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The Sickness of Inactivity/Impulsivity and the Cure of Praxis

July 5, 2013

Advocates of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy as well as the ancient Christian fathers would find common ground in the sixth and final choice of ACT which I put as follows: “We can choose to fluctuate between inactivity and impulsivity or we can commit ourselves to our values and act accordingly.” Inactivity and impulsivity are unhealthy, disordered states from both a psychological and spiritual perspective, because those who are in such states lack awareness, direction, and purpose. Christianity, however, is not about a lack of anything other than sin. Christianity is a fullness brimming with sober watchfulness, a heavenward sense of direction, and a divinely-given purpose. To be a Christian and lack these traits is to be a very poor Christian indeed.

The choice seems so simple. Failing to bridle passionate impulses can lead to self-indulgence that leaves the soul feeling sickened and empty. Inactivity can lead the soul to complacency and boredom. Saint Isaac the Syrian characteristically wrote, “Ease and idleness are the destruction of the soul and they can injure her more than the demons.” And yet, we often fail to make any choice whatsoever and simply find ourselves in a state of impulsivity or inactivity. The reason for this is that the choice between valued action and impulsivity or inactivity is clouded by the fact that both impulsivity and inactivity are coated with the sweet, but poisonous, syrup of philautia. Doing nothing or doing whatever strikes our fancy feels good and bolsters the illusion that we are really the center of the universe. But that illusion is a bubble that will burst and burst quickly.

In my most recent post, I mentioned some of the destructive thoughts such as anxiety, anger, and addictive cravings that are fueled by impulsivity as well as thoughts of depression that are strengthened by inactivity. It is not recommended that we fight these thoughts with more thoughts. What is needed when we perceive such thoughts smoldering in our minds is purposeful, value-laden activity.  The ancient fathers referred to this as praxis, which in Ancient Christian Wisdom, I define as “doing or moral action that in ecclesiastical usage came also to refer to Christian conduct and the cultivation of the virtues.” Doing something loving for one’s neighbor, being a peacemaker, giving alms, doing prostrations are all antidotes to malicious thoughts in which we strive to do the will of God regardless of what might be clamoring for attention in our heads.

If we observe the monastic life for a moment we’ll notice that each monk is given “obediences” to perform in the service of the whole brotherhood or sisterhood, so that the entire day is permeated with a sense of purpose and punctuated by a rhythm of activity and prayer.  Prayer gives life and expression to whatever task the monk is asked to perform.  If the work is done in loving obedience, the activity harmoniously collaborates with prayer that keeps harmful thoughts at bay.  While those living in the world do not necessarily have “obediences” assigned to them, everyone has daily, routine tasks that must be performed and these can serve the same fruitful purpose as a monastic obedience.  If we change our perspective about such tasks like washing the dishes, cleaning the house, taking the kids to school, our daily routine can become centered on God and on serving others rather than centered on the thoughts and serving ourselves.  We can take this perspective with our job as well.  If we begin to perceive our job as an opportunity to give glory to God, we can begin to punctuate our job with prayer and re-orient our thought life.

In earlier posts, I’ve written about the importance of the remembrance of God in our spiritual life.  If union with God and faithfulness to Him in word and deed becomes sustaining values guiding our daily lives, those destructive thoughts have no room to grow in our hearts, not only because we do not act on them, but also because fulfilling the commandments of Christ attracts the Spirit of peace and the grace of God that easily routs them from our souls.  In this way, all our activity is imbued with our daily remembrance of God that leaves no room for inactivity and impulsivity. Following the council of Saint Paul, we  “pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5: 17-18). The Lord has shown us what to value and how to value it. May we do so with a prayerful and grateful spirit.

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4 Comments
  1. Bruce permalink

    Father Bless!!!

    Thank you again for the many ways you instruct and remind us to center ourselves in God. I was especially struck with your thought:

    I mentioned some of the destructive thoughts such as anxiety, anger, and addictive cravings that are fueled by impulsivity as well as thoughts of depression that are strengthened by inactivity. It is not recommended that we fight these thoughts with more thoughts. What is needed when we perceive such thoughts smoldering in our minds is purposeful, value-laden activity. The ancient fathers referred to this as praxis, which in Ancient Christian Wisdom, I define as “doing or moral action that in ecclesiastical usage came also to refer to Christian conduct and the cultivation of the virtues.”

    Newcomers in AA will hear the words “Act your way into right thinking” or ‘fake it to you make it” as a way to communicate this important truth of changing our thoughts by changing our actions. For example, early recovery is full of a deep, abiding sense of feeling separate and alone as a consequence of self centeredness/ which the AA Big Book describes as the “root of our problems”. Often, a sponsor will have a newcomer make coffee to get them out of themselves, into serving others, and finding an easy way to connect with others

    On a very different note, our parish is beginning a small group study of the book ” Passions and Virtues According to Saint Gregory Palamas” which you translated. Are you aware of any supplemental materials or an instructor guide which might assist in making this small group study more meaningful? I’m especially interested in any ideas you may have to take this study into our heart more deeply as a source of personal self examination, repentance, and opportunity for us to grow in more humbly emptying ourselves and making more room for Him.

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts and ideas.

  2. Bruce,

    The Lord God bless you!

    Thank you for your comments. The overlap between the emphasis on value-laden activity rather than whatever comes to our minds and the AA emphasis on acting right in order to think right is striking! I appreciate the example of having someone make someone a cup of coffee. Such simple acts of kindness and service can have a powerful affect on the soul that should never be overlooked. Those are great points to keep in mind.

    As for the book, Passions and Virtues According to Saint Gregory Palamas, the first book I ever translated on the Holy Mountain, I have a couple ideas. First of all, it could be read together with actual homilies of Saint Gregory Palamas, so that one can see the aspects of his teachings in the Saint’s own writings. It could also be read together with the writings of Archimandrite Sophrony of blessed memory. Anestis Keselopoulos, the author of Passions and Virtues, told me long ago that he came to understand Saint Gregory Palamas’s writings through his conversations with Elder Sophrony. Finally, in any spiritual book we read, what matters most is turning inward and trying to use the work as a mirror or a lens, either to see what we have or what we lack, and then do what we can to change for the better. I wish you the best with the group study. Prayer to Saint Gregory for enlightenment is also a very good place to start.

    Fr. Alexis

  3. Bruce permalink

    Thank you Father Alexis and God bless you!!!

    Wonderful advice to enrich our book study., thank you. Also, do you know where we could find the “Letter to the Nun Xeni”?

    One small clarification…coffee is a big deal at AA meetings and comes in many potfuls! Work often begins 1/2 hour before the meeting and keeps you busy with serving and cleanup until 15 to 20 minutes afterwards. This has the added benefit of allowing the newcomer to participate in the ‘meeting before the meeting’ and develop a network of AA friends and resources to help as he begins recovery.

    In Christ….Bruce

  4. You are quite welcome, Bruce.

    The “Letter to the Most Reverend Nun Xenia” can be found in volume 4 of the English version of The Philokalia translated by Palmer, Sherrard, and Ware on pages 293-322.

    In XC,

    Fr. Alexis

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