As Americans we are pragmatic realists. We are impatient with theories and look down on ‘intellectuals’ who do not make our lives better in some perceptible and tangible way. It is as though what occurs in the mind are just distractions in the task of living.
But the witness of the saints contradicts this. Many of the great mystics emphasize that a thought that is good can have tremendously good effects as it grows into pragmatic form. When, for instance, we consider helping someone who is homeless, it is just a thought (the word ‘just’ in a way betrays our way of minimizing thoughts!), but when we join a homeless program and find ourselves staying overnight in a shelter we see the power and fruitfulness of a thought.
On the other hand, an evil thought can have disastrous consequences. The Third Reich began as a thought, but its effects were of almost unimaginable dimensions, killing millions of people.
On a more personal scale, when we look down on a person because of the color of their skin, we have thought the thought of racism. Its effects can be widespread since we can unconsciously apply that thought in many ways, touching the lives of many innocent people of color.
The great French author Georges Bernanos wrote, “Who knows the extent of evil unleashed by one evil thought.”
One of the enduring themes of spiritual authors throughout the centuries is the control of thoughts so that our minds can better serve the Lord. Our minds initiate things. Our feelings and our decisions follow suit. Therefore, the control of thoughts is a paramount concern of saints.
But we all know how difficult that is. A Buddhist proverb states that thoughts within our minds are like wild monkeys swinging from branch to branch. Controlling monkeys must be right up there in difficulty with herding cats!
Adding a Biblical imperative to this, we have Paul telling the Ephesians: “Pray without ceasing”.
This emphasis on the mind demands a solution, for God does not ask us to do the impossible. The response came from the Egyptian desert.
With St. Anthony of Egypt (also called ‘the Abbot’ or in Italian ‘Abbate’—who is the subject of the feast in the streets of Astoria in June, not St. Anthony of Padua!), a movement began which changed the world. St. Anthony became a hermit, lived alone (in Greek: monos—hence the name ‘monk’ and the movement it engendered— ‘monasticism’) and spent his whole life in prayer for the Church and the world. Sensing the immorality of a decadent form of Christianity, many men and women followed St. Anthony to live in the solitude of the desert. This movement spread throughout the world, even to the far-off country of Ireland!
These men and women became known as the ‘Desert Fathers and Mothers’ and spawned a fascinating and challenging form of spiritual teaching that became known as the ‘sayings’ of the desert fathers.
Central to this spirituality that has had tremendous influence in Orthodoxy is the practice of ‘Nepsis’. Nepsis is the habit of watching our thoughts very carefully so that we can be wary of any thought patterns and movements that may lead us away from God. Our thoughts are the steps of the ladder that may lead us to God. But they may also be the devil’s workshop. What is of consequence is the interior struggle and our attentiveness to discerning what are the movements of God and what are those of the evil one. For the results of this battle will affect our families, our country and everything around us. In the mind is the genesis of efforts for healing and peacemaking and also, unfortunately, the war rooms that will cause untold hardship for millions.
This watchfulness of the interior movements of our thoughts and the discernment necessary are central to many of the spiritual paths of our faith. St. Ignatius of Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises devotes a great deal of time to this work of discerning what is happening in our minds and hearts. What seems most private can have cosmic repercussions.
It is very wise, therefore, to become more aware of what is happening in our thoughts for they can bring us either to happiness or disaster.