Okay, so this is a really long post.
But, the intention of this blog is to provide you, its readers, with resources that I have “gleaned.” My hope and prayer is that you will find them helpful as you pursue transformation into the likeness of Christ Jesus. So, I ask your patience with this one. You might find it most helpful to cut and paste the whole text and print it out to make it easier to read and digest. With that disclaimer I offer the following:
The Power of Our Thought Life: The Counsel of Two Elders – Part 1
I love to read the counsels of various holy Elders before turning off the light and falling asleep each night. Their words are so refreshing, so “not of this world” and yet very available and present to me.
Recently, I have been reading the counsels of Elder Thaddeus of Vitonvnica1 and Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Both have a lot to say about our “thought life.” They both are proponents of the value of “positive thinking.”
In this post – Part 1 – I will share the words of Elder Thaddeus which will be MORE than enough for one article. In Part 2, I will share some Elder Paisios’ counsels on the same subject.
But first, some words of caution and clarification.
Before you make the immediate association of the term “positive thinking” with Norman Vincent Peale, let me assure you that is not what these Elders are talking about. Nor are they talking about “positive confession,” a movement in the Western Church that advocates a kind of “name it and claim it” strategy. Another movement in the Church is the “prosperity gospel.” The prosperity would include such things as money, love, health, long life, fame, and influence. In other words, the thinking goes, God wants us to have everything we want for ourselves. In a manner of speaking these are all manifestations of the “spirit of entitlement.” And make no mistake it is a “spirit.”Nor is it a version of the New Age movement in which it is taught that you can create your own reality through the power of your thoughts – “manifestation.” That is related to another very dangerous way of thinking of the power of our thoughts; the idea that we can actually change material reality through the use of our minds alone. All of these teachings essentially proclaim that we can manifest whatever we want in our life by just consistently thinking correctly.
Make no mistake, the reality of our life is, indeed, affected by our thoughts. That is the tricky thing about all of this. There is a sense in which we do create our own reality, to some degree by our thoughts. They do become reality in the way we perceive people, circumstances, and the meaning of experiences; and the way we respond to them in words and deeds. That is why it is sooo important to be rooted in Christ when dealing with the whole matter of thoughts and their power. In Christ, our powerful thought life can be life-giving because they result in actions that build up and bless. Outside of Christ, our powerful thought life can be, and is, terribly life-robbing.
The quotes I am going to include in this post can sound a lot like the movements I have mentioned above. But, they are not!! This calls for maturity and considerable reflection in the context of the Holy Tradition in which these counsels are intended to be heard and practiced.
The underlying principle informing the counsels of the elders regarding our thought life is humility as it expresses itself in love for God and love for neighbor. They presuppose and emphasize the complete submission of one’s thought life to the governance of the Holy Spirit on a consistent basis. They assume that you are actively seeking to live a life characterized by:
“… take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10.5)
“Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.” (James 4.10)
“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3.1-2)
“For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Romans 12.3-10)
When the Elders speak of the Christian thought life they are talking about the mind of Christ. Thinking positively is synonymous with having the mind of Christ. Our goal is to attain the mind of Christ by letting go of our delusional thinking – darkened thought life – by means of the purifying work of the Holy Spirit. It is not about being “optimistic” which the term “positive thinking” seems to mean. Christians are not called to be optimistic. They are called to be hopeful.
Hope and optimism are not the same thing. Let me give you an example. I am not optimistic that I will be raised from the dead by Christ. I do have a reasonable and holy hope in the resurrection of the dead based on the faithfulness of God. Optimism is man-centered based on how well we think we or others will perform. It concerns a likelihood of something. Hope is Christ-centered based on God’s faithfulness. One is “relatively likely” (emphasis is intentional). The other is “certain.” (See Hebrews 10.19-23, in which hope is spoken of not in terms of a heart “filled with optimism” but “a true heart in full certainty of faith.”) Our optimism is dashed continually but “hope does not disappoint us” (Romans 5.5). Henri Nouwen sheds light on the difference.
“Optimism and hope are radically different attitudes. Optimism is the expectation that things-the weather, human relationships, the economy, the political situation, and so on-will get better. Hope is the trust that God will fulfill God’s promises to us in a way that leads us to true freedom. The optimist speaks about concrete changes in the future. The person of hope lives in the moment with the knowledge and trust that all of life is in good hands”2
Transformation of the thought life does not issue forth from an optimistic heart but rather a heart filled with the certainty (full confidence) of faith in hope. A life based on the law can be associated with optimism at best (it offers no hope). A life based on grace in Christ Jesus can be associated with confidence, boldness, and certainty. This is the difference between the authentic (positive) and inauthentic (darkened) thought life. Positive thinking as the Elders describe and define it is thinking based on and submitted to the Truth of Christ. Having said all of that, I can now share some of their counsels, with you:
“Our life depends on the kind of thoughts we nurture. If our thoughts are peaceful, calm, meek, and kin, then that is what our life is like. If our attention is turned to the circumstances in which we live, we are drawn into a whirlpool of thoughts and can have neither peace nor tranquility.
Everything, both good and evil comes from our thoughts. Our thoughts become reality. Even today we can see that all of creation, everything that exists on the earth and I the cosmos, is nothing but Divine thought made material in time and space. We humans were created in the image of God. Mankind was given a great gift, but we hardly understand that. God’s energy and life is in us. But we do not realize it. Neither do we understand that we greatly influence others with our thoughts. We can be very good or very evil, depending on the kind of thoughts and desires we breed.
If our thoughts are kind, peaceful, and quiet, turned only toward good, then we also influence ourselves and radiate peace all around us – in our family, in the whole country, everywhere. This is true not only heart on earth, but in the cosmos as well. When we labor in the fields of the Lord, we create harmony. Divine harmony, peace, and quiet spread everywhere. However, when we breed negative thoughts, that is a great evil. When there is evil in us, we radiate it among our family members and wherever we go. So you see, we can be very good or very evil. If that’s the way it is, it is certainly better to choose good! Destructive thoughts destroy the stillness within, and then we have no peace.”
Are you comfortable with the power that Elder Thaddeus assumes our thoughts have over those around us and, as we will see, the whole created order?? Our thoughts always find expression in words or deeds that reflect our thoughts and perceptions. We may not be comfortable with the idea that our thought life has that much power, but we know it by experience only too well.
I hear something more than just the power of words and actions. I hear something about attitudes and dispositions. People can feel our unrest, resentment, peace, or kindness. And, we can feel theirs. Those attitudes and dispositions radiate out in a very powerful way too. Perhaps the secular word for it is “our vibes.” How many times have you said to someone, “Man that was an oppressive environment!! I couldn’t way to leave. You could cut the tension with a knife!!” Only a rough approximation, but you get the idea. Or, here is another one, did you ever have anyone say to you, “You didn’t have to say anything, your attitude spoke volumes.”
I am reminded of the passage from which is taken, the final blessing at the end of the Divine Liturgy: “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4.7-8)
I need to take a look at my starting point, the thought patterns, preconceived convictions that govern my attitudes, words, and actions. What is my “default setting,” to use computer lingo?
“Our starting point is always wrong. Instead of beginning with ourselves, we always want to change others first and ourselves last. If everyone were to begin first with themselves, then there would be peace all around! St. John Chrysostom said that on one can harm the man who does not injure himself – nor even the devil. You see, we are the sole architects of our future…
You can see now how it goes. When we nurture evil thoughts, we become evil. We may think that we are good, but evil is in us. We do not have the strength to resist it. And we know that, as Christians, we must not even think evil, let alone do it.
We, however, have Divine power, Divine life, and Divine energy. On the day of the Final Judgment we shall have t give an answer for the way we have used this Divine power, life, and energy which have been given to us: whether we have contributed to the harmony in the universe, or have sown disharmony…
A man who has the Kingdom of Heaven radiates holy thoughts, Divine thoughts. The Kingdom of God creates within us an atmosphere of heaven, as opposed to the atmosphere of hell that is radiated by a person when hades abides in his heart. The role of Christians in the world is to filter the atmosphere on earth and expand the atmosphere of the Kingdom of God.
We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us, for if we lose the Kingdom of Heaven, we will save neither ourselves nor others. He who has the Kingdom of God in himself will imperceptibly pass it on to others. People will be attracted by the peace and warmth in us; they will want to be near us, and the atmosphere of heaven will gradually pass on to them. It is not even necessary to speak about this. The atmosphere of heaven will radiate from us even when we keep silence or talk about ordinary things. It will radiate from us even though we may not be aware of it.”
Really powerful words! So, we, by virtue of our thought life, row with or against the flow of the “eternal flood tide” of the Kingdom of God. That fills these statements that our by our Lord new meaning:
“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye… So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7.1-5, 12-14)
“And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.” (Matthew 18.8-9)
Elder Ephraim,archimandrite and former abbot of Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, said about judging others: “Each person must bear the weaknesses of others. Who is perfect? Who can boast that he has kept his heart undefiled? Hence, we are all sick, and whoever condemns his brother does not perceive that he himself is sick, because a sick person does not condemn another sick person.”
There is a lot of “logging,” “cutting off,” and “plucking it out” that needs to happen in my thought life!! How about yours?
Once again, our thoughts radiate in the form of attitudes and dispositions as well as words and actions. Our thoughts have the power to give life or take life away in a huge variety of ways.
Elder Thaddeus continues.
“A person who is entrapped in the vicious cycle of chaotic thoughts, in the atmosphere of hades, or has only so much as touched it, feels the torments of hell. For example, we read the newspapers or take a walk in the streets, and afterwards we suddenly feel that something is not quite right in our souls; we feel an emptiness; we feel sadness. That is because by reading all sorts of things, our mind becomes distracted and the atmosphere of hades has free access to our minds.”
Yikes, “the atmosphere of hades has free access to our minds”?! I need, as Johnny Cash used to sing, “… to keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Jesus said, “Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and so passes on? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15.17-19) Cleanse our thought life, oh God so that our words and actions will radiate love and peace not hate, fear, and discord. Hear also these words:
“Keep your heart with all vigilance; for from it flow the springs of life.” (Proverbs 4.23)
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” (Genesis 6.5-8)
The power of our thought life – as it finds its way into words or actions – has cosmic significance. This sheds new light on the flood story but the story of the tower of Babel.
The thought life is a two way street. We not only affect others by our thoughts – the words and actions that are the fruit of them – but we are affected by them as well. We interpret, based on our thought life, the actions and words of others. Depending on the state of our thought life, this could be a blessing or a curse. But, it is not just the words and actions of others. It is also what we suspect and believe about people and what we believe about their attitudes toward us. We second guess the thoughts of others whether they say or do anything or not. People don’t have to do or say anything for us to have a huge set of convictions about them based on a thought life that is chaotic and affected by life robbing passions.
“Your thoughts are burdened because you are influenced by the thoughts of your fellow men. Pray to the Lord that He might take this burden from you. These are the thoughts of others which differ from yours. They have their plan, and their plan is to attack you with their thoughts. Instead of letting go, you have allowed yourself to become part of their plan, so of course you suffer. Had you ignored the attack, you would have kept your peace. They could have thought or said anything at all about you, yet you would have remained calm and at peace. Soon all their anger would have died down, like a deflated balloon, because of the pure and peaceful thought that would have come from your. If your are like that, calm and full of love, if all you think are good thoughts and kind thoughts, they will stop warring against you in their thoughts and will not threaten you anymore. But if you demand an eye for an eye, that is war. Where there is war there can be no peace. How can there be peace on a battlefield, when everyone is looking over their shoulders and anticipating a surprise attack from the enemy?…
Thoughts are planted in our minds all the time, from all sides and directions. Were it given to see the radii of thoughts, we would see a real net of thoughts. Everyone has a ‘receiver’ in his mind, one that is much more precise and sophisticated than a radio or a television set. How wonderful is the mind of man! Unfortunately, we do not appreciate this. We do not know how to unite ourselves with the Source of life and to feel joy. The adversary is always planting seeds in our minds. St. Anthony was permitted to see the nets of thoughts around him, and when he saw them, he exclaimed, ‘Lord, who can be saved?’ And he heard a voice saying, ‘Only those who are meek and humble of heart.’ The evil spirits cannot touch those who are meek and humble of heart, for they are united with peace and silence. They have no negative thoughts.”
A very famous example of the difference between positive thinking as the Elders conceive of it and the “darkened” thought life we are addressing can be depicted in the story of two monks:
“Two monks were making a pilgrimage to venerate the relics of a great Saint. During the course of their journey, they came to a river where they met a beautiful young woman — an apparently worldly creature, dressed in expensive finery and with her hair done up in the latest fashion. She was afraid of the current and afraid of ruining her lovely clothing, so asked the brothers if they might carry her across the river.
The younger and more exacting of the brothers was offended at the very idea and turned away with an attitude of disgust. The older brother didn’t hesitate, and quickly picked the woman up on his shoulders, carried her across the river, and set her down on the other side. She thanked him and went on her way, and the brother waded back through the waters.
The monks resumed their walk, the older one in perfect equanimity and enjoying the beautiful countryside, while the younger one grew more and more brooding and distracted, so much so that he could keep his silence no longer and suddenly burst out, ‘Brother, we are taught to avoid contact with women, and there you were, not just touching a woman, but carrying her on your shoulders!’
The older monk looked at the younger with a loving, pitiful smile and said, ‘Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river; you are still carrying her.’”3
We see that one monk had a positive thought life that shone with the light of Christ in his words and deeds toward the woman, while the other had a “darkened” thought life in which he, in essence, lusted after the woman and was trapped in sin.
The real life examples given by the Elders are extraordinary. The advice the Elder gives doesn’t seem to be at all practical. The advice, at times, seems to promote weakness, compromise, being a “door mat,” or acting in ways that I would judge as “mean spirited.” They often offend my sense of fairness and justice. But, the fact that they have that effect on me when I read them might (just might) mean that I have some “governing thought patterns” that are not “positive,” i.e. Christ’s own thoughts. Elder Thaddeus tells a story of a woman who was bother by the behavior of her neighbor.
“An old woman came to me and told me that her neighbor was bothering her. She said the other woman was constantly throwing things into her yard, so she was at her wits’ end. I asked her why she was always quarreling with her neighbor. But the old woman said that she never even spoke to her evil neighbor. I insisted that she quarreled with her every day. I said to her, ‘You are convinced that she is doing evil things to you, and you are constantly thinking about her. Let her do whatever it is she is doing; you just turn your thoughts to prayer, and you will see that it will stop bothering you.’”
Here is another example from the lives of the saints. In this case, St. Dennis.
The Forgiveness & Compassion of St. Dennis of Zakynthos
“There was at one time, as confirmed by the records of the Republic of Venice, a deadly enmity between the Mondinos family and the family of St. Dennis, the Sigouros. The efforts of the saint to effect reconciliation between the two families had been in vain. Things had reached a point where murders had been committed and the population was divided into two factions.
Furthermore, the hatred between the two families eventually led to St. Dennis’ brother, Constantine, being murdered. Fearing his victim’s relatives, the murderer (who was a complete stranger to St. Dennis), by chance or by God’s will, sought refuge in the monastery where St. Dennis was the abbot. When the saint asked the fugitive why he was so frightened, he confessed his sin and revealed the name of the man he had murdered, asking to be protected from the family’s vengeance. St. Dennis wept for his only brother, as was natural. Then he comforted the murderer and hid him, showing him great compassion and love.
Soon the saint’s relatives came to the monastery with a group of armed men and told him what had happened. He pretended to know nothing about it. After weeping with them and trying to console them, he sent them off in the wrong direction. Then he told the murderer that he was the brother of the man he had killed. He admonished him as a father, and brought him to repentance. After forgiving him, St. Dennis brought him down to the shore and helped him to escape to another place in order to save his life.”
Like I said, the counsels and examples of the Elders issue from a depth of truth and surrender and trust in God that few of us have touched. There is wisdom in the Elder’s counsel to the old woman that sets aside the “immediate” and “logical” answers we would be led to offer. I believe it is because we have not allowed the Lord to crucify enough of our thought life and baptized it in His death and resurrection. There is a difference between acting out of knowledge that is lodged in the head and out of wisdom that proceeds from the heart of Christ.
They are not, to be sure, advocating the sponsoring or advocating sin in either our life or the life of others. But, what they are doing is pointing us to the root of sin that the axe might be effectively laid to it!! In the end, a much more practical, albeit mysterious, approach.
Let me conclude with one last word that is actually the combination of two separate statements from Elder Thaddeus.
“This is how we must live – controlling our thoughts. It is not good to dwell on every thought that comes to us; otherwise we lose our peace. If we learn to refuse such proposals, we are quiet. We do not fantasize or create any images in our mind… We must struggle for our own good and strive for peace to take root in our souls – peace, joy, and Divine love. Our Heavenly Father wants all of His children to have His Divine properties. He wants us to be full of love, peace, joy, truthfulness, and kindness. He wants us to be able to comfort others. We also want to become meek and humble, for only such a person radiates goodness and kindness. Such a person is never insulted even when you shout and scold him; you can even hit him and all he does is pity you for tormenting yourself so. There are very few such people on this earth, but they are the reason why the sun still warms planet Earth and why God gives us His blessing to go on living and to have everything we need in order to live. You see now why our thoughts must change.”
Our thought life is of immense importance. The discipline of positive thinking and the specific actions that issue out of it, which the Elders recommend as a way of addressing (purifying and ordering) our impure and chaotic thought life is a tricky thing.
It is not to be entered into without a solid fellowship of accountability. Heresy and delusion begin, usually, with a kernel of truth. They have just enough of the truth mixed in to them to cause the unwary to be attracted to them. Be careful! The truth always, if properly followed, leads to Christ, never “alongside” Him or in addition to Him. Only to Him and forever in Him. We must not stop along the way and settle for the embracing of any “truths” that we do not submit to Christ. The several interpretations of this discipline of “positive thinking” or “ordering our thought life” I mentioned at the beginning of this article are only some of the traps we can fall into unintentionally. “The faith” is not a smorgasbord of truths from a variety of sources in which we have permission to bring aspects of those sources along with the truth that we encountered there. One of my mentors used to say, “Many ways to Christ, but only one way to the Father.” If you find a jewel in the mud, take it out of the mud, wash it, set it in a beautiful setting, and treasure it. So also with positive thinking. Our thoughts are powerful. The ancient ways of addressing our thought life by the Holy Spirit are powerful disciplines. But, this work of the Holy Spirit must be saved from the setting that hinders its right use and the blessing it was designed to provide. It must be washed and placed in the setting where it can give shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory and give light to all.
Be careful. As you approach or come into contact with disciplines that have to do with addressing the thought life, ask this question, “Does it conform to the Holy Tradition – the fullness of the faith once for all delivered and lived by the Apostolic Church over the last 2000 years?”
Obviously, there is more to say about the thought life as the Elders conceive of it and how to address it. In Part 2, we will hear what Elder Paisios has to say and the examples he offers.
- All quotes from the Elder are taken from Chapter 1 of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives, St. Herman Press, 2009.
- I found this quote on several websites. However, none of them offered a citation for it.
- Admittedly, this story comes out of the Buddhist tradition. I have chosen a Christianized version of it. But, the truth of the difference between the thought life that is filled with the light of Christ’s love and the darkened thought life is beautifully depicted.
- This story is taken from “Milk and Honey,” a wonderful blog. http://theinnerkingdom.wordpress.com/