There was a movie out a few years ago by the great American filmmaker Steven Spielberg called “Minority Report”. In this film, set in the future, it was possible to find out when one was thinking of doing a crime and by that knowledge alone to arrest that person before he put his plan into action. Obviously this raises a lot of ethical and political questions. Should one be responsible to the State for one’s thoughts? People have been jailed in the past for writing things that the State felt were dangerous to its welfare. But thoughts? Who of us haven’t thought some pretty mean thoughts that thankfully we never put into action? So it is clear that politically and socially we should not be held responsible for our thoughts. But, what about God? Can He hold us responsible for them?
One of the unique qualities of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament is the importance that He gives to the thoughts that we have in our minds. When dealing with the external rites of the Old Covenant He reminded His disciples that it is not something from outside that renders a person unclean but vices begin from the inside (the Mind and Heart of Man). During the Sermon on the Mount, He teaches that two of the worst sins we can commit (Adultery and Murder) begin within us; that if we lust in our hearts or are angry with one another in our interior we have already committed the sin of murder or adultery! This is an amazing statement! Jesus gives great importance to our thoughts for that is where our words and our actions proceed from.
At this point we must make an important distinction. There are thoughts that just fly into the mind from free associations or from things that just occur to us from the things around us. We cannot be held responsible for them since there is no freedom involved. They fly into the field of the mind and easily they fly out. But there are thoughts that may begin that way but that we nurture and hold onto and toss about in our minds. Since that requires a will act on our part we are responsible for harboring or eliminating that thought. It is to the second scenario that Jesus is alluding.
While it is a good thing that the law cannot prosecute us for murder when we rage against our neighbor, it still means that what happens in our mind is extremely important for our whole moral and psychological life.
One of the insights of Buddhism is that we are blissfully and dangerously ignorant of the thoughts that go through us. They have developed a whole method of thought awareness that is sometimes called meditation or more accurately mindfulness. Many of us just accept that things go through our mind independently of our willing them and that there is nothing that we can learn from them and nothing that we can do to channel them in creative ways. Mindfulness requires a will act to at least learn from what goes in and out of our consciousness.
But even in our tradition we are asked to monitor the thoughts that we have and to always notice but not always honor what we think about spontaneously. The great French novelist Georges Bernanos has remarked in his book Diary of a Country Priest: “Who knows the evil that is caused by one evil thought?” This is realism of a very stark kind.
So becoming aware of what goes on in our mind and reacting to the presence of God whom we can only meet in the present moment is a real spiritual quest. Catholic spiritual authors encourage us to be attentive to “The Sacrament of the Present Moment”. While the past has happened and the future is not yet, all we have within us where we can meet the Lord is the present moment. And so an awareness of what is occurring in the present both around us and within our mind is very important to our development as Christians.
This reverent self-awareness, this watching of the movements of grace and evil, can only benefit us as people. But it is very hard to do this since our minds are so uncontrolled and wild. One Buddhist writer likens what happens in the mind as wild monkeys swinging through the trees.
Yet we as Catholics can ask God to help us through prayer to become more attentive to this internal symphony of thoughts and feelings so as to become more aware of ourselves and therefore more well versed in the music and/or the noise that can happen within us.