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Scouting the Thoughts is the First Step toward Calming Them

November 9, 2012

Although in our last post, I noted that nepsis originally meant the state of not drinking, it’s important to realize that this state is neither negative, nor passive. Rather, it entails a particular kind of movement and action with a sense of purpose and direction. It is like the difference between “thoughtlessly” opening the refrigerator door, taking out a soda and drinking it on the one hand and on the other hand looking at the refrigerator with an awareness of the soda inside, an awareness of one’s thirst, and most importantly an awareness of the freedom that one has to act. In the first case, there is physical movement without mental movement or awareness. In the second case, there is mental movement and awareness without physical movement. The second case is an example of what it means to be watchful to be aware of our every impulse, to be aware of the choices in the world around us, and above all to be aware of our royal birthright to choose the good by virtue of being made in the image and likeness of God. Watchfulness or nepsis is a way of being more alive and nourished, not less.

Another patristic metaphor for nepsis or watchfulness is surveying or scouting the thoughts.  Chapter 8 of Ancient Christian Wisdom opens by recalling the example of Noah and Moses from the Old Testament, “Before descending from the mountains of Ararat, Noah of old release a dove in order to ascertain whether ‘the waters were abated from the earth.’  Before departing from the wilderness of Paran, Moses, the greatest of the prophets, sent forth scouts in order to survey the lay of the land.  In cognitive terms, these men of God attentively gathered reliable information as a means for making a judicious evaluation that would settle a future course of action.  In spiritual terms, they sought to “discern the signs of the times” before taking bold and blessed steps such as emerging from the confines of an ark or taking possession of ‘a land flowing with milk and honey.’”

This active intervention in the life of one’s thoughts is a necessary prerequisite to inner peace and stillness. It requires that one slow down, so that one can catch the thoughts. Scouting the thoughts with the light and guidance of the Holy Spirit allows one to recognize impending attacks of the enemy or areas of vulnerability in the garden of the heart.  Such effective scouting prepares the nous to be more vigilant and to call upon the Holy Name with more fervor and heartfelt attention.  Such watchfulness “not only prevents a sin of thought from developing into a sinful deed, but also keeps a person’s inner world and outward life in a harmony that is pleasing to God.  Sincerely repentant and God-fearing Christians are naturally watchful.  They halt extraneous thoughts at the entrance of the heart and humbly call out with the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”, thereby using watchfulness as a scout who detects bad thoughts and prayer as a soldier who then routs them out.”

Abba Dorotheus of Gaza reminds us of the salutary effects scouting brings to the repentant, “Let each one find out about his own condition, the state of his soul.  A man is in one of three conditions:  that of giving free reign to his passions or that of checking them or that of uprooting them.  In the first he indulges his passions and gives in to vice; in the second he neither indulges his passions nor cuts them off completely but disputes with them and turns them back but allows them to remain inside him; in the third he is working to root them out and he struggles with them and acts contrary to them.” Scouting out the thoughts thus opens the way to self-knowledge, knowledge of one’s world, and knowledge of one’s choices. This personal, spiritual knowledge opens the way to honest humility, and honest humility opens the way to an encounter with God Who illumines all things. With a slower physical pace, but with an increased mental nimbleness, let us scout the thoughts and begin with earnest a journey that will lead us to a land flowing with milk and honey in the depths of our very souls.

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