striving, wanting, never happy, never satisfied, always wanting. We never ask ourselves why or what exactly are we looking for. Why are we so restless? Why are we always searching? I mean, take the channel-surfing as a metaphor or an allegory for your life. How come you can’t find the channel that’s supposed to be your life? It’s this built-in kind of discontent or unhappiness. Why is it so hard for us to remain quietly at home? Why is it so hard for us to remain at home, let’s say, in our room? Why is it so difficult for us to take a solitary walk without the gadgets and the telephones and the ear buds? Why do we find it so difficult to do? What prevents us from being at rest? Why are we so restless? We simply accept the fact of our restlessness; we never question it, and I think we need to.
Another question: Why are we so enamored— Earlier I spoke about the depth and the surface, the vathos and the epiphaneia, the depth and the surface. Why are we so enamored of surfaces? We have become very superficial people; it’s all about appearances, whether it’s politics, whether it’s in our own self-presentation to other people. We look: we seem to be fixed, focused on, enamored of, obsessed with surfaces. Surfaces: the way things look, not the way things are. And we’re easily deceived, time and again, by surface appearances. Even in relationships, we look at people, and we see the surface of them. Sometimes people fall in love with other people because of the way their eyebrows look or because of the color of their hair or some other superficial characteristic that brings people together, but there’s no foundation for a relationship there. The surface is just the surface.
There used to be an old saying—don’t judge a book by its cover—that’s exactly the kind of society we’ve become. I’m not Canadian; I’m not from Canada. I think maybe what I’m saying is more relevant to the U.S., where I think where America’s supposed to be ahead of Canada all the time, and we’re certainly ahead of you in terms of being superficial and shallow in terms of our culture and our aesthetics and our politics and many other things. So much of what I’m saying comes from an American kind of background, but I think it’s also a very human problem. My question is: Why are we so enamored of the surface? Why are we so attached to surfaces?
One possible answer could be that we’re afraid of the depth. Phovomaste to vathos. [We are afraid of the depth.] So maybe we’re afraid of the depth. Maybe we’re afraid of our own inner depth, which maybe we’ve never encountered. Maybe we don’t know who we are very well, and rather than get into that we’ll satisfy ourselves with superficial and external distractions. Still worse than being afraid of the depth, maybe we’re afraid of finding out that we don’t have a depth. If I’ve spent my whole life attending to external, superficial things—my face and my hair and my appearance and my clothing and the details of my home and so on and so on, all of these exoterika pragmata [external things]—maybe I have neglected my own inner depth. Kai afta tha thelo na koitaxo ligaki mesa… na mi vlepo i ta khalia i ta… tipota. To keno pou yparkhei mesa tin psykhin mou kai afto mas phoverizei. [And this is what I would like to look into a little bit… to not see the bad things, not… nothing. The emptiness which is within my soul and that frightens us] ...to look inside of yourself. It’s one thing to look inside of yourself and see something you’re not happy with, but it’s another thing to look inside of yourself and realize that you’re empty. That’s a frightening thing. And I think our lives are very empty, living in a materialistic and consumeristic and sort of scientific kind of culture where everything is reduced to physical phenomena. Den yparkhei pia to pnevma, mono to yliko, i exoteriki, yliki epiphaneia ton pragmaton. [There is no more soul, just the material, the external, material surface of things.]
This idea of this kind of restless mind that we have, I think this is a human dilemma. It’s a human existential kind of a problem, and it’s been exacerbated by our modern society, by our modern culture. Why? Because there’s a very real sense in which the culture that we’ve created—I’m thinking primarily of digital culture and all of the electronic gadgets—I think I see someone in the back holding up an electronic gadget; they’re everywhere; I’m not singling you out—but the culture that we have created is really a culture of organized distractions. How can you possibly have a deep, inner spiritual life if you’re constantly distracted by the 24-hour news cycle? Every 15 minutes, every day there’s some new story, there’s some new event, there’s some new disruption, there’s some chaotic… right? And it seems that the whole thing has been designed to distract us. One day it’s the missing airplane, the next day it’s some virus, the next day it’s some attack. Zalizomaste. [We are dizzy.] And who is… And it’s in the interest of certain groups and others to keep us distracted from the depth of things and to keep us satisfied with superficial things. That’s a whole other issue; I’m not going to get into it, but it’s not by chance that society has evolved in this way. It’s to someone’s advantage that we’re being kept distracted and that we’re not encouraged to look within ourselves.
So if we think for a moment about what our mind is doing most of the time… Now, there’s a lot of people here in the church tonight, and I’ve been speaking for maybe ten minutes or so, and you might want to take a quick self-check and ask yourself where you’ve been in those ten minutes. Have you even arrived here yet? Some of you still haven’t gotten to… physically you’re here, but spiritually or mentally you’re still at home, maybe you’re still at work, maybe you’re thinking about a conversation you had, or maybe you got here, body and soul, but now you’re thinking about: “I hope he finishes quickly, because I haven’t had my coffee this afternoon” or “I’ve got to make dinner.” Allos pige sto Parisi xergo. Spania emiaste parontes; den eimaste parontes. [Another is going to Paris. We are rarely present; we are not present.]
If you think about it, all of the activity of the mind—it’s always moving; it’s always in motion; it’s always filled with thoughts and memories and images and anxieties and fears and resentments—and think of all of that turmoil that goes on inside of us. Either we’re mulling about things that happened yesterday—what they said in the office yesterday, or what my koumbaro said the other day. Ta tou parelthontos, afta pou ekhoun yinei [the things of the past, those which have happened]—either we’re mulling about things in the past, going all the way back to my childhood—what did my parents do, or my grandparents; where I was born—it never ends. It’s sort of like a cassette tape or a video tape that just plays over and over and over and over in our mind. So either we’re worrying about, mulling over things that happened yesterday, or we’re anxious about tomorrow: Ti tha yinei, ti tha kano, pou tha pao? [What will happen, what will I do, where will I go?] What’s going to happen with this and that and the other thing? So if you think about it, we’re sort of torn in two directions. Either we’re worried about the past or resentful about the past or daydreaming about the past—people that we knew, places that we went—or we’re focused on some sort of imaginary future—what if this, what if that, how about this, how about that—and it turns out that we are almost never in the present.
We are absent from the present. We know what that’s like. We know what it’s like when you have a problem and you want to talk to someone, even a friend, and they’re not there. They’re not present; they’re not listening to you, because they’re distracted by things. And we do that to them, too. They’re telling you their problem… Sou leo olo to pono tis kardias, k’esy yia sou me skephtesai exergo—Ti tha phas to Pascha? Etsi, den einai; den eimaste parontes. Oute sto eafto mas, oute stous allous. Pou eimaste? Afto einai to erotima. [I tell you the pain of my heart and you, for you I am outside your thoughts—what will you eat at Pascha? Isn’t it so? We are not present either to ourselves or to others. Where are we? That is the question] But to be absent from the present…
Kai o Theos pou vrisketai? Oute stis skepseis mas yia to parelthon, oute sto phantastiko melo pou phantazomaste, o Theos vrisketai sto paron. Kai an emeis den eimaste parontes sto paron, den eimaste me to Theo. [And where is God? Neither in our thoughts about the past, nor in the imaginary place we imagine; God is found in the present.
And if we are not present in the present, we are not with God] So if I’m living in my past, if I’m pining over my last youth and how handsome I used to be and how I used to be able to run ten miles and the friends that I had and the places that I went, or if I’m worried about the future: I don’t have enough money to retire, where am I going to live, and what happens if there’s an economic recession. If I’m living in the past or the future, I’m not living in the present, and God exists only in the present. God does not exist in my memories of the past, and God does not exist in my daydreams and my fantasies about the future. So if all I’m doing is mulling over the past and imagining things about the future, I’m not in the present, and that means I’m not with God. God is not the God of my imagination, of my thoughts, of my memories, of my resentments. O Theos zei sto paron [God lives in the present], as I said before, and if we’re absent from the present, we’re absent from God. Think about it: even if we’re sleeping, our minds are active. Den stamastaei o nous tou anthropou kai apo pou afti i koimisis afti i tarakhi afti i energeia afti, den anapavetai o nous me tipota. [Man’s mind does not pause… and where from this sleep, this agitation, this energy… the mind does not stop with anything.]
I think most of us, though, it happens that most of us are so distracted most of the time that we don’t really have a sense of what’s going on inside of us. From the minute we wake up in the morning, most of us now, from what I understand, the first thing people do is they reach for their iPhone. They say the last thing you touch at night and the first thing you touch in the morning is your iPhone. It’s like that creature in The Lord of the Rings, Gollum, who had the ring; it’s like “my precious, my precious”: he couldn’t be apart from the iPhone, which means all of our waking time is spent hooked up to some sort of gadget or device, or you’re emailing or you’re texting or you’re tweeting or you’re on the computer or you’re binge-watching or you’re on the phone. We’re constantly distracted. We’re constantly living outside of ourselves, because, as I said, we’re afraid to actually be alone. We seem to be afraid to not have these things on.
Actually, a long time ago, Sigmund Freud, the famous psychologist, noticed—because in those days they had radio—that the moment that people walked into a room, they put the radio. That was the first thing they did. They walked into a room, they put the radio on. I see this today. People get home from work. The first thing they do? Put the TV on or the radio or something else. You know what Freud said about that? He said: Why do they do that? Or you go to the car, first thing. God forbid there’s a two-minute period where there isn’t some distraction. Freud’s answer to that: because these people don’t want to hear or confront their subconscious thoughts or impulses. I wouldn’t put it exactly like that, but I think that’s generally right. If we can’t be alone with our self, that means we have a problem with our self. Either we don’t like our self… Why should we be uncomfortable being alone? Going for a solitary walk without the music and the gadgets—why? What are we afraid of?
I think we’re so distracted that we don’t even realize what’s going on inside of ourselves, and I think it’s only now… Maybe when you’re waiting on line somewhere, in the bank or something like that, or people don’t even do that any more. Let’s say you’re trying to go to sleep at night and you’re dozing off. You’ve turned off the iPhone and the TV is off and you’re there by yourself now. Now you start: Oh, what’s all of this? What are all these thoughts in my mind? Now you see them. They’re not just there at 10:30 or 11 o’clock at night when you’re going to sleep. That’s going on all the time, and I think we’re running away from that, and we’re distracting ourselves with all of the gadgets and the music and the noise and the binge-watching and the constant checking of the emails and the tweets and the text messages.
But you see there are moments when you hear all of that internal noise, and some of us can’t sleep at night because of that: all of those thoughts, all of that anxiety, all of that turmoil. It’s not an exaggeration. It can be torture. Whoever has had a sleepless night knows just how awful that is: to not be able to sleep because your mind is racing because of [it]. Sometimes the concerns are real: I lost my job today. Den boro na komitho. [I can’t sleep.] But more often than not the concerns are either imaginary or they’re magnified by our mind.
We know the power that these thoughts have. I can think of… there might be someone that I don’t like, there might be someone I have a problem with, a family member, a colleague, a neighbor, or someone like this, and there’s an issue there. If that person comes to my mind, all of a sudden, that person’s face, let’s say, or just the memory of them comes to my mind, I know that my blood pressure can start to rise. I can become physically upset just by the thought of someone, and if I allow myself to indulge in that thought, I can actually become angry. I start remembering the negative things I think they did to me. They said this to me and they did that to me and that gets me mad now. I dynamis ton logismon pou borei na sproxei ton anthropon akomi s’enklimateia apo mia skepsi apo ena logismo. [The power of thoughts which can move a person even to crime from one thought, one negative thought.]
The other side of all of this is what? Is that all of these thoughts are fragmenting. If we’re divided by all of the thoughts that we have in our mind, we’re not whole beings, we’re not whole creatures; our mind is here, our mind is there. If you’re sitting here and your mind is somewhere else, that’s fragmentation. That’s a low-level form of psychological disassociation. Let’s say you’re having a low-level out-of-body experience. You’re sitting in the church, but o nous… pou ekhei paei o nous? Einai pote mazi sou? [the mind, where is your mind? Is it ever with you?] Actually, tonight and tomorrow, we’re celebrating St. John Climacus, St. John of the Ladder, who is a Church Father and abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine’s at Sinai, who wrote a book called The Ladder of Divine Ascent—that’s why they call him St. John of the Ladder—and somewhere in The Ladder, he says: If you could stay inside your body for one day, you can be saved.
To katalavete? An boreis na kathesai i na minei i pysche sou mesa to soma sou mia mera. [Do you understand? If you can stay or your soul can stay inside your body one day.] You might even say mia ora, tha sotheis [one hour, you will be saved]. But are we a soul and body, united for 24 hours? That’s hard to… You can’t even say one single Jesus prayer without being distracted.
Oute ena Kyrie Iesou Christe eleison me den boreis na peis choris diaspasmo, choris perispasmo. Pos tha minei eikosi tesserais ores meta otan oute devterolepta den borei o anthropos na synkentrothei kai as poume mesa to eavto tou. Peta i psyche kai paei opou thelei. [You can’t say one Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me without distraction, without diversion. How will it stay 24 hours with… when a person cannot even be gathered for seconds, as we say, within himself. The soul flies and goes where it wants.]
When we do see the inner turmoil, when we do see the distractions and we do have the sleepless nights, when we do hear the noise and the resentment and the daydreaming, when we do catch glimpses of this—it’s there all the time, but we distract ourselves, like I said—when we do see some of these things inside of us, it can be very disorienting, it can be very confusing, and it can be very frightening to get a glimpse, in other words, of your inner darkness, because everyone has some darkness in them, and we pretend it’s not there or we think it’s going to go away, or other people see it; we don’t see it, but it’s there, and when you see it, it can be very upsetting; it can be very disturbing.
For example, if you’re sitting in church on Sunday and a negative thought enters into your mind. Pernaei mia vlasphemia, to mialo sou mesa sto nao. Den to etheles, den to zeteses, den sou aresei katholou afto alla sou erkhei aftos o aschemos logismos, mia vlasphemia. Apo pou einai afto to pragma? [A blasphemy passes through your mind in the middle of the temple. You did not want it, you did not look for it, you do not like it at all, but this bad thought came to you, a blasphemy. Where is this thing from?] So you think, okay: Kai poios eimai ego pou skeptoume esti? Apo pou einai afta? [And who am I that I think so? Where did it come from?] Like I said, the blasphemous thought or the angry thought or the violent thought or the dark kind of sexual thought, all of these things that pass through our minds: a person can see all those things and be very confused, become very frightened by them, and they might think they’re having some sort of a problem, which is why we need to know what is going on inside of ourselves. We need to know that.
We need to know where all of this comes from: What is the cause of all of this inner turmoil, what does it all mean, and how are we supposed to respond to it? What does one do? Having seen some of these things in myself now, velpondas ta dika mou ta chalia, tous dikous mou logismous, ta pathi, tis amartias, tis misikakies kai ola afta pou ekhoume mazi, pos prepei na pathiso tora ego? Ti einai sosti andimetopisi aftis tis katastasis? Afto einai to mysterio, kai afto einai to mysterio tis zois. Kai ean den borei o anthropos na palefsei sosta tin katastasi, den borei na prokhorei. [—seeing my own bad parts, my own negative thoughts, the passions, the sins, the grudges and all those things we have within, how should I go on? What is the right treatment for this condition? This is the mystery and this is the mystery of life. And if man can’t correctly fight this condition, he cannot progress.] Why? Because if we don’t know how to face ourselves, in a sense, and the situation that we have, we can never make progress in the spiritual life. Why? Because these are the things that hold us back. Because if every time I think of you or you or you I get angry, or if I remember what you did to me or what you said to me last year at Christmas or when you didn’t come to my house when I had Thanksgiving dinner or whatever it was, if every time those thoughts enter my mind, I become angry or upset, well, that means those are the places where I’m not free. Those are the places where I am not free. Eimai desmenos, demonos. [I am tied up, bound.]
It’s like you have a little dog, and you have it on a rope and it’s tied to the tree, and the dog can kind of run around a little bit, but mekhri ena symeio [until a point]. So I can think that I’m fine, but all of a sudden don’t bring up this subject or don’t talk about that one. Mi mou peis gia ton ena i ton allo, yiati tha yino thirio. [Don’t tell me about this or that because I will become a beast.] I get to the end of my rope, and that’s where I learn those are the places where I’m not free. I’m not free, and I have no joy because of this. It ruins everything: it ruins me; it ruins my relationships with others. So I have to know what’s going on.
So let’s maybe spend just a couple of minutes and enter a little more deeply into some of the psychological and spiritual dynamics that are operative here. The first thing to say is that human beings are very complex creatures. We’re very complex creatures. They say the most complicated thing in the universe, by far—it’s not anything in the solar system or the galaxy—it’s the human brain. Just on a strictly physiological level, on a strictly neurological level, the human brain is the most complex and complicated thing that human beings know, and we know very little about it; we’re still learning about it. The funny thing is that when neurologists and psychologists try to learn about the brain, it’s the brain trying to figure the brain out, because it’s the brain of the psychologist or the brain of the neurologist trying to figure out essentially his own brain. So you wonder: can that even be done? It’s a little bit too self-referential to reach a kind of a conclusion.
But the truth of it is that our experience of the world is extremely… we experience the world in complex ways. We’re not like little earthworms that see light and dark and heat and cold and react to them. Our responses to the world, the way we look at the world, the way we perceive the world, the way we take in the world is extremely complex, and it’s not simply on the level of the senses, like a camera takes a picture of something because it takes in the external sources of light and it records the image. Well, the eye kind of works like that, but the camera doesn’t have a mind, the camera doesn’t have feelings, the camera doesn’t have a memory. So we have all the optical machinery, in a way, but we bring this whole emotional and cognitive and spiritual world to that act of perception.
We take things in from the world around us, and we form ideas about them. I’ve been up here now for 20 minutes, and many of you will have formed ideas about me, by seeing me, by hearing me. This is the way the mind works. We make judgments, we make decisions, we size people up, we measure things up. All of that could be wrong, because how could you say you know me? You’ve seen me now for the first time—but we do that.
The Fathers of the Church, the saints of the Church make a basic distinction, which I think is helpful, between pragmata and noemata. Pragmata, the Greek word pragmata, in modern Greek we use it to mean “things,” but it also means “realities” or “objects.” So there are things in the world. There are trees, there are houses, there are people, there are automobiles: there are pragmata in the world, but there are also what the Church Fathers call noemata, from noema: to noema, ta noemata [the concept or meaning, concepts or meanings] and the word nous. You can hear that word in there as well. So noemata are sort of the mental representations of the pragmata. The noemata are sort of the mental images that we form about things in the world.
A simple example: Let’s say I’m a little child. I don’t know a whole lot about the world because I was only born a short while ago. I’m still learning. I go into the kitchen. I’m just learning how to walk. I go into the kitchen; there’s an oven there. I have no idea what an oven is; I’ve never seen an oven before. I go up and I put my hands on it. The oven is on and it’s hot, and I burn my hands. Oh, goodness, that’s an intense experience to have, to put your hands on the outside of the oven. So a few days later, I’m back in the kitchen, and maybe I’m not a very bright boy, and I do the same thing again, and, oh… They say it’s the old proverb: “Once burnt, a lesson learnt.” Well, sometimes we need to be burnt multiple times to learn our lessons.
But sooner or later, if that happens once or twice or three times, I will from the pragma—and the pragma here is the hot oven—I will form the noema, the sort of general abstract idea in my mind now that “Oh, well, ovens have a high possibility of being hot, and I’d better exercise caution around them.” Not all ovens are hot, not all ovens even work, but now I have this idea that ovens are hot and I have to be careful around them. So you see what happens? We have simple experiences of physical sensations in the world, but we end up forming these ideas about them. We end up forming these noemata. Ta noemata, ton pragmaton, and there’s a distinction between the two of them.
This is a very simple idea, because it involves heat and sensation and so on, but most of the ideas that we require are much more complex. Why? Because they’re tied not to just a sensation of heat or cold, but they’re tied to our feelings and our emotions and our whole selves and our personality. I’ll give you another example that the Church Fathers use. They say gold—by gold they mean wealth, money. To chryso ti einai? Einai mia petra. Einai kati pou vgenei apo ti gi , apo to choma. [What is gold? It is a rock. It is something that comes from the ground, from the soil.] Gold is just a mineral. Gold is nothing more than a mineral. There’s nothing bad about it; there’s nothing evil about it. It’s just something that comes out of the ground. So the pragma, the thing, is the gold. But I could come to realize that if I have a lot of gold, I have maybe a little more power to buy things, let’s say, and to make myself look superior to other people or to buy a bigger home or to take trips that I can tell my friends about and have them see just how much money I have. Think of the authority and the social status and the prestige and the power that the gold can… So in my mind now, when I see gold, I don’t see a mineral. I don’t see a mineral any more; I see power, the ability to impress other people, and all of the things that I think about.
Another example that the Church Fathers used, that the saints used, is a beautiful face, the face of a beautiful woman. That’s just a face; that’s just a human face. There’s nothing inherently wrong or simple about human beauty, but I can, in my mind, develop an image now—I can have the noema—can become impassioned. I can become attached to particular kinds of faces so that when I see this woman’s face that I think is a beautiful face, I am attracted to her, I open the door for her, I buy dinner for her, I’m talking to her. But there’s another woman who doesn’t conform to the image of beauty I have in my mind, and I ignore her.
It could be that the woman whom I don’t consider to be beautiful might actually be the better person. She might be the better wife, the better mother, but I totally avoid her because she does not correspond to the noema, to this mental image that I have in my mind. I’m attracted instead to the other person whom I think is beautiful or whom society tells me is beautiful, and that’s the one I end up with and it turns out that I’m so blinded by my own ideas that I can’t see that she’ll be a terrible wife and a terrible mother; she won’t be faithful to me or whatever. But we don’t see these things because our experience of reality is now interpreted by these ideas we have in our mind. You know, wives have images of their husbands in their minds and husbands have images of their wives in their minds and parents have images of their children in their minds, and so on and so on and so on.
Now let me ask you something. If I’m relating to you… Let’s say there’s a husband and a wife or a wife and a husband, and let’s say the wife is relating to her husband through that idea. She wants him to be a certain way; don’t do this, do that; this is how you should be; that’s not how you should be; that’s not what good husbands do; etc., etc. So the wife is relating to the husband through the idea, and if the wife is doing that or the husband is doing that, can the wife or the husband really be said… what is the wife or the husband relating to? They’re relating to the idea, so in a sense there is no relation here; there is no relation here. If I’m relating to the people around me through the ideas that I have of them: Ekeina ton xero, aftos ton xero poios einai. [I know that woman, this man, I know who he is.] “Don’t tell me about her; I know all about her. Let me tell you what she did to me 25 years ago. Five minutes, 25 years ago, and that’s who she is.” If I only relate to people through these images that I have in my mind, am I really relating to people?
Am I free, first of all? Am I even free? I’m not free; I’m bound, I’m enslaved to these images that I have in my mind that interpret my experiences for me. And we have images of ourselves, too, you know. We relate to our own selves through similar images. So, for example, I can say, myself, I have a Ph.D., I’ve read a million books, I’m very smart, and I expect you to treat me a certain way. I have a beard, I wear a robe, I expect to be treated with a certain level of respect when I come to your parish, and you have to put the carpet down on the floor for me, because eimai aftos pou eimai ego [I am who I am]. Because why? Because I have this image of myself. I think the whole world has to correspond now to… Now what happens? You come along now, you say, “Panta endaxi, einai mia omilia, den tha vazoume to chalaki, den chreiazetai. [Everything is fine, it’s one sermon, we won’t put out the carpet, it’s not necessary].”
I come to your church and [you] say, “Now, Father, we usually put the carpet out when the speakers come, but we’re not going to put it out for you. We just don’t have the time; we’re not going to do it. So you’ve just come now and you’ve wounded me. You’ve hurt me, you insulted me, you offended me. What did you actually hurt or insult? Me, or the idea of me? Why should it matter to me if there’s a red carpet? I don’t know how we got onto the red carpet, but I’m on the carpet, so. [Laughter] Why should it matter to me? Why should it matter to me if there’s a carpet here or not, or why should it matter if someone didn’t open the door when I thought they should? Or if they put me in a four-star hotel instead of a five-star? You see what I mean? It’s all because of this image that I have of myself. And so on with the images that I have of others.
The simple solution, of course, is to be done with the image. Don’t have the image; let it go. Why should it matter if somebody bumps into you or disrespects you? So what, really? Ti egine? O allos den ponaei? O allos den ekhei to provlema tou? Den xeroume yiati milaei o allos etsi. Ekhei to diko tou pono. [What happened? Does the other not hurt? The other doesn’t have his problem? We do not know why the other speaks so. He has his own pain.] People do things, they say things; they have their own problems, they have their own pain, they have their own difficulty. Most of the time they’re not out to hurt us. They’re trying to protect themselves. It’s sort of self-defensive things. If the boss yelled at them and they can’t yell at the boss, so they yell at you. It’s all of this displaced anger. If all of us are so hypersensitive because of the images that we have, our life becomes what it has become.
I read a text that was actually very disturbing. This has been replicated multiple times. Do you know that good-looking children, in grammar schools, on the average get better grades than the other kids? And it’s not because they’re smarter; it’s because they’re perceived to be better-looking. When the good-looking kid acts out and makes trouble, he’s very easily forgiven. “Oh, Johnny’s just having a bad day.” But if the not-so-good-looking kid acts out or makes trouble, he’s punished and scolded and sent home. Look at the way we judge people and relate to people and respond to people based on something as superficial and as insignificant as their physical appearance—and we do it all the time. We do it all the time. It’s Hollywood, it’s the star culture, it’s everything together that combines and colludes to create this situation.
There’s so many things that we could say, but we don’t have all night. One last point that I wanted to add, because it is an important thing: Elder Porphyrios used to say—now-Saint Porphyrios used to say, and I think last year had the Gerontissa here from the monastery who spoke… He used to say that the devil will take a sensitive person and try to make that person hypersensitive. In other words, the devil will take a good quality that you have—it’s good to be sensitive, by the way; you don’t want to be unsensitive or insensitive—so the devil will try to take a good quality that you have and make it bad. So the devil will take a sensitive person and try to make that person hypersensitive. Hypersensitive is no good; sensitive is nice, sensitive is good. Hypersensitive: nobody likes hypersensitive.
So the devil actually tries to exploit our feelings and our emotions. I had more to say about that, but I want to jump ahead and talk more about how we should respond to the situation that I’ve described. Well, one of the first mistakes we make is that—and I think this happens at a very young age, as children, certainly by the time we’re teenagers—we make a mistake of self-identifying with all of the negative thoughts that we have inside of ourselves—the anger, the resentment, the daydreaming, the fantasies, the lusts—all of these things that pass through our minds. At some point we begin to identify with them, and we say, “Oh, this is me. I’m an angry person” or “I’m this way or I’m that way.” We don’t know who we are, and we get confused by this flow of emotion and feeling and thoughts, and we lose ourselves in all of this. We have to realize that not every negative thought that goes through our mind is us. The mind is always active.
There’s an example of this. Years ago, when I used to go to Greece, and when you would fly into the country, I would notice that there are always clouds over this or that—there’s no clouds in the sky anywhere, but there’s clouds over some of the islands. I thought, “It’s summertime, there’s not a cloud in the sky. Why should there be clouds over these islands?” It was odd to me. Then when I went to Mount Athos, I noticed that on beautiful, clear summer days, there was almost always a cloud. Sometimes it was perfectly circular like a saucer, sitting right on top of ston Athona, ena synepho, to kalokairi. Den yparchei allo synepho, ti einai afto to pragma? Pos egine? [on Athos, a cloud during summer. There is no other cloud, what is this thing? How did it happen?] And someone told me the explanation; it’s very simple. Namely, that the warm air comes across the surface of the ocean, it hits the side of the mountain, it has nowhere to go, so it rises up, and when it gets to the top of the mountain where the air is colder, it forms a cloud. So the mountain is really a kind of weather-maker. The mountain itself ends up producing the clouds. I thought that’s exactly what happens with us.
I mean to say that you are… All of the bad thoughts? That’s a cloudy day. But you’re not the cloud; you’re the mountain. See the difference? So we make the mistake of forgetting that we’re the mountain, and we end up living in the clouds, in the thoughts, and we don’t realize that these are just things that are there. That’s not who we are. They might be linked to us, they might be related to us in some way, of course, but they do not express our deeper identity. From the minute I realized that very simple kind of meteorological situation, it was always very helpful, because we do have rainy days in our minds and gloomy days and foggy days, but that’s not who we are. Even on a foggy day, the sun is still shining somewhere, isn’t it, which is why the Christian person who believes in Jesus Christ should never be upset, not too much anyway, because we know that even when the clouds come in, the sun is still shining somewhere, even if we can’t see it.
So the first thing to do is to not identify yourself with your thoughts. The other thing is we have to—it’s a good Christian practice; it’s a good spiritual practice to make a new habit now and stop engaging those negative thoughts. Don’t entertain them, don’t couple with them, don’t welcome them in, don’t dialogue with them. We do this all the time, and we’ve gotten into the habit of doing it, and we find it almost impossible to stop. I’m telling you it’s not impossible. We don’t have to do that.
I’ll give you an example. The other day it was early in the morning and I went somewhere to do something, and a colleague, somebody that I work with, made a kind of passive-aggressive remark to me. It was one of these sort of rude things that people say that’s a kind of a dig, but it’s a veiled kind of a dig. I thought about it and I said, “Gee, why are they saying that to me? That’s not…” It was rude, it was offensive, but I didn’t have time to deal with it because I had to go to a meeting, then I had to teach a class, then I had to go somewhere else. The whole day went by, and by the time I got home it was eight o’clock at night, and do you know that that thought waited for me all day? All day that thought waited for me. I got home, it was the end of the day, and all of a sudden I heard a voice and the voice was saying, “Are you going to let him get away with that?” [Laughter]
Meta apo ores, diladi… [After hours, that is…] Again I’m going to… That’s right, am I? And the voice, it says something like, “If you let them walk all over you, they’re going to think you’re weak and they’ll do it again. I said, “Oh! Makria! [Away!] I thought about it a minute and I’m like: I’m not going down that road. You don’t have to engage those thoughts. I could have sat there and worked myself up into a fury that evening, and I’ll indulge in revenge [fantasies]: I’ll show him and I’ll get him and I’ll call people up: “Do you know what he said to me today?” On and on and on, right? I’ll drag other people in. Enas logismos, enas logismos. [One negative thought, one negative thought.] I’m here to tell you that it’s very hard, but you don’t need to engage them, you don’t need to couple with them, you don’t need to entertain them, you don’t need to invite them into your heart. Think about it in biblical terms: they’re unclean things. You don’t touch things that are unclean. If you saw something on the street that was disgusting or gross, you wouldn’t [touch it], right? But with these thoughts? Ta pianoume amesos. [We catch them immediately.]
St. Hesychius of Sinai, another saint from Sinai—we’re celebrating John of Sinai tonight—he has a wonderful image. He says the mind is like a lamb, like a young, innocent, almost naive kind of creature. It doesn’t really understand a lot. And the lamb is in the meadow, and at one point this horrible beast, like a wolf or a dog or some ravenous creature, appears on the periphery of the meadow where the lamb is. The lamb sees the creature, but it doesn’t know what it is, because it’s a lamb; it has no experience of these things. And he says not only does the lamb not know what this beast is, what the wolf is or the wild dog; he says the lamb thinks that it’s its mother, and what does it do? It runs toward it. The innocent, naive lamb runs towards this horrible, ghastly [beast].
And in the real world, we know what happens when little lambs run in the direction of hungry wolves. We know how that story ends. But in the spiritual world, the story’s not over there. He says the only thing the mind can learn from that experience—in other words, a foul thought comes into your mind, an ugly thought comes into your mind, a dark thought comes into your mind, a blasphemous thought comes into your mind—the only thing he says you can learn by running toward that thought, by coupling with that thought, is just how foul and how awful that thought is. That’s the only thing you can learn from it. If you think about it, if you think about the ugly and the awful thoughts that we have sometimes… Mark Twain once said every man has secret thoughts that would shame the devil. There it is. No one wants to admit that, but he did, and it’s true of everyone.
So we have to now commit ourselves to the inner practice of not engaging these negative thoughts. We’ve done it for so long that it’s a hard habit to break. I’ve made myself an angry person, I’ve made myself overeat, whatever, because I’ve been giving into the thoughts for so long. And the thoughts became actions and the actions became habits and I became habituated into ways of doing things and now I can’t stop! Now all I need is the thought, and the action follows immediately. Everything starts with thoughts, and that’s why the struggle is there on that level. So we say, and the advice that we get at the monastery is: Don’t think about your thoughts, and don’t think about not thinking about your thoughts, because if you’re trying to think about not thinking about them, you’re thinking about them! The idea is to simply think of the thoughts as sort of background noise or they could be things on your peripheral vision. I have my hands here, I can see them in my peripheral vision, but I’m not looking at them.
The thoughts are going to come and go. You can’t prevent that; thoughts come and go, but you don’t have to shine the spotlight of your attention on them. We’re all sitting in church sometimes kai mas pernaei enas logismos [and a negative thought comes to us]. You could be on line… Afto einai klasiko: eisai sti seira, stin oura na koinoniseis kai sou erkhetai mia askhimi skepsi. S’afti ti stigmi, ti tha kaneis? Tha phygeis apo tin oura, den tha koinoniseis? Okhi, tha katseis ekei, tha prochoriseies, tha peis, “Kyrie Iesou Christe, eleison me, signorise me.” Koitaxe: afto eimai kai poios eimai kai ti ekho mesa mou. Ouai! Alla, me ti dynami sou, Christe, me tin agapi sou, ego tha prochoriso. Ego etoimasa na koinoniso, tha koinoniso. Es to k’ena ergo afto to logismo. Kaiti an borei o diavolos na se dioxei apo to nao, meta echases to paikhnidi. [This is classic: you are in line, in queue to commune and a bad thought comes to you. That moment, what will you do? Will you leave the queue and not commune? No, you will stay there, will proceed, will say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, forgive me.” Look, this is who I am, and who I am and what I have within me. Woe! But with your power, Christ, with your love, I will proceed. I prepared to commune, I will commune. It’s a big job, this negative thought. And if the devil manages to drive you from the temple, then you lost the game.]
I gave an image of: we’re in church, often you could be on line to receive Communion, and that’s when the devil tries to tempt you. You think about someone in front of you or you watch someone else or very ugly thoughts can come into your mind. Some people get out of the line at that point if they can. That’s the wrong thing to do. The thing to do is—you grieve over yourself. You say, “God forgive me. Look at the kind of man that I am, that these kinds of thoughts go through my mind. What kind of a person am I?” And you feel sorry, you say, “God forgive me,” but you don’t engage the thought. See, that’s the difference.
St. Isaac the Syrian says that the dispassionate man is not the man who has no passions; it’s the man who doesn’t act on them. See the difference? Ta pathi tha meinoun ekei, alla den tha ginoun aphormes gia amarties. [The passions will remain there, but will not become reasons for sins.] Okay, the thought comes into my mind. Let’s say I’m shopping for a new watch, and the man in the watch store puts out five or six watches on the counter, and then he turns around to get something else and maybe the thought comes into my mind—I mean, it doesn’t; I don’t have these… This is not my particular problem—maybe the thought comes into my mind and says, “Take one of those watches.” I say, “I’m not going to do that!” Ou klepseis pou leei. [It says do not steal.] So the thought can come. Let it come, right? But you don’t pay attention to it; you don’t act on it.
Maybe we can close with this, because I think our time is coming toward the end. I think that if you live in your mind, if you live in this world of thoughts, you will be confused, you will be disoriented, and God will be nothing more than an abstract idea to you. If you’re one of these people who rationalizes and intellectualizes and lives totally in your head, your thoughts are going to be like flies that are buzzing around your head, and God will never be a reality to you. God will just be a concept that you might have an opinion about but no experience of, because God doesn’t need us. God doesn’t come to us on the level of our crazy thoughts, which is why the Church teaches us to descend from the mind into the heart, to live not from up here but to live from the center of our being, from the core, okhi to myalo, i kardia einai to kendro, okhi to myalo, okhi o kephalos [not the mind, the heart is the center, not the mind, not the head.] The center of the person is the heart. That’s the core of us, our guts. That’s where we feel things deeply.
If we live in our minds, as I said, we’ll never experience God; we’ll never know God, because God is not “up there” in all of that, the attic of the brain or the mind that’s filled with all this clutter and junk. God is a reality that is deep within us and deep within our center and deep within our core. When we get distracted and we find ourselves pulled out of ourselves into all of these thoughts, that’s where we need to recall our energies, recall our self, and enter that center place, enter the center place of our heart, and there, not to just be idle, as they say, not to do nothing, but to say, “Kyrie Iesu Christe, eleison me ton amartolon.” When you get to that place, to say the Jesus prayer. In other words, if I’m troubled by my thoughts, don’t think about the thoughts. Don’t let them overtake you like that.
St. Maximus the Confessor says, “Nobly endure the waves of thoughts that will come crashing over you.” That’s logismoi ta kimata ton logismon erkhontai ena meta ton allo. Eisai gennaios. Kathesai ekei, mi phvasai, eisai o vrachos, eisai i petra. [The waves of the negative thoughts come one after the other. You are brave: stay there, do not fear. You are the rock, you are the stone.] And the thoughts will come. Tha spasoun afta, tha phygoun afta. Afta eiani tis stigmis. Tis stigmis einai afta. [They will break, they will leave. They are of the moment. Of the moment are they.] And to find that center, that deep part of yourself and to know that that’s where you’re connected to God, not in all of this madness that goes on in our mind and the restlessness and the craving and the den vriskoume ton Theon ekei. I pragmatikotita tou Theou, I parousia tou Theou einai endothen imin, endos imin, sta vathi mas, okhi sta… [the reality of God, the presence of God is within us, inside us, in our depths, not in…] What’s the image they say?
If you look at a tree, a tree has branches, a tree has a trunk, and it has roots. When the storm comes, when the winds come, where is the tree most agitated? Exoterika: it’s the outer branches of the tree. That’s the mind, all the thoughts; that’s the person being agitated. So what do you do? If you’re in a storm, you’re not going to climb up to the top of the tree; you’re going to go somewhere by the trunk. We should always do this, but especially when we feel agitated. That’s when we know we’ve left our center, we’ve lost our center, we’ve left the place of the heart, and we have to go back to the core, to the center, to the trunk of the tree, to the roots of the tree, because that’s where the life comes from and that’s where the strength is and that’s where our safety is, in a sense.
I had many more things to say, but we had a vespers service, and I think I’ve spoken for quite some time now. Den thelo na se kouraso katholou. [I don’t want to tire you at all.] But I don’t know if there’s still time for… Do you want to do the questions and answers? We spent a lot of time; many of us spent a lot of time driving, and there’s this phenomenon of road rage, and we can get pretty angry and worked up when we’re driving. That’s because we look at the other drivers as our enemies. We look at the other drivers as if we’re in competition with them, and I think that’s a mistake. Instead of looking at the red light, the red light is your enemy—it’s been green long enough, it’s turning yellow now, I’d better hit the gas. God forbid I’m stopped at a red light. The red light is not your enemy; the red light is your friend. The red light is telling you: Stop. Stop, stop. Katse dyo lepta, mi viazesai. [Stop for two minutes. Don’t rush.] Stop at that red light; slow down and stop at that red light. How long are you going to be there for? Defterolepta, oute. [Just seconds.] Seconds. That’s where you can stop, collect yourself, think about God, find your heart, enter the place of your heart. Pes ena Kyrie Iesou Christe eleison me. [Say a Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me]. And then you go on your way. In other words, think of all of the opportunities that we have in the course of the day to turn our thoughts to God. And instead of doing that, we’re trying to run red lights.
Are there any questions? If you have any, you can give them to me now. I can answer them. What do you have? It’s like the Academy Awards. I’m waiting for the winner to be announced. [Laughter] You wanted to pick them, too.
Mr. Sotiropoulos: No, no, no. Maybe we’ll start with one?
Fr. Maximos: Okay, are you going to read it?
Mr. Sotiropoulos: Do you want me to read it?
Fr. Maximos: Whatever you’d like to do.
Mr. Sotiropoulos: How do your help your spouse that is not happy or at peace with themselves? How do you get rid of negative thoughts?
Fr. Maximos: Well, I think I said; I think I answered the second part. You really can’t get rid of the negative thoughts. You can’t get rid of the negative thoughts. The real response, the real solution is you have to stop engaging them. The thoughts are going to be there. It’s up to us whether or not we… Somebody said… Even on Mount Athos, airplanes fly overhead, and they make noise sometimes, so the thoughts are like airplanes. But on Mount Athos, they didn’t build an airport. Pernaei to aeroplano, kanei ligo thoryvo, alla den prosgeionetai epeidi den yparchei edaphos. [The plane comes, makes a little noise, but doesn’t land because there isn’t good terrain.] The thoughts are going to come and go, but don’t build a runway for them. Don’t build a landing strip for them. Don’t welcome them into your heart, no matter what they are.
The older image people used to use was the image of the fly. The thoughts are like flies, and if you’re sitting in the house and the windows are open in the summertime—and the windows could be the eyes or the ears or the senses—of course if the windows are open, flies are going to come into your house. The fly comes into the house and what does it do? It buzzes around the room a few times, and if the fly doesn’t find anything to eat, it’ll leave, right? Baineimesa i myga, deen vriskei tipota na phaei kai phefgei. Kai an omos to spiti einai denomeno, einai vromiko, einai phaia edo k’eki, okhi mono pou tha minei i myga afti, tha physei ta afga tis kai meta to spiti tha einai gemato me myges. [The fly goes in, doesn’t find anything to eat and leaves. However, if the house is closed up, dirty, dark here and there not only will the fly stay, it will leave its eggs and then the house will be full of flies.] So you can’t prevent the flies from buzzing into your mind, but you can create a pure environment within yourself that doesn’t welcome or accept these things.
The other question, all right. Why don’t you pick some questions that are most appropriate. Another one? No, I didn’t answer the first question about the spouse who’s not at peace. If I’m not at peace, how can I make you…? How can I possibly, right? The other thing is that we’re all in different places, too. When I went to the monastery and after I went to the abbot at one point, I said, “Kapoioi oi pateres einai ligo dyskoloi. [Some of the fathers are a bit difficult.]” And he says, “Nai, ki ego ta ekho paratirisei afto. [Yes, I’ve noticed that, too].” He says, “Look, you want to know why you’re here in a monastery?” He says, “You’re here to put up with everybody else, and they’re here to put up with you.” [Laughter] That solved all the problems. Esy eisai edo na anekhesai tous allous kai aftoi na… k’esena. [You are here to put up with them and they to… with you.] When it comes to other people, just as sensitive… To pio evaisthito pragma sto kosmo einai i kardia. I kardia tou anthropou einai to pio evaisthito pragma–ligo me to piaseis kai megali katastrophe. [The most sensitive thing in the world is the heart. The heart of man is the most sensitive thing. You bother it a little and it is a great catastrophe.]
So we have to be gentle with each other; we have to be patient with each other. O allos ponaei. An dyskolevetai, as poume, o syzygos, I syzigos den thelei… Ston Athona den leme kali ypomoni, leme kales ypomones, epiedei polles chreiazontes. [The other hurts. If the husband, the wife, has difficulties, the spouse doesn’t want…. On Athos we don’t say good patience, we say good patiences, because you need many.]
Mr. Sotiropoulos: There were a number of questions, so hopefully I did a good job. If yours doesn’t get chosen, I’m sorry.
With all the excess and abundance in our everyday lives and the delusion of the idea of ourselves, how can someone humble themselves to look into the depths of their soul for their salvation?
Fr. Maximos: You know, they say that the devil tries to destroy us through our virtues, and God tries to save us through our vices. The devil tries to destroy us through our virtues—what does that mean? Let’s say I have a good voice. Eimai kallos psaltis, ekho phoveri phoni. Afto einai mia ariti, afto einai kati kalo, alla ego boro na gino periphanos. [I am a good chanter, I have an awesome voice. This is a virtue, it is a good thing, but I can become proud.] I mean, if I have a beautiful voice, I can become prideful, and the good thing that God gave me, the beautiful gift that God gave me, the devil will try to use that to destroy me. We see that all the time. Your gifts, your virtues: that’s why they say you have to repent not simply of your vices; you have to repent of your virtues sometimes, because you think you’re good, you think you’re [righteous].
So as the devil tries to destroy us through our good qualities, God tries to save us through our bad qualities. The difficulties that we have, the mistakes that we make, the failures that we have in our life, our passions, oi amarties, ta pathi, afta mas tapeinonoune, katalavaitnete? [the sins, the passions, these humble us, do you understand?] That God allows us to be humbled by our own weaknesses. A person who has a character defect or a character flaw—let’s say someone who’s an alcoholic; that can be a potentially very dangerous and very damaging thing. What do they say? That the person has to do what? They have to hit rock bottom, and then there’s an opportunity for them to “Okay, I realize now just how terrible this is, and I realize now that this is done; I can’t do this any more.” So that’s an example of how a vice, a passion, an addictive behavior, a self-destructive behavior reaches kind of a limit, and it became its own teacher, in a way. Ekho varethei me afto to pragma. [He was tired of this thing.] “I can’t live with this any more. It’s a blessing. People say… Sometimes people get diseases, and they understand that they’re blessings from God. Because, you know, the alcoholism is terrible, but I hit rock bottom, and it was the best thing that every happened to me.
Or, when the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was the best thing that ever happened to me: because I wasn’t living my life properly. I didn’t know what was important in my life. My priorities were all upside-down. When the doctor told me what he told me, tote katalava ti simainei I zoe. Itane evlogeia. [then I understood what life means. It was a blessing.] So God is the one who will bring these things about for us. Do you have another one? A good one? Time? It’s under your control.
Mr. Sotiropoulos: There were a few on this subject, so I think I’ll consolidate them into one. What is the Church’s stance on secular teachings on thoughts, self-development, etc.? Can they work in tandem? I’ll add that there [were] a couple in terms of physical meditation, yoga, etc.
Fr. Maximos: When I first read the question, I thought it was about psychology, and I think first of all psychology is a very vast and variegated field. We refer to it with one word, but there’s so many schools of psychological thought, that it’s really inexact to speak of psychology in general. But having said that, I’ll do it anyway.
I think that the best psychology has to offer is actually good and that many people have been helped by counselors and psychologists and psychiatrists. Just as the body can get sick with a disease, the brain is part of the body, and the brain can. I mean, there’s obviously a certain percentage of people who have organic brain disorders or chemical imbalances. It’s just part of the way we get sick; it’s part of the way things can go wrong. And those people can be helped by counseling and even medication. I think, at least in the U.S., we’ve gone way too far with this and we’re overdiagnosing people with the smallest kinds of neuroses and problems, and the answer to everything now is to get everybody on drugs. Well, because the pharmaceutical companies make a lot of money and it’s all like that. But if you look at the positive achievements of psychology and psychiatry, we should welcome them because they can really help people who can’t otherwise be helped.
But having said that, we also have to recognize that psychology and psychiatry have their limitations. They’re dealing with the emotional and the psychological of the person, and often—this is the problem with medicine today—they’re usually just treating symptoms. They’re not getting at the deeper—often there’s a spiritual cause or there’s something. So I think there needs to be a combination of, let’s say, the spiritual together with… I mean, just as if a person has a physical problem, the priest wouldn’t say, “No, just go pray about it.” They say, no, “You’ve got to go to the doctor!” I mean, it’s a very simple… we overcomplicate it, I think.
As far as the other things go—meditation and yoga—I have a question about all of those things, and I question the appropriateness of those things for Orthodox Christians or for any Christian. They present themselves as exercise; they present themselves as stress relief—and everyone’s stressed out—but they are really the vestiges, anyway, of the spiritual practices of another religion. The spiritual practices of another religion: and there are many yoga teachers who are attracted to yoga and they’re attracted to Eastern religions, and they’ll teach their yoga class. They’ll give their students mantras… I mean, it’s not everybody that does that, but I think if you want to exercise, that’s great. I would encourage you to exercise. I see no reason why we have to be going to other religious traditions to relieve stress.
I know that yoga is popular and that many people go to yoga classes and that what I’m saying might be looked at as narrow-minded or obscuritist or negative, but I genuinely feel that way. I just don’t think that… I mean, I couldn’t go to a yoga class and… How would you feel if I did that? What would you think about me? I couldn’t go to a yoga class and do what? And place my body and spirit in submission to enas gourou, xero ego? [a guru, do I know?] Someone who’s going to tell me do this and do that, and what are they going to tell me? My body is not my own; my body belongs to the Church; my body belongs to the body of Christ. Emiaste meli to Christou, tou somatos tou Christou. [We are members of Christ, of the body of Christ.] That’s not my body to go now, to deposit at the feet of a spiritual teacher from India or southeast Asia or… All world religions have things of value in them, but I think to do this is to cross a line. I think it’s to cross a line, and it’s not necessary.
Actually I read a book a while ago—I forget the title of it; I’m sorry—but it’s about the history of modern yoga. The yoga that we’re familiar with in the Western world is actually a fairly recent phenomenon. It was invented in India in the late 19th, early 20th century, by a group of Hindu religious leaders who were upset and concerned about the presence of British Protestant missionaries in India, because you had lots of Indians who were converting to Christianity under the British, and these Indian religious leaders were naturally concerned about this. So what did they do? They came up, they created this whole system of modern yoga as a way to combat, actually, Christianity. So obviously yoga has roots in much older Indian traditions, but the form of modern yoga that is practiced today goes back to Vivekananda. There’s a whole history here; we’re not here to talk about that, but the very idea that it was created to combat Christianity is enough, I think, to make any Christian question becoming an adept, let’s say, at that practice. Anyway, it’s a whole other worldview.
I know I lost few people with that one, but…
Mr. Sotiropoulos: I was going to ask one final question, but because of Father’s answer, maybe we’ll ask two, and His Grace will say a few words and we’ll all go downstairs.
How important is teaching hesychasm to young children? What could it look like in the household?
Fr. Maximos: Well, I think children learn by example. We are our parents’ children. What our parents did, how they behaved in the home, how they related to each other, that’s what they learn. What they tell us, that sort of goes in one ear and out the other. How do they say it? “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one.” Have you ever heard that one before? Who the parents are and how they live, that’s what the children see; that’s what they pick on. And they’re already genetically predisposed anyway because they’re your children. So if the parents don’t have a spiritual life, if the parents aren’t people of prayer, if the parents aren’t people of faith, it doesn’t matter what you tell your kids.
I used to see this. Parents would drop their kids off for Sunday school; they would go and get pancakes and then pick them up. Whatever they learned in the Sunday school, the real lesson was: Church is not that important because my parents don’t go, or Daddy doesn’t go or Mommy doesn’t go. And if you are that living example of faith and of belief, and if your heart is open to God, your children will see that, even if you never say a word about it. Your children will see that; they will experience that. God will take care of that; God will communicate with them. Of course you want to teach them and take them to church, but children are very sensitive, too, and children, especially younger people, adolescents, very, very sensitive to injustice and hypocrisy. “You smoke.” The father says, “You shouldn’t smoke.” “But you smoke, Dad!” They’re very sensitive to the hypocrisy that fills our world.
Raising children is probably the most important thing that any human… I mean, that’s greater than anything in the world: to bring another person into the world and to raise that person right. That’s got to be the greatest challenge. It’s another life that God has given you to raise. If the example isn’t there, if the example of love and forgiveness and patience… now we have kids telling their parents what to do! The whole world is upside-down. If the parents go to church and receive Communion, the children will learn that and will follow along. There might come a time—we have this thing in our culture where the kids feel they have to rebel. Okay, they might do that. “I don’t want to go to church any more.” But they’ll come back if you’ve given them that foundation. They will realize, “My mother was right; my father was right. All those years I didn’t understand it.” Ki ego th pao sto nao simera. [I, too, will go to the temple today.] Because that’s the right thing to do.
You don’t want to be too heavy-handed either; you don’t want to be a kind of imposing, enforcing, sit-down-and-say-your-Jesus-prayers. It’s not supposed to be punishment. But at a particular point, our children should learn how to pray. They should know that they should experience the reality of God and they should experience the grace of God and the love of God and the compassion of God and the freedom and joy that comes from knowing God. That’s what prayer is. We have this idea of a rule of prayer. Nobody likes rules. I don’t like rules. I’m an American; Americans don’t like rules. Coloring in the lines and all of that. To say it’s a prayer rule, that’s not necessarily the best way. Canonas, I mean, it’s a little bit different. In English, a rule… You pray to God because you love God, not because you have to or somebody told you to or it’s a rule. Okay, sometimes it’s good to have a discipline, but that’s not the motivation.
Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra used to say all the time: Look, if I walked into a crowded room, if I walked into a room and there were 500 people in that room, and if there was one person in that room that I loved, where do you think I’m going to go? I’m going to make a beeline for that person. I might have to say hello to you, shake your hand, but the whole time my mind is on the one person in the room that I love, because I want to be, you want to be where love is. And that’s what prayer is. You go to your icons in your house, not because someone told you to or because that’s what’s right to do or someone gave you a rule. You go there because you want to be where love is. That’s where love is. You go where God is, and you go there so that your heart can rest in God and so that you can bask in God’s love and be in that place. That’s why you go.
Now, you can’t feel that way 24 hours a day, so that’s why a prayer rule is good, because it’ll keep you going there. Just like in a relationship, not every day of married life is a honeymoon. When the strong feelings of love aren’t there, well, okay, I’m still in, I’m still here, we’re still together, because we’re committed. I don’t just love you because I feel like loving you today. I love you because that’s what we’ve agreed to do. That’s who we are now. But we don’t want to ever forget the real reason we come to church is to be with the Lord, is to be with God in that place of love. Allo? Vangeli, kourazei ton kosmo. [Another? Vangeli, you’re tiring the people.]
Mr. Sotiropoulos: No more questions? We’ll go with one more. I’m sorry; forgive me. And that was a great answer; that’s a great way to close the segment, but I already said two. Whoever this is, hopefully they appreciate what Father answers; I’m sure they will.
Once we quiet our minds—which kind of relates to what you were saying just now—what questions can we ask ourselves to find out who we are?
Fr. Maximos: Think about the way that question is structured. Okay. The whole problem, first of all, is the way I’m thinking. It’s all of these thoughts. So if I kind of create a space for myself and I bring those thoughts into that space, it’s still me. In other words, people say, “Oh, you have to think out of the box.” Have you heard that expression, “You have to think outside of the box”? The problem is what? The problem is that thinking is the box. How do you…? In other words, it’s that same voice. Who’s asking those questions? It’s that same, sinful clouds that are speaking. If you take the clouds and you bring the clouds down here… The idea is to be done with all those things. In other words, when I stand in the presence of God, I don’t have my thoughts there, because if I have my thoughts there, I’m not with God: I’m with the thoughts. They say the thoughts, oi logismoi, they’re all thieves because they steal the idea of God from you.
In other words, if I’m with someone that I love, and all of a sudden I’m thinking about all these other things now, it’s like I’m not there any more. So when we’re with God, what we strive for is not so much, okay, I’m not saying don’t think about yourself and don’t ask questions about yourself—that’s unavoidable; we do that—but in these deeper moments of prayer, that’s not the moment to… what, I’m going to think about myself now? No, because you’re with God; you’re in the middle of that relationship. Agapas to Theo. [You love God.]
Again, Elder Aimilianos had a great image. He said: Let’s say I’m walking down the road. I’m somewhere walking on a path, and I’m going to my friend’s house, and I’m thinking how nice it will be at my friend’s house, and he’s made a nice meal and we’ll listen to some nice music and maybe we’ll watch a movie, and my mind is wandering and I’m imagining all of the nice things that are going to… And all of a sudden I look up and a few paces in front of me on the road is a lion. He says at that moment I’m not thinking about the dinner and the music; all I’m thinking about is the fact that there’s a lion on the road, and it’s staring at me, and now it starts to walk toward me. The next thing I know—he goes: Am I think about anything else? And now the lion, his face is right up to my face. Am I thinking about anything else, even myself? Then he says: What if the lion swallows me whole? The lion is God. When you’re in the presence of God, den yparkhoun logismoi, oute skepseis, tipota [there are no negative thoughts, nor thoughts, nothing]. So, okay, I’m describing an intense kind of a situation, but that’s the ideal.
To answer the question, I think when we put ourselves on a spiritual path and when we move in the direction of God and when we do the right things in our life, those questions will be answered spontaneously. In other words, I don’t know who I am apart from God. I can’t answer the question of who I am independently of God. It’s only in relationship to God that I can discover who I am. What do we say? We say that the human person is an image of God, in other words, like a copy, that the original is God and we are the eikones. Den yparkhei eikona; yparkhei to prototypo. It is not the image; it is the prototype.] So how can you know the truth of the image if you don’t know the archetype, if you don’t know the source of the image. If I have a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy, den phainetai kala [it does not show well]. I can’t read it; I have to get the original. That’s how I figure out who I am. That’s how I come to know who I am: when I enter more deeply, not into myself, but into the reality of God.
Mr. Sotiropoulos: Thank you so much, Fr. Maximos, for that really deep spiritual, enlightening homily and question and answers to the questions from the parishioners gathered here this evening. I think we’ve all been very much edified during this important Lent period, and we thank you very much for coming here from Boston, for making the time, and for enlightening us with your words and your examples, and of course strengthening our relationship with Christ above all.