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Keeping an Even Keel in the Spiritual Life

May 29, 2013

In Ancient Christian Wisdom I employ many nautical metaphors and apply them to the spiritual life.  There are many similarities between a healthy life of the spirit and navigating a body of water. In both the spiritual life and nautical expeditions a course must be charted, adjustments must be made, and the craft must maintain an even keel—a nautical term for keeping a boat upright—so that it does not heel over on this side or that.  So too in the spiritual life, the ship of our soul must be kept at an even keel by not allowing our emotions or life circumstances to heel us over to either side.  This is why the ancient fathers, the master helmsmen of spiritual navigation, counsel us to avoid relying upon our shifting emotional state to gauge our spiritual progress.

Keeping an even keel is particularly important during the paschal period in which the exuberant experience of Christ’s resurrection following the storm of Holy Week lifts our spirits and transports us to a state of joy. This is important, because in that joyful state, which is more exalted than anything we could ever hope to reach on our own, we also become more vulnerable to attacks from the evil one, more taken aback by the unkindness of others, less prepared for our own weaknesses, and perhaps less attentive to our own pride. And so when we slip up or others hurt us, we can find ourselves plunged into despair and hopelessness that seems even darker because of the former brightness, not unlike a bipolar shift from a manic to a depressed state.

When we take our eyes off the Lord, resting on our laurels that are in fact His, we become stagnant in our effort to change, to repent, and to fulfill the commandments of Christ, becoming like a ship captain who fails to anticipate stormy seas ahead and instead of taking the necessary precautions, relaxes and falls asleep. And so when the storm comes, the ship of our soul finds itself in danger. All of this is not unrelated to the issue of distractions. In an earlier post on that topic, I noted, “Distressing distraction in prayer, which sometimes develops into extensive conversations with ourselves, means that we are praying with our minds, but not with our hearts. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I make reference to how we should pray in spite of the distractions and bad thoughts.  ‘The watchful fathers knew by experience that when the believer’s mind is gathered in the heart and repeats the prayer—Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me—demonic thoughts, fantasies and illusions are exposed as false and thus can be more easily rejected.  The correct application of this approach known as monologistic prayer entails cognitively paying attention to the words of prayer and emotionally feeling compunction in the presence of the Lord Jesus.  Attentive and compunctious prayer in turn augments the believer’s yearning for Christ and watchfulness over the thoughts, thereby bringing him clarity of mind.  Although it requires much toil, humility, and even ‘assistance from heaven’, the holy fathers consider this ‘cognitive method’ to be as effective in bridling unruly thoughts as the behavioral technique of not voicing one’s reaction to an insult is successful at stifling anger.  It is worth noting that demonic thoughts, fantasies and illusions can appear even if someone is praying correctly and in a God-pleasing way. The difference lies in the ease and the speed with which distractions are rejected. The mind is always making associations, churning out thoughts, saying, ‘Look over here, look over there.’ And the mind has an exquisite knowledge of our buttons (which are often our passions) and knows full well which ones to push to get our attention.  When we pray in the heart, though, we can tell from afar the difference between the real  gold of Christ and the fool’s gold of the devil. And so when praying from the heart, we ignore extraneous thoughts with the blink of an eye, and keep looking to the radiant countenance of our compassionate Lord.”

The Lord Christ never promised us constant tranquil seas under a sunny sky in this life of ours as we navigate to the shore of union with Him.  He warned us that there would be trials and tribulations, wars and rumors of war, earthquakes, famines, and troubles that refer not only to larger forces in the world, but also to the emotional upheaval that can take place in our very soul. The key to weathering these inevitable storms as we journey across the sea of this life is to focus on Christ again and again.  This is clearly the message of the Gospel passage when Peter attempts to walk across the water to the Lord.  Peter takes his eyes off the Lord and sinks.  Similarly, when we take our eyes off the Lord in prayer and become distracted with the cares of this world, our spiritual ship begins to heel to one side or the other and we are at risk of capsizing.  Fortunately, when we again look up to the Lord, He is there as He was for Peter with His outstretched hand. So with eyes focused on Christ, let us even in this paschal period keep our soul properly balanced through repentance and compunction of heart that fill the soul with what the Fathers call a joyful sorrow that will guide us to the unending joy and unspeakable gladness of the other eternal shores of our Risen Lord.

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