The sixth-century desert father, Dorotheos of Gaza, gave some very helpful wisdom for emotional people struggling with temptation and/or afflictions. (From Discourses and Sayings):
“God does not allow us to be burdened with anything beyond our power of endurance, and therefore, when difficulties come upon us we do not sin unless we are unwilling to endure a little tribulation or to suffer anything unforeseen. As the Apostle says, ‘God is faithful and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able [to endure].’ But we are men who have no patience and no desire for a little labor and [no desire] to brace ourselves to accept anything with humility. Therefore we are crushed [by our difficulties]. The more we run away from temptations, the more they weigh us down and the less are we able to drive them away. Suppose a man for some reason dives into the sea: if he knows the art of swimming, what does he do when a great wave comes along? He ducks under until it goes past and then he goes on swimming unharmed. But if he is determined to set himself against it, it pushes him away and hurls him back a great distance, and when again he begins to swim forward another wave comes upon him, and if again he tries to swim against it, again it fores him back, and he only tires himself out and makes no headway. But if he ducks his head and lowers himself under the wave, as I said, no harm comes to him and he continues to swim as long as he likes. Those who go on doing their work this way when they are in trouble, putting up with their temptations with patience and humility, come through unharmed. But if they get distressed and downcast, seeking the reasons for everything, tormenting themselves and being annoyed with themselves instead of helping themselves, they do themselves harm.
“If painful experiences crowd in upon us, we ought not to be disturbed; allowing ourselves to be disturbed by these experiences is sheer ignorance and pride because we are not recognizing our own condition and, as the Fathers tell us, we are running away from labor. We make no progress because we have not squarely taken our own measure, we do not persevere in the work we begin, and want to acquire virtue without effort. Why should an emotional man find it strange to be disturbed by his emotions? Why should he be overwhelmed if he sometimes gives way to them? If you have them inside yourself why are you disturbed when they break out? You have their seeds in you and yet you ask, why do they spring up and trouble me? Better to have patience and go on struggling with them and beg for God’s help. It is impossible for someone struggling against his evil desires not to suffer affliction from them.”
“If only someone would tell me what to do!” I often thought as I lay awake at night, going over and over the same problemsa in my mind.
The situation I found myself facing was different to the struggles I had faced earlier in my Christian life. In the early days of being a Christian, my focus had been on cutting out sinful habits and coming to terms with the claims of Christ on my life. It hadn’t been easy, but at least my marching orders had been straight-forward. By contrast, after many years as a believer, I increasingly found myself facing situations—sometimes on a daily basis—where I had no idea how God wanted me to behave. In the minutia of daily life, I encountered problems at work, problems with my teenage children, problems in the lives of those who looked to me for guidance, problems in my finances and health. I often found myself baffled, stumbling along without a clear sense of direction. On big decisions, I could go to my pastor for advice, but it simply wasn’t possible to get advice for the dozens of small problems that cropped up every day.
I don’t use this blog to attack other blog posts, but I feel compelled to make an exception in the case of an article written by Aristotle Papanikolaou.
Dr. Papanikolaou is the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University, and the article in question was published on the Public Orthodoxy, under the title ‘Political Nestorianism and the Politics of Theosis.’ It was originally a talk delivered at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the (then) upcoming “Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.”
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.
The root of anxiety is the illusion that we are separate from God.
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.
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.
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.