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More on Thoughts and Prayer

August 22, 2012

In my last post, I mentioned that we have a choice to make when it comes to how much time and focus we will give to a particular thought.  With our will, we can choose whether we engage the thought and dwell on it or let it pass through the mind like a bird flying through a blue sky, leaving the heart undisturbed.  This exercise of free choice is especially important at times of prayer.  Anyone who has made a serious attempt to pray recognizes that at the very moment of prayer, extraneous thoughts assault us from all sides.  The temptation at this point is to throw up our hands in despair and tell ourselves, “Well, at least I’m here, I’m trying to pray.” But deep down, we know that trying to pray means much more than externally going through the motions or being in prayerful surroundings. Deep down, we know that for something as desirable and exalted as union with God, spiritual progress requires something more: it requires genuine effort to lay aside all earthly cares. To lay aside cares, we release them, so that they will release us. To lay them aside, we also need to focus on who we want to be in Christ (Let us Who represent the Cherubim), and then we can begin to pray, in earnest, in spirit and truth.

Now the question becomes-how can we do this?  Let me take an example from everyday life.  A runner who is preparing to complete a 5k run doesn’t just put on his sneakers and start running.  No, he warms up first.  He stretches until his body is properly prepared for the physical exertion of the run.  So it is in the spiritual life.  The heart must be prepared, the mind silenced before prayer can begin.  After all, in prayer, we are addressing the Lord, the Almighty, the King of the Universe.  According to Archimandrite Zacharias in his book, The Hidden Man of the Heart, “St. Theophan the Recluse advises the following in his letters, ‘As soon as you rise up in the morning, establish your mind in the heart, in the presence of God, and wind up your clock to run all day.’ It is important to make a good beginning by setting our mind in the heart, and dwelling in the presence of God through the invocation of the Name.  In one of his meetings with us, towards the end of his life, Fr. Sophrony urged us: ‘Do not come to the service without warming your hearts with prayer.  Before coming to the service, pray for at least ten minutes.  Come ready to stand in the presence of God, for the invocation of the Name!  Those of you who have the strength, do it for one or two hours, but you should do it for at least ten minutes.  Do not neglect it, otherwise you will dry up!’  Archimandrite Zacharias notes that when Fr. Sophrony mentioned the “invocation of the Name” he was referring to the Jesus prayer as preparation for prayer in Spirit and Truth.

In the cognitive model discussed in my book, such maladaptive schema that are so often generated from these automatic thoughts e.g. “I’m a failure”, “I’m unloveable” may be the target of reflection and examination outside of prayer.  In chapter 9, I relate several examples of how this is accomplished.  “For example, a therapist may suggest to a depressed patient with the belief, ‘I don’t accomplish anything,’ that he keep a notebook divided into sections for work experiences, social interactions, parenting, and being alone.  Under each heading, the patient is instructed to list anything that he did or tried to do, for which he deserves some credit, and to review this log daily. . . In general, the type of diary selected can be modified according to the psychological disorder or maladaptive schema that causes problems.  For example, a woman who expected to encounter awful and unmanageable catastrophes every was told to keep a diary in which every morning she would list in one column predicted catastrophes and every evening she would write down what actually occurred.  At the end of a month, she found that one out of five “catastrophes” actually took place. “

This combination of ancient Christian wisdom and some of the strategies found in the cognitive therapeutic model provide a plan to effectively engage the will with thought distractions.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, “First of all, patristic and cognitive views on how our emotions are affected by the way we interpret our situation converge in the following passage by Epictetus that is cited with approval by both Church Fathers and cognitive therapists: “It is not things themselves that disturb men, but their judgments about these things…. When, therefore, we are hindered or disturbed, or grieved, let us never blame anyone but ourselves, that means our own judgments.”

Second, cognitive theory refers to deeper beliefs about danger, pain, helplessness, and lovability that are primitive in terms of being developed during childhood or similar to the reactions of animals under threat. These deeper beliefs seem to be related to the patristic notion of the passions that the Fathers see as both childish and brutish. That explains the subheading: “Of Beasts and Babes” in Chapter Three. Third, cognitive thinking errors such as making a mountain out of a molehill and the patristic bad thoughts such as gluttony are related in intriguing ways that suggest how cognitive therapy can be useful for pastors asked to explain why a bad thought is bad from a psychological perspective and for therapists looking for some moral direction when giving advice to Christian patients.

Finally, I explore the deceptively similar issues of selfishness and egocentricity, which are so crucial in matters concerning sin and psychopathology. Knowledge of when a person is acting for selfish motives verses egocentric reasons turns out to be quite important for spiritual fathers and therapists, so they can determine whether a given problem with which they are dealing is primarily psychological, spiritual or both. In the next blog post, I will write a bit about the themes in the third half of the book in which I consider what cognitive theory looks like in practice, what goes on in a therapy session, and what techniques are used to modify thought, behavior, and emotion.”

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From → Imagination, Prayer

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