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Keeping a Thought Nothing More than a Thought

September 18, 2012

Anyone who has read these blog posts or read Ancient Christian Wisdom can recognize that how we handle the thoughts plays a crucial role in our relationships with others, our spiritual healing, and ultimately salvation and eternal life.  The key to handling the thoughts properly is first quickly to distinguish between good thoughts and bad thoughts and second not to allow a bad thought or temptation to become anything more than just a passing thought, which means we don’t entertain it and certainly don’t allow it to materialize in the form of further action.  Ancient Christian Wisdom offers kernels of wisdom culled from the ancient fathers on keeping a thought nothing more than a thought: “Monastic fathers acknowledge the difficulty of the struggle against the thoughts, but assure the believer that it is a struggle unto salvation.  In fact, Abba Zosimas used to say that without the presence of temptations and thoughts, no one could become a saint.”

Now, although we might prefer to rid ourselves entirely of these bad thoughts, we can no more think them away, than we can stop the constant stream of automatic thoughts appearing in the mind. The churning out of thoughts is just what the mind does. Furthermore, according to the fathers, all thoughts can provide spiritual benefit if we handle them properly. So how can we manage to do just that? “Sometimes the fathers suggest a methodological approach to this struggle.  For example, Saint John Chrysostom recommends working for one month on one set of virtues, and the next month on another set.  In psychological terms, this can be viewed as a scheduled approach to cognitive restructuring in which one emphasizes the development of alternative schemata with which the passions are compatible.  For instance, a person could conscientiously work on almsgiving to undermine avarice.” In other words, the first way to handle the thoughts is to pay attention to what we are actually doing: acting in a way that is contrary to thoughts that are clearly bad. We saw this in the last post in which we spoke about the as-if technique. But isn’t there something we should do at the level of thoughts?

Yes, we need to be aware of some distinctions especially concerning when a bad thought is nothing more than a thought, a drop of water flowing down a mountain stream, and when a bad thought takes shape, hardens and becomes like a dam blocking the stream of thoughts and eventually exploding into action.  This is, obviously, more than a theoretical concern since if we don’t come to grips with this we will not recognize when we cross the border and enter into the dangerous and deadly territory of sin.  Ancient Christian Wisdom hopefully provides some insight into this issue: “Of course, questions call for answers; and certain answers regarding basic cognitive distinctions are intrinsic to patristic instruction.  The primary distinction is between thought as a temptation to sin and thought as a sinful state…For Didymus the Blind, the temptation of Christ demonstrates that prepassion is a sinless state.  There is, however, a point when a sinless prepassion becomes a sin of thought.  Saint Jerome writes, ‘God does not punish the first and second stimuli (stimulos)  of thoughts that the Greeks call propatheias and that no man can be without.  But He does inflict punishment if someone decided to do what has been thought.  In his Commentary on Matthew, Saint Jerome notes that a person turns a thought (cogitatio) into an emotion (affectus) when he assents (consentire) to a thought and wills (voluntas) it.  In this way, the neutral prepassion becomes a blameworthy passion.  Thus, for Saint Jerome sin begins with the use of the will in a mental act of decision (descerne) and judgement (judicium).

According to the fathers, sin occurs when the will is engaged and actively cultivates and entertains the prepassionate thought.  While it is somewhat obvious that sin has been committed when a thought turns to action.  It is somewhat less obvious when that sin takes shape in the thought stage.  However, this is important since all sin originates in these thoughts.  Perhaps a good “channel marker” for those of us navigating these murky waters would be to consider the realm of the emotions.  Does the thought give way to feelings of anger, jealousy, lust, or avarice?  If so, chances are that thought has been singled out from the stream of thoughts about the world around us, has been made the center of focus, and has been toyed with by the will, entertained to the point of sinful behavior. Sometimes these processes are very rapid taking far less time than it takes to read this sentence. Sometimes, we feel the emotion more intensely than we are cognizant of the thought, but still that thought is there. Despite the speed of this process, there is another approach that can match that speed. That process is watchfulness. Watchfulness is what allows us to nimbly catch a thought and release it, before the thought can cause harm.

Christ’s words about being ready for His second coming apply so well to how to handle the thoughts: “And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch.” Watchfulness is the patristic tool whereby the believer can be assured that a thought remains just a thought and thus harmless to the spirit. Without watchfulness, there is nothing to prevent the thought from being inflamed by passions.  Tito Colliander provides a more contemporary analogy for the stages before sin when he writes, “The impulse knocks like a salesman at the door.  If one lets him in, he begins his sales talk about his wares, and it is hard to get rid of him even if one observes that his wares are not good.  Thus follows consent and finally the purchase, often against one’s own will.”

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