The Epistle reading for this past Wednesday (13th Week of Matthew) was 2 Corinthians 10:3-6:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ, and being ready to punish all disobedience when your obedience is fulfilled.
Let's focus on the verse, “bringing every thought into captivitiy to the obedience of Christ.” The book, "Confronting and Controlling Thoughts: According to the Fathers of the Philokalia" by Fr. Anthony Coniaris will help us understand what St. Paul means to say.
Nous – Intellect – Mind
Bp. Kallistos Ware: “The Nous is not primarily the rational faculties but a spiritual vision that we all possess though many of us have not discovered it. It must be cultivated through study and training and developed through prayer and fasting. It can be something higher than the reasoning brain and deeper than the emotions.”
Fr. Anthony Coniaris: “The nous is designed to preside over the person as the hegemonikon, meaning the dominant leader or ruler of the personality. Yet, because of the Fall of man, the nous has been wounded and is now subject to disruption by epithymia, by the desires imposed by the powerful passions. It is only by God’s grace and askesis, discipline, resistance, that man can be healed and come to prevail over the epithymia (desire) of the passions through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
"The nous is the highest faculty in man, through which—provided it is purified—he knows God Unlike the dianoia or reason from which it must be carefully distinguished, the intellect does not function by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning. But it understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intuition or simple cognition."
St. Anthony the Great: “The intellect is not the soul, but a gift of God that saves the soul.”
St. Gregory of Sinai: “Instead of a book the intellect has the Holy Spirit; instead of a pen, it has the mind and tongue; instead of ink, it has light. So plunging the mind into the light that it becomes light, the intellect, guided by the Spirit, inscribes the inner meaning of things in the pure heart of those who listen.”
The Nous abides in the heart. “It is not that which goes into man’s mouth (food) that defiles him, but what comes out if it” (Matt.15:11), “for thoughts come out of the heart” (Mt.15:19).
Unify Mind and Heart; Descent of Mind into Heart
In praying the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Son of God, have mercy on me,” St. Nikiphoros recommends that the intellect (nous) descends into the heart so they are united.
Bp. Kallistos Ware: “So long as the ascetic prays with the mind in the head, he will still be working solely with the resources of the human intellect. On this level he will never attain to an immediate and personal encounter with God. By the use of his brain, he will at best know about God, but he will not know God.”
“The intellect/nous is in the heart but the heart is much greater than the nous. The heart includes volition, the will to choose to follow God’s commandments. It also includes the faculty of loving and desiring God. Thus, the three faculties of the heart are: 1) To know God with the nous, 2) To love God with the heart, 3) To choose freely to follow Him.”
St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain: “The heart of man is like the center of wheel where the spokes connect all the senses, the powers of the body and the activities of the soul.”
Conscious Mind and Unconscious Heart
Problems arise when the thoughts of the conscious mind are at odds with the desires (passions) of the heart, the unconscious as expressed by St. Paul in Romans 7:22-25.
Satan strives to invade the heart through temptation. There in the heart sin is born and there in the heart hell is born. That is why many people walk around with a portable hell in the hearts. “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witnesses, blasphemies” (Mt.15:19).
Logismos – Thought is Precursor to Passion
St. Gregory of Sinai: “Distractive thoughts are the promptings of the demons and precursors of the passions, just as such promptings and mental images are also the precursors to particular actions. There can be no action either for good or evil, that is not initially provoked by the particular thoughts of that action.”
The Fathers of the Philokalia describe logismoi as essentially a train of thoughts that befog and pollute the mind so that bit by bit it drifts away from reality into a world of fantasy .Logismoi are important because all battles are won or lost first in the internal dialogue of the mind. For example, virtue is natural to us while vice is unnatural. Yet vice is made to appear far more attractive than virtue because the logismoi step in, and backed by demons, darken the mind, preventing it from seeing the beauty of virtue, while clothing vice with an artificial attractiveness.
How can we best resist the logismoi or evil thoughts that attack us? Every day we need to make a decision as to which thoughts we will allow to enter our minds. We need to screen them carefully and with great discernment. What do we read, watch on TV, movies we see, company we keep? We need to “take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor.10:5).
Keep the windows to the five senses covered with spiritual nets of prayer and vigilance (nepsis). Meditate regularly on the fearful and awesome judgment; think of heaven and hell.
St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic: “Think also of the blessings which await the righteous.”
An odd little word is used in the Psalms. When it appears it is always found at the end of sentence. The word is ‘selah’ and it means “Stop! Think! Meditate on what you just read!” This is the same word the Fathers of the Philokalia ask us to use when we are assaulted by evil thoughts. “Stop, Think, Pay Attention.” In Greek, “Proskomen!”
St. Theophan the Recluse: “After every thought has been banished from the soul by the memory of God’s presence, stand at the door of the heart and watch carefully everything that enters or goes out from there.”
St. Gregory the Theologian says we should be virgins, not just of the body, but also to be virgins of the ears, the eyes and the tongue because every sense that wanders with ease, eventually and inevitably sins.
Evagrius of Pontus: “Be the door-keeper of the your heart and do not let any thought come in without questioning it. Question each thought individually: ‘Are you on our side or the side of our foes?’ And if it is one of ours, it will fill you with tranquility.”
Jesus said, “Watch and pray lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt.26:41).
St. Philotheos: “Concentrate the scattered intellect though the thought of death and the remembrance of Jesus.”
Dealing with harmful logismoi is like tending a garden. Flowers are beautiful but they require constant care. We must pull out the weeds every time they appear because left unattended they quickly take over and then there is no more garden. Hence, we need daily to pull the weeds and tend the soil. By discouraging and renouncing the evil, we are encouraging the good.
Guarding the mind is like watching TV and changing channels in order to screen out the bad and be very selective about what we allow in through the senses. This is why the Philokalia urges us to “cut off’ the incipient evil thought (logismoi) immediately with the Jesus Prayer. This is how it works. By diverting our thought to God, the Jesus Prayer defuses the power of the bad thought and expels it from the mind.
If we do not control our thoughts, then they will control us.
Today’s gospel reading (13th Sunday of Matthew 21:33-42) is Jesus’ parable about the landowner of the vineyard. We can think of the vineyard as our own heart. Who are we going to lease out to? If we’re not careful, we will lease it to vinedressers that will beat, kill and stone the servants which are the teachings and commandments of God. If we let them, they will eventually seek to kill the Son of God, Christ within us. Remembering the fate of these wicked men, let us exercise watchfulness and prayer, leasing out the vineyard of our heart to the good thoughts and the remembrance of our Lord Jesus.
Fr. Richard Demetrius Andrews is the pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. Fr. Andrews is the past president of Minnesota Eastern Orthodox Christian Clergy Association (MEOCCA), and a volunteer chaplain with the St. Paul Police Department.