From The Blog

Mission Monthly – October 2009

Fight always with your thoughts and call them back when they wander away. God does not demand of those under obedience that their thoughts be totally undistracted when they pray. And do not lose heart when your thoughts are stolen away. Just remain calm, and constantly call your mind back.”

St. John Climacus

I am always encouraged when I hear something like, “Father, I get so distracted when I'm in church or when I pray at home: my family, my job, disturbing thoughts—t's always something! At times my mind wanders so far from prayer that I wonder if I've even said what I think I just said. I am frustrated and I feel like such a fake!” I am encouraged because these conditions show that people are trying. There can be no mistake: trying is central to the synergia of our salvation! All the great ascetical fathers and mothers of Orthodoxy have known the frustration of distraction: St. Anthony the Great, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great. It's in their example, it's in their writings and, like St. John Climacus above, we are encouraged by their compassionate direction. Let us consider a few of these good words:

1) When they pray. St. John does not say IF they pray but WHEN they pray. Here is maybe the most important point of prayer: that we all are called to the obedience of prayer and it is towards this end that we are called to struggle. Other than our consistency in trying, what happens to us during prayer really is not up to us. God allows us to be attacked spiritually, we have the freedom of our own choices which when exercised wisely can foster our ability to concentrate during prayer, and we have the ability to quiet ourselves before approaching our prayer corners and our liturgia so that, prepared, we are less vulnerable to attack from the disquieting movements of life's rushing here and there.

2) Fight. St. Paul tells Timothy in his first letter, “Fight the good fight of faith” (v. 6:12) and he continues, “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many people.” Hopefully in this life we are learning what it means to love and learning to love that which is most important. And what or who is most important? God, of course! Scripture teaches us, “We love because God loved us first” (1 John 4:19), and since it is God Who has given us the ability to love it is God only Who is deserving of our first love. What are we to do but fight when anything threatens that which we love?

3) Stolen. St. Herman of Alaska in a letter to one Simeon Ivanovich is quoted as saying perhaps one of the most encouraging statements I have ever heard. “A true Christian is made by faith and love toward Christ. Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity, according to the word of the Savior Himself. Sin, to one who loves God, is nothing other than an arrow from the enemy in battle.” He then continues as above, “The true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland.” Sometimes we forget that we are fighting an unseen enemy, an enemy that has this intent in mind, to discredit and destroy that which God has created. Either through the experience of our own personal struggles or in seeing man struggle in all that is wrong with the world we should all be aware of the need to arouse an active remembering that man lives in an arena of spiritual warfare. In other words, we should not be surprised when our thoughts are “stolen” and understanding the purpose and tactic of our enemy helps us not to be discouraged when a battle has been lost.

4) Remain calm. This may be one of the most difficult hurdles facing us who live in an age of efficiency and achievement. A recent radio commercial for a home builder refers to the company's “get 'er done mentality.” This certainly is not a useful mentality in the arena of spiritual warfare. Success (or failure) that is self-perceived is a great enemy in this arena. This type of self-examination often leads to restlessness and/or distress. I would never contend, however, that we shouldn't establish expectations in our efforts to overcome sin. What each of us who have taken on the good fight of this arena must develop is the mature knowledge that without humility and a realistic approach we will assuredly be led only to further unwelcome disturbances of pride, anxiety, fear, and doubt. Here we are instructed to remain calm (which is obviously easier said than done). Maybe it would be better said that we have the permission to remain calm, which may help lighten the load of anxious expectations and help us to be patient within the time needed for real change (metonia) and healing. St. Herman continues in his letter to Ivanovich, “We ought to cloth ourselves in new desires, in a new love of the age to come But it is not possible to do this quickly.”

Beloved, be encouraged with these compassionate words and simply and consistently keep calling your mind back to faith, prayer and contemplation. Eventually, by the grace of God, our obedience to this discipline will bear the fruit of greater attentiveness, love, and freedom from those things which cause distraction and inner provocation. As your father in Christ I am always encouraged when I hear about “the trying.” May you be encouraged too.