Saint John Chrysostom Saint John Chrysostom has an excellent sermon titled ‘A Treatise to Prove that No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure Himself.’ In this sermon he shows from Scripture and logic that it is impossible for anyone to injure a person unless the person decides to injure himself. Every Christian should read this sermon once a year because the world would be a different place if all Christians truly understood that no one can harm us spiritually unless we let them.
The sun was just going down as Maryām made her way through the narrow streets, trying to keep to back-alleys so no one noticed her. She had made this journey dozens of times before, always careful each time to do it slightly differently each time to avoid suspicion.
Her official name was Bushra, but after her secret baptism friends called her by the Christian name Maryām. She had converted from Islam to Christianity three years ago after her friend from work, Khadijah, gave her a Bible. This evening Maryām was headed to the house of Khadijah’s parents, who held secret prayer meetings every Tuesday.
I’d like to invite you to do a little thought experiment with me. Shut your eyes and imagine that every single person on earth is thinking about you right now. Moreover, imagine that every person is not only thinking about you, but loving you and working to arrange all things for your benefit. Of course that could never happen, but just imagine for a moment that it were possible and what it would feel like. In this thought experiment, everyone in the world feels the same protective love towards you that a father and mother feel for their young child.
Now I want to ask you a question: in the state of affairs I’ve asked you to imagine, would you ever have reason to worry, to feel anxiety or be insecure? Would you need to grasp good things for yourself? Obviously not.
I have really benefited from these talks presented by Father Maximos. Father Maximos shares practices we can all do to cultivate inner prayer during times of constant distractions, and he also has some helpful things to say about mindfulness and the history of the Philokalia. The talks are totally free to download from Patristic Nectar.
Last week I had the privilege of traveling out to Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology which was hosting this year’s conference for The Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology, and Religion. I was asked by the OCAMPR board to present a workshop on the topic ‘Gratitude During Times of Suffering.’ My talk, which was recorded on Ancient Faith Radio, is available by clicking on the video below. It is also available for mp3 download here.
Those who follow my blog know that I go through stages of posting about different subjects. Last year I wrote a lot about gratitude and positive thinking. Then I began posting about mindfulness. Recently I’m writing about the role struggle plays in the Christian life. These three themes are actually all related. Here’s why.
To develop the skill of gratitude, you need to practice mindfulness/watchfulness to retrain your brain to move from the negative to the positive, from anxiety to peace. But in order to get really good at mindfulness, you need to struggle. Nothing worthwhile in life comes easily, let alone gratitude and mindfulness. In my article ‘How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice’ I outlined six specific ways a person can struggle to become more positive and at peace. I’d like to take the opportunity now to expand on this and give a specific exercises you can do to become more mindful, more grateful and more at peace with yourself and the world.
But before I begin, I just want to say one more time: gratitude and inner-peace are not gifts. That is, they aren’t personality traits that you’ve either been given or deprived of. Rather, gratitude and inner-peace are skills that can be developed with practice. Today I’m going to explain how you can begin practicing these skills right now. The exercise I’m going to present only takes 10 minutes each day, yet it has the potential to transform your life.
From my article ‘Hollowing Out the Habits of Attention Part 4‘:
Thankfully God has given you a tool for controlling your brain and fasting from toxic thinking. That tool is called the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that enables you to observe your own thinking. You don’t have to be a brain scientist to use your prefrontal cortex. Every time you watch your own thinking, every time you choose to switch from one thought to another, that’s the prefrontal cortex working.
If you spend long enough using this part of your brain in the right way, you can learn to be alert, in a constant state of watchfulness to weed out toxic thinking. As thoughts arise in your brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. Often the process of simply observing your thinking is itself enough to extinguish the unwanted thought. As Hieromonk Damascene observed in Christ The Eternal Tao, “A thought cannot exist for long under the light of direct, objective observation. …just watch the thoughts disappear under the light of observation, as if we were an objective, disinterested spectator; they will pass one by one.” If you do this long enough, gradually you will come to realize that you are not your thoughts. You will begin to see your thoughts as things outside yourself, like airplanes in the sky, that you can either allow to land in the run-way of your mind, or reject and watch them fly away.
Last night my wife and I finished listening to a talk given by Father Seraphim Rose (1934-1982) on the topic of developing an Orthodox worldview. (The talk is available on Youtube while a transcription is available HERE.) He spoke about the challenges facing Christian parents in today’s world. He gave the talk in the early eighties so some of the end-times stuff towards the end is a bit dated, but if anything the general problems he diagnosed have become even more acute since then, making his message all the more relevant.
A number of people I have recently spoken with have expressed concerns about the, so called ‘Covenant Renewal‘ model of worship. Earlier in the year I wrote a letter to a friend and attempted to summarize the main areas of concern with this new trendy liturgical movement that is spreading across America through various reformed churches (principally the CREC). I have added a bit to my letter in light of further interactions, and I post it here in the hope that it can set the agenda for fresh dialogue among those who champion the CRW paradigm. The names of the people have been changed, apart from those who have published sources I am quoting.
One of the themes Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica kept returning to throughout his teaching ministry is how the human brain constantly creates its own distractions for us to react to. In every hour the average person experiences thousands of thoughts. Most of these thoughts are completely useless while many of them (i.e., negative thoughts or obsessions about myself) are actually destructive. All too often we involuntarily respond to mental stimuli by taking up each thought and playing with it before another thought takes its place. We engage in this type of mental chatter without realizing it as the mind acts like a constant video screen of one thing after another…. Given that our thoughts are the breeding ground of our emotions, it isn’t surprising that our feelings often follow the same jumping-bean pattern as our thoughts. We feel one thing, then another, then another, without always realizing where these feelings are coming from, why we react like we do, or how our emotions can be appropriately identified and managed….
I used to think that I was simply a victim of my undisciplined mind. But as I studied I found that God had given me an invaluable gift that I didn’t even realize I had. It’s called the prefrontal cortex. This is a truly wonderful part of the brain, located just behind the forehead. The prefrontal cortex does many things for us, but one of its most important jobs is to enable us to observe our own brains. This is a gift that animals don’t have. Animals can think, but they can’t think about thinking; they can’t observe what is happening in their brains. Only humans can do that thanks to the prefrontal cortex. You could think about the prefrontal cortex as a guard in the brain’s guard house, tasked with controlling what enters. As thoughts arise in the brain, you can use your prefrontal cortex to watch what is happening and exercise second-by-second censorship. This is difficult since for many of us this guard has become fat and lazy while the Amygdala (the brain’s “fight or flight” center) rules. Our goal should be to strengthen the prefrontal cortex through disciplining our minds, taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ. Only in this way can we weed out thinking errors, slow down the mental chatter, and ultimately develop the type of quiet, gentle, meek thought-life that radiates peace and stillness to those around us. In this way we will be able to imperceptibly pass the kingdom of God onto everyone that comes in contact with us.
…our goal should be not merely to pay attention to things, but to pay attention to what we’re paying attention to, in order to control the focus of our emotional and mental lives. But this can only happen when we slow down and choose not to be carried away by the latest stimuli. By being mindful to reject incoming stimuli in order to remain focused on what is good, true and beautiful, we can take stock of what we’re thinking, how we’re feeling, and how we’re behaving. Then we can use practices of mindful attentiveness to regain control of our lives. This enables us to replace toxic thoughts with inner prayer and a constant internal dialogue with God.