Another Everything is Grace Sunday Sermon Guest Post from our deacon. I was out of town when he delivered this sermon but a sweet friend emailed me to let me know his sermon would be one she knew I would enjoy since I frequently write about our thoughts. His sermons speak my “sermon love language” if there is such a thing. They remind me to live the Little Way. You can read his other sermon here, Corpus Christi and a former pastor’s here, Divine Mercy. Enjoy!
This past week I participated in the School of Lectio Divina, a three-day retreat hosted by the Benedictine nuns at St. Joseph Monastery. The first day is spent studying the desert fathers and their work on understanding our thoughts. These men went into the desert to do battle with the devil. Antony, Evagrius, John Cassian and many others. Upon this foundation, Benedictine monasticism was built.
St. Peter instructs us today, ‘be sober and watch.’ Watch what? What your thoughts. We have thoughts coming at us almost constantly. Often times without us really even being aware. Whether it is midway through an Our Father, or when I am weeding the garden, or while sitting in the pew at Mass or while talking with another, thoughts are continually arising.
In prayer we want all our faculties gathered up and focused on God; the five external senses subordinate to the intellect and the will. The imagination and the memory locked in on our subject of meditation or on our conversation with the Lord, not drifting about, doing their own thing. It takes a lot of effort over a long period of time to gain this discipline and mastery. But the fact is, the battle does not begin in prayer or in the senses. The battle really starts in our thoughts as they arise. Be sober and watch.
The first thought that arises comes from one of four sources: from within myself, from others, the evil one, or from God. Let me repeat that: the very first thought that arises in my mind does not necessarily come from within myself. God can place the initial thought in our minds. Thoughts from Him are necessarily good and so we want to recognize them and work with them.
That first thought can also come from the devil. I had a priest once say he thinks all negative thoughts come from the devil. Or, if some of them do arise from within us, he is right there to intensify them. See how close the devil is to our inner life, that he can place thoughts in our minds? Hence St. Peter follows up his admonition of ‘be sober and watch’ with the reason why: ‘because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goes about seeking whom he may devour.’ Many times the thoughts that enter our mind come from him. This brings us to a very important principle: we are not our thoughts.
What I see is people way too ready to take credit for their thoughts, or assume sole responsibility for their thoughts or beat themselves up over their thoughts. The thought arises, ‘you’re worthless,’ ‘you’re stupid,’ ‘nobody likes you,’ ‘you’re a lousy deacon,’ ‘this parish isn’t for you,’ or, ‘I hate him,’ ‘I wish they were dead,’ or ‘God is not real,’ ‘I’m sick of all the rules of the Catholic Church,’ or a thousand other negative thoughts that can run through our minds, and we buy into it. We let our mood, our relationships, our prayer life, our faith, our job, our schoolwork- we let everything suffer because we didn’t notice the initial thought and we didn’t know how to handle the chain of negative thoughts that followed. I’ll say it again, we are not our thoughts. Be sober and watch.
In the class, we examined the anatomy of thoughts. In brief, a thought enters in and it usually gives rise to a second thought. (When we learn how to watch our thoughts and discern them, we will simply let pass all thoughts that do not come from God or those that don’t really benefit me). That second thought is usually coupled with our own motives and intentions, our desires and our passions. The thought is ‘thickening’ in my mind and swiftly leads to an invitation to act. Then there is the virtual act in my mind (hence, lust in the mind IS adultery our Lord says) which will usually lead to actual consent.
Now, if the initial thought was good then my consent enters me upon the life of grace and virtue. If the initial thought was bad then my consent enters me upon a life of sin and vice. We have to watch our thoughts and become aware of that very first thought to determine its source and whether or not this is something to accept and facilitate or to reject and let pass away.
Here’s a silly example but you’ll get the idea. Perhaps I’m praying Morning Prayer from the Breviary and I read the line ‘birds of the air and fish that make their way through the waters, bless the Lord’ from the Canticle of Daniel. The thought arises in my mind, ‘I really enjoy nature. We need to do some camping this summer.’
Harmless enough but instead of just noticing the thought and watching it pass, (because I am supposed to be praying the Office,) the initial thought leads to another thought, then another and another. ‘Maybe we’ll go back to Oologah Lake the summer. I think we need to buy a new tent this year. But maybe it’s too hot for camping right now.’ End of the Canticle. ‘Or maybe we should go to Sequoia State Park. We’ve been meaning to try out that place for years. It has a pool too. Man, a pool would be nice. It sure is hot.’ End of the third Psalm.
One thought leads to another and our thoughts are just free falling. That’s not good. Often we’re unaware of what’s going through our minds, what the source of these thought patterns are, or how they’re affecting me and my relationships. I can walk around angry or depressed, or anxious all day long because I didn’t watch or control my thinking. The thoughts were in control of me.
We call those thoughts that aren’t good for us, afflictive thoughts. There are afflictive thoughts that relate to the body: food, sex, and things. There are afflictive thoughts that relate to the mind: anger and dejection and afflictive thoughts that relate to the soul: acedia, vainglory, and pride. The eight afflictive thoughts correspond to the seven deadly sins. Ah, but before I committed the deadly sin, there was consent to an afflictive thought first.
Apply all this to the Gospel. The publicans and sinners drew near to Jesus. Why would they? People don’t usually want to change their ways. But a thought had entered in- a thought from God. It was met with a deep desire- ‘my life stinks and I desire happiness.’ That ignited a second thought, ‘Maybe this Man has the answers?’ The thoughts thickened in their mind. They perceived an invitation to act. They wanted to hear Him and so they consented and drew near to Jesus.
The Pharisees and Scribes murmured and questioned. These outward manifestations were the result of a chain of thoughts brought on after an initial afflictive thought. Which one? Probably the worse one- the affliction of the soul called spiritual pride. This isn’t the same as the fleeting feeling of pride that we feel compelled to mention in confession sometimes. This is a spiritual blindness, a deep-seated pride that is a willful rejection of God and His truth.
So what should we do with this information? Consider the woman in today’s Gospel who lost a coin- one of ten coins. According to St. Ambrose, the lost coin represents ‘lost faith.’ So for the woman, the search for the lost coin is an inner search. And what does she do? She lights a lamp and sweeps the house. That’s what we should do- invite God’s light to shine in our mind so we can sweep it clean. So that we can see clearly what thoughts are from God and/or good and worthwhile; and what thoughts are from the devil and/or afflictive. We need God’s light to ‘watch’ well, as St. Peter tells us to do. We need to be vigilant in watching and ‘take captive every thought and make them obedient to Christ’ as St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians.
The School of Lectio Divina teaches how to discern your thoughts. It teaches tools to counter the afflictive thoughts and ways of strengthening yourself against them. But when you find yourself in a cesspool of afflictive thoughts and you don’t know how you even got there, and you’re feeling pretty bad, call out to Jesus like the man in the Introit: ‘Look upon me, O Lord, and have mercy for I am alone and poor’ and the Good Shepherd will come and rescue you. He will place you upon His shoulders and carry you safely home and there shall be great rejoicing in heaven. Be sober and watch. God bless you.