Isaac the Syrian used to say “Keep watch over your eyes and your heart will not see evil things. ‘Everyone who looks at [anyone] with lust has already committed adultery’ (Cf.Matt 5:28).” What he is saying is that any evil thought in which we take delight is like an infidelity to the God whom we love.
Evil thoughts must be dismissed, along with the useless ones which could open the way to the former, because they replace the good thought; and it is impossible to entertain thought about two things at the same time. Neutral in themselves, these thoughts distract us from our conversation with God. A brother went to visit an Elder. Outside, he could hear a struggle which he took to be a fight between two people. He went in to stop it. Inside he found the Abbot alone, so he asked him, “Who were you fighting with? ” The Elder answered, “With my thoughst. Indeed I know fourteen books of the Scriptures by heart and when I heard one profane word coming from outside when I started to pray, all these books disappeared and that thought alone would be before me. That is why I was fighting it.”
Another story illustrates how, when the monks talked about matters related to the soul, they could see angels doing honours to them. But when they turned their conversation to trivial and ungodly things things, the angels withdrew and pigs came and wandered about, spreading their foul smell and mess everywhere. When the monks spoke again of spiritual matters the pigs left and the angels returned.
However, we can only chase away that which is replaced by something else. “My Father, the Abbot Soy of Mount Dioclos told me, ‘If thoughts come to the heart of a brother, he cannot turn them absolutely away unless he brings words of the Scriptures or of the elders to his heart. Whenever the master enters his own house all the strangers there flee away.’ ” Abbot John said that when he was alone and watching evil thoughts coming at him like wild beasts, and had no more strength to fight them ‘I take refuge in God for prayer and I am saved from the enemy’.
A spark from the tongue can cause a blaze. If you give no air to a blaze it dies out. If you give no air to your passions they are gradually quenched. If you are disturbed by the mistakes of another, cover them with the mantle of silence and quench your desire to judge before it bursts into flames. Silence can be filled with watchful prayer as a bowl is filled with water. Let this vigilance extend to the depths of your being. Deep within you will find immeasurable store-rooms where memories, thoughts and fantasies that disturb need restraint. Do not stir up a memory that will cover your prayer with mud, do not root around in the soil of your old sins. Do not be like the dog that returns to his vomit (Provs 26:11). Do not let your memory linger on private matters that can reawaken your desire or set your imagination going. The imagination is the devil’s favourite resting-place and through it he draws us to further intercourse with him, to consent and action. In your thought-world he sows doubt and worry, attempts at logical reasoning and proof, fruitless questions and self-found answers. Say with the psalmist Away with the wicked (Ps.119 : 115)
Who would deny this vigil of the heart, this mental “sorting out” in order to be united with God ? Surely this purification of memory and intelligence is a source of purification. It is the clearing of that mental pollution and is nothing less than a “spiritual ecology”.
Arthur Middleton is Recor of Boldon in the diocese of Durham .