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Exposing Bad Thoughts and Spiritual Healing

July 17, 2012

In one of my previous posts, I discussed how the Fathers counseled their spiritual children to cope with bad thoughts.  In that post, I categorized the various coping methodologies in the context of purification, illumination, and deification.  In this post, I shall briefly review the salutary effects of exposing bad thoughts to another person as well as in the sacramental context of confession where such thoughts are exposed and confessed to Christ through the mediation of the priest who serves as a witness.

Let us turn once again to the practices and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In an AA meeting, it’s customary for the one who speaks to first introduce himself as an alcoholic, “Hello, I’m Fred, I’m an alcoholic.”  To an outsider, this may seem shaming and tedious.  However, it provides a keen insight into the beneficial effects of exposing bad thoughts.  In Step 5, the one who seeks to become sober takes seriously the prescription found therein:  “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”  This principle of confession was not lost on the Fathers who counseled the same for seekers desiring freedom from bad thoughts, dysfunctional behavior, and sin.  In chapter 8, I write, “Since unconfessed thoughts are much like hen’s eggs warmed by the dung of the passions and ready to hatch out with a noisy brood” ancient ascetics sometimes advise the believer to expose them and not to let them nest in the mind undisturbed.  This can be done mentally, orally, or in writing.  The simple act of confessing the thoughts “to the Lord as to a human being” can neutralize them and strengthen the believer in his efforts to observe his heart more closely.  Sometimes, however, the believer should also confess them to his spiritual father, so that ‘they would be destroyed by the shame felt in confessing them and by the hardship of the penance imposed.”

Now, I’m fully aware that in today’s culture the last sentence will be less than popular.  It’s truly not easy to confess one’s bad thoughts to another.  Just as it’s hard to say “I’m Fred and I’m an alcoholic”  and to really mean it, so it’s hard to say, “I am James and I am a sinner.” And to describe the exact nature of one’s sins in thought to another human in clerical garb and await a penance seems almost cruel. Yet the psychological and spiritual damage wrought by foregoing the exposure of a bad thought can be incalculable, especially in a person with deep-seated dysfunction or unhealthy thought and behavioral patterns.  A medical analogy might suffice to express this point more clearly: Fred goes to the doctor, because he feels something is wrong with him, but doesn’t know how serious it is and whether it needs treatment. And so, he relates to the physician what appears to be an infected boil or lesion on the skin and must necessarily expose that boil or lesion to the doctor in order for it to be excised.  The process will most likely be painful but the infection and disease must be exposed for healing to occur.  If the doctor were to respond by saying, “I’ll put a bandage on it so you don’t have to look at that ugly boil on your leg,” you’d likely think he’s committing malpractice!  The same principles apply in the spiritual life.  The Orthodox Church views itself as a hospital for souls and rightly so.  Exposing bad thoughts is an integral part of the healing process.

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