Staying on track

11 March OS 2016 – Second Thursday of Great Lent, St. Sophronios of Jerusalem

The second reading at Vespers today is Proverbs 6: 3-20.

 My son, do that which I command thee, and save thyself; for on thy friend’s account thou art come into the power of evil. Go, faint not; but stir up even thy friend for whom thou art become surety. Give not sleep to thine eyes, nor slumber to thine eyelids, that thou mayest deliver thyself as a roe out of a noose, and as a bird out of a snare. Go to the ant, thou sluggard, and be zealous to consider its ways, and be wiser than it. For though it hath no husbandry, nor any to compel it, and is under no master, it prepareth its food in the summer, and maketh its provision abundant in the winter. Or go to the bee, and learn how diligent she is, and how earnestly she doeth her work; whose labours kings and private men use for health; she also is desired by all, and honoured. Though she be weak in strength, she is advanced by honouring wisdom. How long wilt thou lie, O sluggard, and when wilt thou arise out of sleep? Thou sleepest a little, and thou restest a little, and thou slumberest a short time, and thou foldest thine arms over thy breast a little. Then poverty cometh upon thee as an evil traveller, and want as a swift runner. But if thou be diligent, thine harvest shall come to thee as a fountain, and poverty as an evil runner shall desert thee. A foolish man and transgressor goeth in ways that are not good. And he winketh with the eye, and maketh a sign with his foot, and teacheth with the movement of his fingers. And with a froward heart he deviseth mischiefs continually; such a man maketh troubles in a city. Therefore his destruction cometh suddenly, calamity and ruin without remedy. For he rejoiceth in every thing which God hateth, and is ruined by reason of his soul’s uncleanness. A proud eye, an unjust tongue, hands that shed righteous blood, and a heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, and feet that be swift to do evil. A false witness kindleth falsehoods, and soweth discord among brethren. My son, keep thy father’s laws, and reject not the precepts of thy mother.

 In the first five verses of this passage, the wise Solomon exhorts his son not to be ensnared in other people’s financial problems (not to “go surety for a friend”), and to be attentive and diligent to get out of and stay out of all such arrangements.   St. Theophan the Recluse applies this advice to the subject of attentiveness in the spiritual life:

“Give not sleep to thine eyes, nor slumber to thine eyelids, that thou mayest deliver thyself as a doe out of the toils, and as a bird out of a snare (Proverbs 4-5).” Everyone who in his heart has set out now, before the face of the Lord, to live according to His commandments, should take this rule as his guide. He must not give sleep to his eyes – not these outer eyes, but the inner eyes of his mind – that they might gaze into his heart and faithfully observe all that occurs there, and thus he who is zealous will be able to find the enemy’s snares and avoid danger from them. The heart now becomes an arena for struggle against the enemy.   There the enemy unceasingly sows his own [seed], which is in turn reflected in one’s thoughts. Such thoughts, however, are not always outrageously bad, but are for the most part disguised by false goodness and correctness. The chain of all thoughts is just like an intricate net! He who heedlessly sets out after them will not escape entanglement and, consequently, the danger of a fall. This is why, brother, you must keep the eye of your mind sharp-sighted by means of strict attention toward everything that occurs in you and around you. Take note of what your relentless “advisor” proposes to you on the left side and investigate the reason it was proposed to you and where it will lead, and you will never fall into his snares. Only, do not forget that attentiveness alone is not effective. It must be joined with abstinence, wakefulness, and unceasing prayer to the Lord. Combine all these, and it will be difficult to catch you.   Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 60-61

One of the great insights of Orthodox spiritual wisdom is that you must pay attention to your thoughts and not accept them uncritically, much less unconsciously, as corresponding to reality.   There is a constant commotion going on “in our heads,” and most of it is at best useless and at worst a trap. Some of it comes from the outside world, some of it from within our minds – memories, images, arguments, worries, etc. – and some of it from that “advisor” St. Theophan is talking about, the demon assigned to battle our guardian angel for possession of the soul. One of the great pleasures of having a real prayer life is that a great deal of this static gets tuned out, and we can actually start understanding ourselves and the world around us, and be at peace.

Notice that St. Theophan points out that many destructive thoughts are not obviously bad but rather seem good and correct. They destroy by deception rather than frontal assault. These seemingly good thoughts may be sent by the devil, or may arise from our fallen nature – from ignorance, from mental confusion, from lack of discernment, from immaturity in self-understanding, etc. But what they all have in common is that they get us off the track, distracted from our particular path, our particular duties, and our particular calling. What we need to know and need to think in order to save our souls and help others do the same is actually a rather limited range of knowable things and a limited range of necessary thoughts. A good prayer life – both prayer at set times and the habit of the Jesus Prayer through the day – a moderate but persistent habit of spiritual reading, and frequent confession, will keep us on track. We do not have to solve all the world’s problems, and – amazing to recall – we do not even have to solve all of our own. The Lord says to us, as He says to Peter in John 21, “You just follow Me.”

There are various ways of getting off the track, including one that most of us today wander off on. It is extremely common now for religious and well-intentioned people to spend a great deal of time on the Internet or listening to talk shows because they are (rightly) concerned about falsehood and evil, and they are trying to keep track of it all and understand somehow what is going on “out there,” and perhaps even convince a group of fellow worriers that their insights, and not those of others, are the accurate ones. They feel the need to be “connected” somehow to the wide world and its manifold problems, and they even feel a bit guilty if they lose track of what is supposedly going on.   The problem, however, with trying to get to the bottom of the evil in the world is that there is no bottom to evil in this life, because the bottom is in hell, where the damned will spend all eternity sinking deeper and never hitting bottom. You could spend your whole life trying to figure it out, and on your deathbed realize you have spent all your energy chasing the chimera of grasping the essence of evil, a task by nature impossible because evil possesses no essence to be grasped.

Of course, we have to be informed to a prudent extent about what is going on out there in order to make wise choices for ourselves and those in our charge. One can have too much information, however, and far too little wisdom. Let us spend more time repairing our equipment for understanding – that is, the mind and the heart – through prayer, spiritual reading, frequent confession, and a prayerful approach to our actual daily duties, and less time acquiring grist for a mill breaking down daily due to deferred maintenance.

O Lord, only true and trustworthy Guide, keep us on the straight path to Thy heavenly kingdom!


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