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Everywhere, Always, by All or Somewhere, Sometimes, by Some

October 24, 2012

According to the Church Fathers and cognitive therapists, thoughts are important, because they are linked to emotions, they are related to behavior, and they are intertwined with a person’s entire character. Thoughts are connected to all these aspects of a person’s life, regardless of whether or not they manifest themselves immediately or ferment for some time before being released from the closed universe of the soul. Thoughts are strange entities, because they cannot only be connected to the real, but also to the imaginary. The problem is what happens when the real and the imagined are confused. Well, then our actions, our reactions, and our lives stop making a lot of sense. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I refer to Saint John Chrysostom’s example of someone in the dark being afraid of a dangling rope if he mistakes it for a live serpent. Conversely, someone in the dark who thinks he is grabbing a rope, that is in fact a serpent, will, instead of being irrationally afraid, be bitten in the hand and on the way to the hospital.

Hence, it is of vital importance to know what is imaginary and what is real, what is metaphorical and what is literal. In cognitive therapy, patients are instructed to engage in reality testing to determine whether their thoughts are accurate or inaccurate from an objective, empirical perspective. This could entail asking someone else’s perspective to see if they view something as we do or differently. In the Church, we test the quality of our thoughts by lining them up against the pure gold of divine revelation. This entails asking the saints how they view the world and what matters. This is why it is best to accept, in the words of St. Vincent of Lerins (435), that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus (PL 50.637).

Those words, even in English, seem strange in our religiously syncretic world in which many people choose their beliefs like they do side dishes on a buffet making their own highly idiosyncratic creed believed not just somewhere, sometimes, by some, but with an arrogant and highly foolish: here, now, and by me alone. Such well-meaning souls might take an icon from this tradition, the rosary from that, and a good hymn sing from another. Or from within the same tradition, they might accept belief in the creation of the world and the forgiveness of sins, but leave faith in the bodily resurrection on the side. The Church is the banquet feast of the Lamb, but by no means a breakfast buffet where one can pick and choose. And for those of us in the Church militant, it is above all a hospital as we mentioned in our early post. As such, our acceptance of the Church’s teachings as an entirety is as importance as accepting medicine and medical theory as an entirety. In the physical realm, this means taking antibiotics, because one accepts scientific findings about their efficacy and the theory about bacteria, even if one does not understand it. In the spiritual realm, this entails accepting the teachings and dogmas of the Church on the resurrection of the body and the life of the age to come, even if those teachings are as far removed from one’s experience as bacteria invisible to the naked eye.

Today many prefer a pick and choose approach to spirituality with little concern for dogma, but such an approach is as dangerous as someone unschooled in pharmacology taking a pick and choose approach to medication. Sometimes, they might take the right medication, but without the proper knowledge without the entire theoretical framework in place, they might take an aspirin for an infection or an antibiotic for a virus, with potentially disastrous repercussions for their health. The same applies for the specific spiritual prescriptions that a father confessor offers those who are sick.  Just as aspirin will not cure an infection, the wrong spiritual prescription will not bring spiritual health and healing to the soul sick with sin.

In a word, the creed matters. The great doctors, spiritual healers, and friends of God throughout the centuries testify to this. Belief in the divinity of Christ and belief in the efficacy of stillness are both important in the spiritual life, so important that ecumenical councils formulated these teachings with great care. Dogma matters in terms of one’s spiritual life.  Orthodoxy cannot be separated from orthopraxy.  One’s spiritual health and ability to deal with the constant stream of thoughts are dependent to a great extent upon one’s acceptance or rejection of that which has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.

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