Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 16
By Fr. Maximos (Constas)
If I sit down to say the Jesus Prayer I will very quickly have certain kinds of thoughts running through my mind, usually very simple distractions such as “I think I left the oven on! I should leave my prayer and go check,” or “I forgot to call my mother,” or “I just got a great idea for a sermon!” All these superficial distractions are the first thing that happens to us. For many of us this is enough to break our communion with God because we consider our business and work more important than our intimacy with God. We have to realize and accept that this is what will happen. Sometimes you do remember something that’s so important you won’t be able to not stop and write it down, but you should just let them go and tell yourself that if the idea was so great and important then God will bring it back to you. Where’s our faith in God? Let the car get a little wet—the window probably isn’t open anyways. Let’s not allow ourselves to be dragged from that place of prayer that is so difficult to get to anyways. We have to be on guard about this.
All of these thoughts and memories are thieves because they steal the idea of God from the mind. And not just the obvious bad thoughts, but even allegedly good thoughts are thieves at that moment. St. Basil in a letter to St. Gregory the Theologian says that recollection of God is the indwelling of God. When we invoke the name of the Lord it is already the presence of the Lord and the indwelling of the Lord within us. To step away from that, from the throne of grace and the face of Christ because the oven might be on … we know what we should do. We’re only talking about a matter of minutes. I’m not saying forget the world for days at a time—maybe fifteen minutes. But these little things come in, and even fifteen minutes is too long for us. We’ve lost the capacity to stop and be still. We only feel comfortable when we’re multi-tasking.
If we continue on this path we will learn how to deal with and not even engage these simple distractions, but we will also begin to encounter deeper and more obsessive thoughts. There are certain images that continually recur, certain patterns of thoughts, certain faces, certain memories that are deeply imprinted in us—the kinds of things that go through your mind when you’re dozing off and you lose a little of your rational control. What are these things that are there? They’re part of something deeper within us. They’re not just thoughts or concepts, but they’re images that are filled with a dark energy—angers, resentments, lusts, that normally we don’t want to see and we’re in denial about. Those things are there and we avoid them with all the gadgets. But on this path we will come into contact with these thoughts and places where we’re not free, because, “whenever that person’s face comes to mind my blood pressure rises and I remember how angry I am at that person from twenty-five years ago.” People in my family have gone to their graves unreconciled because when they saw the face of that other person all they saw was that bitter memory. This is where a spiritual guide is important, because it is a difficult thing to stir up your psyche like this and encounter these dark things. You need some support of wisdom by someone who has been down this path and knows how to deal with it, and you need to know that this is natural and expected and part of the plan.
The other thing we need to know is that these obsessive, recurring and impassioned thought-feelings are not you. Maybe they happened to you, or they’re places where you were wounded, but they are not you. I think most of us from an early age in life make the fatal mistake of self-identifying with those impulses. I told you the story about the colleague who had insulted me and the thought of anger was there. The fact that I could even see that thought shows you that it’s not absolutely one with myself. I could look at it, hear it and see it. The fact that I can differentiate such thoughts from my own thoughts shows that there’s a difference. I could have just uncritically said, “Well, anger came in—of course, because I’m an angry guy.” I could have just embraced that impulse and thought and run with it; and if I’ve been doing that my whole life it becomes me. I think that’s who I am. All kinds of other thoughts and desires and inclinations are not us. But they can become us if all we do is welcome them and magnify them, and allow them to unleash their dark energy within us. I think all of us have seen these things. Unchecked, many of these thoughts can lead to neuroses of various kinds, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and at their worst, various sociopathic kinds of behavior.
It always intrigued me that in Greece there seemed to always be a little cloud settled on the peak of Mt. Athos, and sometimes it’s a perfect saucer shape. The monks call it the “veil.” I always wondered what was happening meteorologically, and of course it’s very simple. The warm air moves across the surface of the ocean and hits the wall of the mountain, and it has nowhere to go so it rises and condenses and forms into a cloud. The mountain is a weather-maker. I thought, this is a profound image, because you are the mountain, you are not the cloud, but we make the mistake of self-identifying with the cloud. You’re not the emotional storm in your mind—that is other than you. It has come to rest on you, but don’t they come and go? Our job is not to follow them wherever they go, but to be rooted in the mountain that we are. During a storm, what is the most active part of a tree? The outermost part. If we live up here in our minds, we’ll be agitated and blown about by every breeze. When we recognize that, it is the time to turn our attention to the core, the trunk, and not to self-identify with those thoughts.
~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.
Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.