Trials, Questions, Belief, Disbelief, and Providence

When suffering or trials beset us, we are often tempted to ask, “Why did this happen? What went wrong?  What do I need to fix?”  These questions seem so reasonable and come to the mind so effortlessly, and yet they are supported by unspoken beliefs far from the Christian faith or rather they are the cold products of disbelief itself. Those of us who ask such questions risk setting ourselves up as judges, not only of the universe, but of God Himself. Saint Paul warned of this mindset when he wrote the Romans, “O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that … [Read more...]

The Cultivation of Good Thoughts

We’ve spent some time now examining bad thoughts—what they are and how to cope with them.  Since the spiritual life of the Christian is just as much about the cultivation of good thoughts as coping with bad thoughts, it’s time to turn to a reflection upon those good and luminous thoughts that the ancient fathers commend so vigorously. In chapter 9 entitled, “The Garden of the Heart”, I review certain principles necessary for the cultivation of good thoughts.  In this post, I’ll offer some reflection on one of them, namely, the careful and prayerful reading of Sacred Scripture and spiritual … [Read more...]

Self-Pity and Self-Satisfaction Opposite Sides of the Same Self-centered Coin

In a recent blog post entitled “Get Tough With Yourself”, the author relates the unavoidable pitfalls for people who give in to self-pity.  I’ve broached this subject before in a previous post (Patristic Cognitive Tools for Coping With Bad Thoughts) in which I related the AA slogan “poor me, poor me, pour me another”.  Self-pity is one of the first signs of giving up, throwing in the towel, and beginning the downward spiral of comfort-seeking rather than virtuous striving. Here’s an excerpt from the “Get Tough With Yourself” blog post, “Anytime a man is in a downed place—i.e. he’s annoyed, … [Read more...]

Being Impulsive: A Problem for Moderns and Ancients

A number of psychological disorders that cause people a good deal of distress, such as addictions of all stripes, have to deal with the problem of acting imprudently on impulse. One contemporary definition of impulsivity is "... a predisposition toward rapid, unplanned reactions to internal or external stimuli without regard to the negative consequences of these reactions to oneself or others" (Moeller FG, ES Barratt, DM Dougherty, JM Schmitz and AC Swann (2001) Psychiatry aspects of impulsivity. Am. J. Psychiatry 158, 1783-1793). The ancient fathers of the Church had their own theory of … [Read more...]

Exposing Bad Thoughts and Spiritual Healing

In one of my previous posts, I discussed how the Fathers counseled their spiritual children to cope with bad thoughts.  In that post, I categorized the various coping methodologies in the context of purification, illumination, and deification.  In this post, I shall briefly review the salutary effects of exposing bad thoughts to another person as well as in the sacramental context of confession where such thoughts are exposed and confessed to Christ through the mediation of the priest who serves as a witness. Let us turn once again to the practices and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.  In … [Read more...]

The Passions, Remembrance of God, and the Jesus Prayer

In the daily struggles of life, most of us assume that the passions such as anger, envy, jealousy, or lust are engendered by the circumstances in which we live.  One who perceives a negative situation, either from a demanding boss, a critical spouse, or a difficult child and yields to the passions may think “Well, if my boss hadn’t made that comment I wouldn’t be angry” or “If my husband would just do what I ask him. . .I wouldn’t have given in to anger or judgment.”  Once we begin to think this way, we start to give in to sinful behavior ourselves.  We justify such behavior by concluding that … [Read more...]

Patristic Cognitive Tools for Coping With Bad Thoughts

Anyone who is familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous knows that this most successful of self-help groups has many slogans by which the recovering alcoholic is helped in the struggle to overcome the desire to drink or self-medicate.  “Poor me, poor me, pour me another” is just one of the myriad slogans AA folk use in dealing with their addiction.  If we look closely at the slogan, we find two simple yet profound truths therein.  First, self-pity, the very opposite of Christian self-responsibility and repentance, often leads to engaging in destructive, addictive behavior, which the Fathers would … [Read more...]

Pain of Heart

In Chapter 2 of my book I discuss the problem of pain in terms of cognitive therapy and the ascetic tradition.  While there may be some outward similarities, there are also some really important differences.  Here’s an excerpt to clarify both: “In terms of a diagnosis of the human condition, cognitive therapy locates the sources of human psychological dysfunction in (1) egocentric biases leading to inappropriate anger, envy, cravings, etc., and false beliefs, (2)underlying self-defeating beliefs that reinforce biases, and (3) attaching negative meaning to events.  These dysfunctional … [Read more...]

The Role of the Mind and the Body in Behavioral Modification

The Fathers rightly understood that man is a composite of mind and body and that both must be addressed in order to correct the thoughts and actions.  Long before cognitive psychology appeared on the scene to correct one-side behavioralism, patristic tradition had a unified understanding of human mental functioning in terms of theoria and praxis.  For the Fathers, theoria and praxis refer to the inward and outward aspects of life in Christ respectively.  Theoria concerns the correct ordering and control of thoughts while praxis refers to properly ordered outward acts.  Nepsis (or watchfulness) … [Read more...]

More on Thoughts. . .

One might wonder why I’m spending quite some time on the nature of thoughts.  Well, they are at the root of every human act-whether it be virtuous or full of vice.  The act starts in the thoughts.  It’s also in the realm of the thoughts that the spiritual warfare is fought.  In chapter 8 of my book, entitled, “To Survey the Thoughts”, I note that “monastic tradition enjoins beginners in the Christian life to turn to prayer whenever they are confronted with enticing, ambiguous, or deceitful thoughts.  For example, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite advises those who are unable to resist or repel … [Read more...]