Orthodox Psychotherapy part 3
by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
In developing the subject of Orthodox psychotherapy, in this chapter we must see what the soul is and how it is healed, secondly, what is the nature of the interrelationships of image, soul, nous, heart and mind, and thirdly, how nous, heart and mind (thoughts) are healed. I believe that these are the most important and essential topics for a knowledge of the inner purification and therapy of the soul, as well as for their attainment.
1. The Soul (‘Psyche’)
What the soul is |
“The word ‘soul’ is one of the most difficult words in the Bible and in Christian literature” (1). ‘Soul’ has many meanings in Holy Scripture and in patristic literature. Professor Christos Yannaras says: “The Septuagint translators of the Old Testament carried over into Greek with the word ‘psyche’ (‘soul’) the Hebrew ’nephesh’, a term with many meanings. Anything which has life is called a soul, every animal, but more commonly within the Scripture it pertains to man. It signifies the way in which life is manifested in man. It does not refer just to one department of human existence - the spiritual in opposition to the material - but signifies the whole man, as a single living hypostasis. The soul does not merely dwell in the body, but is expressed by the body, which itself, like the flesh or heart, corresponds to our ego, to the way in which we realise life. A man is a soul, he is a human being, he is someone…” (2). The soul is not the cause of life. It is, rather, the bearer of life (3).
Soul is the life which exists in every creature, as in plants and animals. Soul is the life that exists in man, and it is also every man who has life. Soul is also the life which is expressed within the spiritual element in our existence, it is that spiritual element in our existence. Since the term ‘soul’ has many meanings, there are many places where things have not been clarified.
In what follows we shall try to look at some uses of the term ‘psyche’ in texts from the New Testament and the texts from the Fathers of the Church.
The term is used by the Lord and the Apostles to mean life. The angel of the Lord said to Joseph, who was betrothed to the Mother of God: “Arise, take the young child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young child’s life are dead” (Matt.2,20). The Lord, describing Himself, said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (Jn.10,11). Likewise the Apostle Paul, writing about Priscilla and Aquila, says they “risked their own necks for my life” (Rom.16,4). In these three cases the term used for ’life’ is ‘psyche’.
‘Psyche’ is used further, as we said, to indicate the spiritual element in our existence. We shall cite a few scriptural passages to confirm this. The Lord said to his disciples: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt.10,28). Men cannot murder the soul, whereas the devil can, which means that if the soul is without the Holy Spirit, it is dead. The devil is a dead spirit, for he has no part in God and he transmits death to those who join with him. He is a living entity, but he does not exist in relation to God. In the parable of the rich young man the Lord says to him: “You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided” (Luk.12,20)?
The difference between soul (psyche) on the one hand, as the spiritual element in human existence, which is mortal by nature but immortal by grace, and life (psyche) on the other hand appears also in another of Christ’s teachings: “Whoever cares for his own safety (psyche) is lost; but if a man will let himself (psyche) be lost for my sake, he will find his true self (psyche)” (Matt.16,25,NEB). In one case the Lord uses the term ‘psyche’ to mean the spiritual element in our existence and in the other case it means life. In a letter to the Thessalonians the Apostle Paul prays: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Thess.5,23). Here it is not a question of the so-called tripartite composition of man, but the term ‘spirit’ is used to mean the grace of God, the charisma, which the soul receives. What we wish to point out here is that there is a distinction between soul and body. John the Evangelist writes in his Revelation: “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Rev.6,9). The body was slain, but the soul is close to God and is certainly in converse with God, as the Evangelist says in what follows.
The word ‘soul’ is also used to refer to the whole man. The Apostle Paul recommends: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom.13,1).
I believe that this little analysis demonstrates that the term ‘psyche’ has many meanings in Scripture. The term is used to mean the whole man and the spiritual element in his existence, as well as the life which exists in man, plants and animals, in all things that participate in the life-giving energy of God. St. Gregory Palamas, speaking of the uncreated light which comes to be in the God-bearing soul “through the indwelling God”, says that this is God’s energy and not His essence, and as the essence is called light, so also the energy is called light. The same is true of the soul. The spiritual life and the biological life are both called ‘soul’, but we are well aware that the spiritual and the biological are different: “Just as the soul communicates life to the animated body - and we call this life ‘soul’, while realising that the soul which is in us and which communicates life to the body is distinct from that life - so God, Who dwells in the God-bearing soul, communicates the light to it” (4).
We have cited this passage in order to show that the Fathers are well aware that the term ‘soul’ refers both to the spiritual element in our existence and to life itself, and that there is a great difference between the two meanings. We shall see this better later on, when we examine the difference between the souls of animals and of men.
To attempt a definition of ‘soul’ in the sense of the spiritual element in our existence we turn to St. John of Damascus, who says: “Now a soul is a living substance, simple and incorporeal, of its own nature invisible to bodily eyes, using the body as an organ and giving it life endowed with will and he body, so is the mind to the soul. It is free, endowed with will and the power to act, and subject to change, that is, subject to change of will because it is also created. “And this it has received according to nature, through that grace of the Creator by which it has also received both its existence and its being naturally as it is” (5).
The soul is simple and good “because created thus by its Master” (6).
Almost the same definition as that of John of Damascus had in fact been given before him by St. Gregory of Nyssa: “The soul is an essence created, living, and noetic, transmitting from itself to an organised and sentient body the power of living and of grasping objects of sense, as long as a natural constitution capable of this holds together” (7).
St. Gregory Palamas, interpreting the Apostle Paul’s: “The first man Adam became a living soul” (1Cor.15,45), says that ’living soul’ means “ever-living, immortal, which is to say intelligent, for the immortal is intelligent; and not only that, but also divinely blessed with grace. Such is the living soul” (8).
He says that the soul is immortal. We are well aware that this idea of the immortality of the soul is not of Christian origin, but the Christians accepted it with several conditions and several necessary presuppositions. Prof. John Zizioulas writes: “The idea of the immortality of the soul, even though it is not of Christian origin, passed into the tradition of our Church, permeating even this hymnography of ours. No one can deny it without finding himself outside the climate of the very worship of the Church…The Church did not accept this Platonic idea without conditions and presuppositions. These presuppositions include, among other things, three basic points. One is that souls are not eternal but created. Another is that the soul should by no means be identified with man. (Man’s soul is not man. The soul is one thing and man, who is a psychosomatic being, is another.) And the third and most important is that the immortality of man is not based on the immortality of the soul, but on the Resurrection of Christ and on the coming resurrection of bodies” (9).
We have emphasised that man’s soul is immortal by grace and not by nature, and yet it must be stressed that in the Orthodox patristic tradition man’s immortality is not the soul’s life after death, but a passing over death by the grace of Christ. Life in Christ is what makes man immortal, for without life in Christ there is dying, since it is the grace of God that gives life to the soul.
Having presented several elements that make up the definition of the soul, we must proceed a little further to the topic of the creation of the soul. The soul is created, since it was made by God. Our basic source is the revelation which was given to Moses: “The Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Gen.2,7). This passage describes the creation of man’s soul. In his interpretation of it, St. John Chrysostom says that it is essential to look at what is said with the eyes of faith and that these things are said “with much condescension and because of our weakness”. The phrase “God made man and breathed into him” is “unworthy of God, but Holy Scripture explains it in this way for our sake because of our weakness, condescending to us so that, being made worthy of this condescension, we may have strength to rise to that height” (10). The way in which God formed man’s body and made him a living soul as described in Holy Scripture is condescending. It is described thus because of our own weakness.
St. John of Damascus writes that whatever is said about God in human terms is “said symbolically” but has a higher sense, since “the divine is simple and formless”. And since Scripture says that God breathed into man’s face, we may look at the interpretation by St. John of Damascus concerning the mouth of God: “By His mouth and speech let us understand the expression of His will, by analogy with our own expression of our innermost thoughts by mouth and speech” (11). Certainly mouth and breath are two different things, but I mention this as indicative, since there is a relationship and a connection. Generally, as St. John of Damascus says, everything that has been affirmed of God in bodily terms, apart from what was said about the presence of the Word of God in the flesh, “contains some hidden meaning which teaches us things that exceed our nature” (12).
Therefore the soul, like the body, is created by God (13).
St. John Chrysostom interprets this breath of God by saying that it is “not only senseless but also out of place” to say that what was breathed into Adam was the soul and that the soul was transmitted to the body from the substance of God. If this were true, then the soul would not be wise in one place and foolish and senseless in another, or just in one place and unjust in another. The “substance of God is not divided or changed but is unchangeable.” So the divine breath was the “energy of the Holy Spirit”. As Christ said “Receive the Holy Spirit”, so also the divine breath “humanly heard is the venerated and holy Spirit”. According to the saint, the soul is not a piece of God, but the energy of the Holy Spirit, which created the soul without becoming soul itself. “This Spirit proceeded, it did not become soul, but created a soul; it did not change into a soul, but it created a soul; for the Holy Spirit is a creator, it has a share in the creation of the body and in the creation of the soul. For Father and Son and Holy Spirit by divine power create the creature” (14).
Another important point emphasised by the holy Fathers is that we have no existence of the body without a soul nor existence of a soul without the body. The moment God creates the body He creates the soul too. St. Anastasios of Sinai writes: “Neither does the body exist before the soul nor the soul exist before the body” (15). St. John of Damascus emphasises in opposition to Origen’s view: “Body and soul were formed at the same time, not one before and the other afterwards” (16). St. John of the Ladder says this as well (17).
Man is made in the image of God. This image certainly does not refer to the body, but mainly and primarily to the soul. The image in man is stronger than that in the angels, for as we shall see, man’s soul gives life to the attached body. In general we can say that the soul is in the image of God. And as God is threefold -Nous, Word and Spirit - so also man’s soul has three powers: nous, soul and spirit (18). In all nature there are “iconic examples” of the Holy Trinity (19), but this appears mainly in man. The image in man is stronger than the image in the angels. St. Gregory Palamas, speaking of the baptism of Christ in the Jordan River and explaining why “the mystery of the created and recreated (man) reveals the mystery of the Holy Trinity”, writes that this came about not only because man alone is an initiate and earthly worshipper of the Holy Trinity, but also because “he alone is in its image”. The sentient and irrational animals have only a vital spirit and this cannot exist of itself; they have no nous and word. The angels and archangels have nous and word, since they are noetic and intelligent, but they have no life-giving spirit, since they have no body which receives life from the spirit. So since man has nous, word and life-giving spirit that gives life to the body joined to it, “he alone is in the image of the three-personal nature” (20).
St. Gregory Palamas develops the same teaching in his natural and theological chapters. As the Trinitarian God is Nous, Word and Spirit, so is man. Man’s spirit, the life-giving power in his body, is “man’s noetic love”, “it is from the nous and the word, and it exists in the word and the nous and possesses both the word and the nous within itself” (21). While the noetic and rational nature of the angels has nous, word and spirit, yet “it does not have this spirit as life-giving” (22). As we have indicated, the image refers primarily to the soul, but since the body is given life by the spirit, therefore the image in man is stronger than that in the angels.
St. Gregory also sees the difference between the image of man and the image of the angels from another point of view. His teaching is well known that in God there is essence and energy, and these are connected separately and separated connectedly. This is the mystery of the indivisible joining of essence and energy. The essence of God is not shared by man, while the energies are shared. And since man is in the image of God, this teaching about essence and energy applies to the soul as well. So the soul is inseparably divided into essence and energy.
In comparing the soul of man with that of animals, St. Gregory says that animals possess a soul not as essence, but as an energy. “The soul of each of the irrational animals is the life for the body it animates, and so animals possess life not essentially but as an energy, since this life is dependent on something else and is not self-subsistent.” Therefore since the soul of animals has only energy, it dies with the body. By contrast, the soul of man has not only energy but also essence: “The soul possesses life not only as an activity but also essentially, since it lives in its own right…For that reason, when the body passes away, the soul does not perish with it.” It remains immortal. The intelligent and noetic soul is composite, but “since its activity is directed towards something else it does not naturally produce synthesis” (23).
In his teaching St. Maximus the Confessor states that the soul has three powers: a) that of nourishment and growth, b) that of imagination and instinct, and c) that of intelligence and intellection. Plants share only in the first of these powers. Animals share in that of imagination and instinct as well, while men share all three powers (24). This shows the great value of man relative to irrational animals. Likewise what was said previously shows clearly also how angels differ from men. Therefore when Christ became man he received a human body and not the form of an angel, he became God-man, and not God-angel.
What has been said makes it possible for us to see the dividedness of the soul. We do not intend to enlarge on this topic but we shall present those things which have an essential bearing on the general topic of this study.
St. John of Damascus says that the soul is intelligent and noetic. God gave man “an intelligent and noetic soul for proper breathing” (25). It is a basic teaching of the Fathers that nous and intelligence are two parallel energies of the soul. St. Gregory Palamas, referring to the fact that the soul is in the image of the Holy Trinity, and writing that the Holy Trinity is Nous, Word and Spirit, says that the soul, created by God in His image “is endowed with nous, word and spirit.” Therefore she must guard her order, relate entirely to God. She must look at God alone, adorn herself with constant memory and contemplation and with the warmest and ardent love for Him (26).
The soul is broken up by passions and sins. Therefore it must be unified, offered to God. Unification takes place in many ways, mainly by putting Christ’s word into practice. Theoleptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia, emphasises particularly the value of prayer. “Pure prayer, after uniting in itself nous, word and spirit, invokes the name of God in words, looks up at God Whom it is invoking, with a nous free from wandering, and shows contrition, humility and love. Thus it inclines towards itself the eternal Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit -One God” (27). With the word we constantly remember the name of Christ, with a nous free from wandering we gaze at God, and with the spirit we are possessed of contrition, humility and love.
In this way the three powers of the soul are united and offered to the Holy Trinity. This is how the healing of the soul takes place, and we shall deal with it at greater length elsewhere. The scattering of the powers of the soul is sickness and their unification is healing.
Nicetas Stethatos divides the soul into three parts but speaks mainly of two, the intelligent and passible parts. The intelligent part is invisible and unrelated to the senses, “as if existing both within and outside them”. I think that he is referring to the nous here. Later we shall distinguish between intelligence and nous, but now we must emphasise that the nous has a relationship with God, it receives the energies of God; God reveals Himself to the nous, while intelligence, as an energy, is that which formulates and expresses the experiences of the nous. The passible part of the soul is divided into the sensations and the passions. The passible part is so called because it is “subject to the passions” (28).
St. Gregory of Sinai, analysing the powers of the soul and describing precisely what takes hold in each power, says that evil thoughts work in the intelligent power; bestial passions in the excitable part; recollection of animal lusts in the appetitive part; fantasies in the noetic part; and notions in the reasoning part (29).
The same saint says that when by His life-giving breath God created the intelligent and noetic soul, “He did not make it have rage and animal lust; He endowed the soul only with the appetitive power and with the courage to be lovingly attracted” (30). With the creation of the soul “neither lust nor anger was included in its being” (31). These came as a result of sin.
Here we shall not develop further the subject of the divided soul because the relevant material is described in the fourth chapter, which deals with the passions. We had to include a little about the soul’s dividedness at this point because we are on the particular subject of the soul.
Yet there does exist a relationship and a connection between the soul and the body. But what is this relationship and to what extent does it exist? It is a topic which we shall look at here.
Man is made up of body and soul. Each element alone does not constitute a man. St. Justin, the philosopher and martyr, says that the soul by itself is not a man, but is called ‘a man’s soul’. In the same way the body is not called a man but is called ‘a man’s body’. “Though in himself man is neither of these, the combination of the two is called man; God called man into life and resurrection, and he did not call a part, but the whole, which is the soul and the body” (32).
The soul, as we have pointed out, was created with the body at conception. “The embryo is endowed with a soul at conception.” The soul is created at conception and “the soul at that time is just as active as the flesh. As the body grows so the soul increasingly manifests its energies” (33).
There is a clear distinction between soul and body, since “the soul is not body but bodiless” (34). Besides, it is altogether impossible for the body and soul to exist or be called body or soul unrelated to and independent of each other. “For the relationship is fixed” (35).
The ancient philosophers believed that the soul is at a specific place in the body, that the body is the prison of the soul and that the salvation of the soul is its release from the body. The Fathers teach that the soul is everywhere in the body. St. Gregory Palamas says that the angels and the soul, as incorporeal beings, “are not located in place, but neither are they everywhere”. The soul, as it sustains the body together with which it was created “is everywhere in the body, not as in a place, nor as if it were encompassed, but as sustaining, encompassing and giving life to it because it possesses this too in the image of God” (36).
The same saint, seeing that there are some people (the Hellenisers) who locate the soul in the brain as in an acropolis and that others place it at the very centre of the heart “and in that element therein which is purified of the breath of animal soul” as the most genuine vehicle (Judaisers), says that we know precisely that the intelligent part is in the heart, not as in a container, for it is incorporeal, nor is it outside the heart, since it is conjoined. The heart of man is the controlling organ, the throne of grace, according to Palamas. The nous and all the thoughts of the soul are to be found there. The saint affirms that we received this teaching from Christ Himself, Who is man’s Maker. He reminds us of Christ’s sayings: “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that defiles him, but what comes out of it” (Matt.15,11), and: “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts” (Matt.15,19). The saint adds further that St. Makarios said: “The heart directs the entire organism, and when grace gains possession of the heart, it reigns over all the thoughts and all the members, for it is there in the heart that the nous and the soul have their seat.” Therefore the basic aim of therapy, he says, is to bring back the nous, “which has been dissipated abroad by the senses from outside the heart”, which is “the seat of thoughts” and “the first intelligent organ of the body” (37).
We shall return to this subject, but what we mainly wish to underline is that according to the teaching of the Fathers, the soul uses the heart as its organ and directs the body. The soul is in union with the body; it is no stranger to it. Nemesius of Emesa teaches that “the soul is incorporeal, and not circumscribed to a particular portion of space, but spreading entire throughout: like a sun that spreads wherever its light reaches as well as throughout the body of the sun, not being just a part of the whole that it illuminates, as would be the case if it were not omnipresent in it.” Furthermore, “the soul is united to the body and yet remains distinct from it” (38).
The soul activates and directs the whole body and all the members of the body. It is a teaching of the Orthodox Church that God directs the world personally without created intermediaries, by His uncreated energy. Thus, just as God activates the whole of nature, in the same way “the soul too activates the members of the body and moves each member in conformance with the operation of that member” (39). Therefore just as it is God’s task to administer the world, so also it is “the soul’s task to guide the body” (40).
St. Gregory Palamas, who dwelt much upon the theme of the relationship between soul and body, says that what takes place through God takes place through the soul. The soul has within it in simple form “all the providential powers of the body”. And even if some members of the body are injured, if the eyes are removed and the ears deafened, the soul is no less possessed of the providential powers of the body. The soul is not the providential powers but it has providential powers. In spite of the presence in it of the providential powers, it is “single and simple and not composite”, not “compound or synthetic” (41).
It is very characteristic that in this passage St. Gregory links what takes place through the soul in relation to the body, with God’s relation to the whole of creation. God directs the world with His providential powers. God had the providential powers even before the world was created. Yet God, who not only possesses many powers but is all-powerful, is not deprived of His unicity and simplicity because of the powers that are in Him (42). This shows clearly that the soul is “in the image of God”. What takes place in God takes place analogously in the soul of man.
St. Gregory of Nyssa says that the soul is immaterial and bodiless “working and moving in a way corresponding to its peculiar nature, and evincing these peculiar emotions through the organs of the body” (43). The same saint epigrammatically teaches that the soul is not held by the body but holds the body. It is not within the body as in a vessel or bag, but rather the body is within the soul. The soul is throughout the body, “and there is no part illuminated by it in which it is not wholly present” (44).
The general conclusion with reference to the relationship between soul and body is that the soul is in the whole body, there is no sector of a man’s body in which the soul is not present, that the heart is the first intelligent seat of the soul, that the centre of the soul is there, not as in a vessel but as in an organ which guides the whole body and that the soul, while distinct from the body, is nevertheless most intimately linked with it.
All these things have been said because they are very closely connected with the subject of this study. For we cannot understand the fall and sickness of the soul if we do not know just what the soul is and how it is linked with the body.
Sickness and dying of the soul
In church we often speak of the fall of man and the death which came as a result of the fall. Spiritual death came first, and bodily death followed. The soul lost the uncreated grace of God, the nous ceased to have a relationship with God and was darkened. It transmitted this darkening and dying to the body. According to St. Gregory of Sinai, man’s body was created incorruptible and “such it will be resurrected”, and the soul was created dispassionate. Since there was a very tenacious link between soul and body because of their interpenetration and communication, both were corrupted. “The soul acquired the qualities of the passions, or rather of the demons, and the body became like irrational beasts due to the condition into which it fell and the prevalence of corruption.” Since the soul and body were corrupted, they formed “one animal being, unreasoning and senseless, subject to anger and lust”. This is how, according to the Scriptures, man became “joined to the beasts and like them” (45). Through the fall, man’s soul filled with passions, his body became like the beasts. Man wore the skin garments of decay and mortality and became like irrational animals.
This sickness, bondage, impurity and dying of the soul is admirably described in the patristic works. Every sin is a repetition of Adam’s sin, and with every sin we undergo the darkening and dying of the fallen soul. Let us take a closer look at these fallen states of the soul.
When man leaves his senses free and through the senses his nous pours out of his heart, then his soul is taken captive. “The unloosing of the senses lays fetters on the soul.” This bondage is equivalent to darkening. The setting of the sun creates night. And when Christ withdraws from the soul and the darkness of passions lays hold of it, then “the immaterial beasts tear it to pieces” (46). Man’s soul falls into impenetrable darkness and the demons work on him. He finds himself in a moonless night.
This also constitutes the soul’s disease. St. Thalassios says: “The soul’s disease is an evil disposition, while its death is sin put into action” (47). The ailing soul is led step by step to death.
Actually the soul’s disease is its impurity. “Impurity of soul lies in its not functioning in accordance with nature. It is because of this that impassioned thoughts are produced in the intellect” (48). According to St. Maximus, “A soul filled with thoughts of sensual desire and hatred is unpurified” (49).
Hesychios the Priest describes the way in which the soul sickens and is finally killed. God created the soul simple and good, but it delights in the provocations of the devil, and “once deceived, it pursues something sinister as though it were good”. In this way “its thoughts become entwined in the fantasy provoked by the devil”. Then “the soul assents to the provocation and, to its own condemnation, tries to turn this unlawful mental fantasy into a concrete action by means of the body” (50).
St. Gregory Palamas, citing passages from Scripture, such as the Apostle Paul’s words: “…even when we were dead in trespasses He made us alive together with Christ” (Eph.2,5), the words of John the Evangelist: “There is sin leading to death” (1Jn.5,16), and Christ’s words to his disciple: “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt.8,22), says that although the soul is immortal by grace, nevertheless when “dissipated, abandoned to pleasures and self-indulgent, it is dead even while it lives”. This is the way he interprets the Apostle Paul’s words: “She (the widow) who lives in pleasure is dead while she lives” (1Tim.5,6). Although the soul is alive, it is dead, since it has not the true life which is the grace of God (51). When our ancestors withdrew from the remembrance and theoria of God and disregarded His command and took the side of the deathly spirit of Satan, they were stripped of “the luminous and living raiment of the supernal radiance and they too, alas, became dead in spirit like Satan” (52). This is how it always goes. When someone joins with Satan and does his own will, his soul dies, because Satan is not only a deathly spirit but he also brings death upon those who draw near to him (53).
When the soul is not working according to nature it is dead. “…when it is not healthy, though it retains a semblance of life, it is dead…When, for instance, it has no care for virtue, but is rapacious and transgresses the law, whence can I tell you that you have a soul? Because you walk? But this belongs to the irrational creatures as well. Because you eat and drink? But this too belongs to wild beasts. Well then, because you stand upright on two feet? This convinces me rather that you are a beast in human form” (54).
In the teaching of the Apostle Paul the ‘dead’ man is called ‘carnal’ or ‘unspiritual’. In his letter to the Corinthians he writes: “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God” (1Cor.2,14). He also writes: “While there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not carnal, and behaving like mere men?” (1Cor.3,3) According to Prof. John Romanides the words used for ‘unspiritual’ (psychikos) and ‘carnal’ (sarkikos) and ‘behaving like mere men’ have the same meaning (55). In another place in his book he writes: “The carnal and unspiritual man is the whole man, soul and body, who lacks that energy of the Holy Spirit which renders one incorruptible” (56). “When a man does not follow the Spirit, he is deprived of God’s life-giving energy and is rendered unspiritual” (57).
Therapy of the soul
The whole tradition of the Orthodox Church consists in healing and bringing to life the soul which is dead from sin. All the sacraments and the whole ascetic life of the Church contribute to this healing. Anyone who is not aware of this fact is unable to sense the atmosphere of the Orthodox Tradition. We shall see in what follows what this health and vitalising of the soul is, and several ways of attaining it, and how a healthy and living soul functions.
Health of the soul consists in dispassion and spiritual knowledge (58). “The soul is perfect when permeated by the virtues” (59). A soul is perfect “if its passible aspect is totally oriented towards God” (60). A pure soul is “one that loves God” (61). A pure soul is “one freed from passions and constantly delighted by divine love” (62).
The holy Fathers also describe several ways in which the soul is revived, vitalised and healed. Godly sorrow, or repentance, puts an end to sensual pleasure, but “the destruction of sensual pleasure is the soul’s resurrection” (63). Anthony, the great servant of God, said that we must purify our minds. “For I believe that when the mind is completely pure and is in its natural state, it gains penetrating insight, and it sees more clearly and further than the demons, since the Lord reveals things to it” (64). That is to say, this holy servant of the soul enjoins us to purify our minds. It has been observed that if anyone keeps his nous pure from evil thoughts and various images, then he can keep his soul pure.
Theoleptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia, teaches: “When, having put an end to external distractions, you also master inner thoughts, then your nous is stirred to spiritual acts and words.” The effort to keep one’s mind pure and to free oneself from the many distractions results in the appearance within us of the nous, which had been dead and unseen. Therefore again Theoleptos advises: “Put an end to mixing with the outer world and fight with the inner thoughts until you find the place of pure prayer and the home where Christ dwells” (65). The heart, as we shall point out in another place, is the home where God dwells. We shall discover it only when we strive to live quietly and when we struggle against the thoughts which hold sway in us. Purity of the nous is very important. This method is simple but comprehensive and brings great benefit to man’s soul, since it makes it a temple of the Holy Spirit.
The soul is healed when it rejects relations with inferior things and cleaves in love to one who is superior (66).
St. Gregory Palamas, interpreting the whole tradition of the Orthodox Church, says that through transgression and sin we lost the likeness of God, but “we did not lose the image”. Precisely because we did not lose the image we can restore the soul. The soul, freed from relations with inferior things and cleaving in love to one who is superior and submitting to him through the works and ways of virtue, “receives from him illumination, adornment and betterment and it obeys his counsels and exhortations, from which it receives true and eternal life” (67). When the soul obeys God’s law, it gradually becomes healthy, is illuminated and receives eternal life.
Beside the practical method for healing the soul, Nicetas Stethatos also offers another method, through theoria. Where there is love for God, an active nous, and participation in the unapproachable light, “there is also peace in the powers of the soul, purification of the nous and indwelling of the Holy Trinity” (68). Therefore, beside the effort to keep our nous pure, it is necessary to accustom the nous to inner action and inner prayer, to acquire charity and love for God - because where this love dwells, peace comes to the powers of the soul - and purity of the nous.
In another section of this book we speak more analytically about how the soul is healed when it moves according to nature, and there we describe the natural movement of each part of the soul. Here, since we are speaking of the healing of the soul we shall just briefly emphasise a few facts.
St. Gregory Palamas writes that we struggle to drive the law of sin out of our body and to install in its place the oversight of the nous, in this way establishing a law appropriate for each power of the soul and for every member of the body. For the senses we ordain self-control. For the passible part of the soul, love. We improve the intelligence by rejecting everything which impedes the mind’s ascent towards God, and this we call nepsis. If a person has purified his body through self-control, has made his emotions and desires an occasion of virtue, and presented to God a mind purified by prayer, then he “acquires and sees in himself the grace promised to those whose hearts have been purified” (69).
St. Maximus, in the Orthodox tradition, exhorts: “Bridle your soul’s incensive power with love, quench its desire with self-control, give wings to its intelligence with prayer, and the light of your nous will never be darkened” (70).
It is not advice or medicines that heal the sick soul, that give life to the dead nous, that purify the impure heart, but the ascetic method of the Church, self-control, love, prayer and guarding of the nous from Satan’s provocations through evil thoughts. Therefore we believe that the Orthodox tradition is very important for our time, for it is the only thing that can free a man and heal him from the anxiety and insecurity brought on by the death of his soul.
2. Interrelations of soul, nous, heart and mind
In the texts of Holy Scripture and the holy Fathers there is confusion, but also distinction, among the terms soul, nous, heart, and mind (dianoia). Anyone delighting in the writings of the Fathers and the New Testament, first faces the problem of the confusion among these concepts and terms. These terms are interchanging. I was occupied with this topic for many years and tried to find a solution. In reading the bibliographies on the subject I found that the interpreters, with very few exceptions, were unable to determine the relations and distinction of these terms. Therefore in this section we shall attempt to distinguish them and to describe the framework within which each term moves.
We have so far explained that man’s soul is in the image of God, and since the soul gives life to the attached body, the image in man is stronger than the image in the angels. Since the soul is all through the body, both the whole man and the body itself can be regarded as in the image of God. The hymn by St. John of Damascus sung in the funeral service is characteristic. “I weep and I wail when I think upon death, and behold our beauty, fashioned after the image of God, lying in the tomb disfigured, dishonoured, bereft of form.” It is plain that in this hymn the image refers to the body which is in the tomb.
Nous and soul
In the texts of the New Testament and the Fathers the soul is identified with the nous. The terms ’nous’ and soul interchange. St. John of Damascus writes that the nous is the purest part of the soul, it is the eye of the soul: “The soul does not have the nous as something distinct from itself, but as its purest part, for as the eye is to the body, so is the nous to the soul”. Thus he is saying that the soul has the nous as its eye (71).
St. Gregory Palamas uses the term ’nous’ in two senses. It is the whole soul, the image, and it is also a power of the soul, as we explained in another section, because, as the Trinitarian God is Nous, Word and Spirit, so the soul too has nous, word and spirit. According to this Athonite saint, the nous is identified with the soul, but it is also a power of the soul. I shall cite a characteristic passage containing these concepts. After the creation of man, writes the saint, the angels saw with their eyes “the soul of man joined to sense and flesh, and they were seeing another god not only come into being on earth through divine goodness, intellect and flesh the same man, but transformed by this extravagance and by the grace of God so as to be the same flesh and nous and spirit, and so that the soul had the image and likeness of God, as completely unified in nous and word and spirit” (72).
The following things appear in this text. In the beginning it speaks of the soul which is joined with flesh and the senses. A little further on the terms ‘soul’ and ’nous’ are interchanged. Instead of ‘soul’ he uses ’nous’, “nous and flesh the same man”. In what follows he uses the division: flesh, nous and spirit, the spirit being the grace of the Holy Spirit, since God did not form man only of soul and body, “but also divinely favoured with grace. For such is the truly living soul” (73). After this he writes that the soul is in the image and likeness of God, “completely unified in nous and word and spirit.” So it seems clear in this text that the soul is in the image of God, that the nous is sometimes identified with soul and at other times regarded as a power of the soul, the eye of the soul, as St. John of Damascus says.
The identification of nous with soul is clear also in another passage of St. Gregory Palamas. He writes in one of his chapters: “For it is not the bodily constitution but the very nature of the nous which possesses this image and nothing in our nature is superior to the nous” (74).
Man’s soul, being in the image of God, is triadic. It is nous, word and spirit. Since in the general meaning the nous is identified with the soul, it means that the nous too has three powers. While the nous is one of the powers of the soul, at the same time it is also the whole soul. We shall cite one characteristic passage in St. Gregory. “When the oneness of the nous becomes threefold while yet remaining single, it is united with the Divine Threefold Oneness…The oneness of the nous becomes threefold while remaining single, when it returns to itself and rises through itself to God” (75). Thus the soul “is one, although it has many powers” (76), one of which is the nous, but in addition the soul as a whole with its three powers is also called the nous.
We have already seen that the Fathers refer the image of God to the soul. But at the same time it is also said that the image refers to the nous: “It is not the bodily constitution but the very nature of the nous which possesses this image” (77).
Inasmuch as God has essence and energy, so too the soul, which is in the image of God, has essence and energy. But since, as we have seen, the nous is also identified with the soul, the nous too has essence and energy.
St. Gregory Palamas, with all his wisdom and discrimination, analyses this fact. The heart is the essence of the soul, and the activity of the nous consisting of thoughts and conceptual images is the energy of the soul. Therefore the nous too has essence and energy. So the term ’nous’ is used sometimes to mean essence and sometimes to mean energy or action. The saint writes characteristically: “What is called nous is also the activity of the nous, consisting of thoughts and conceptual images. Nous is also the power which produces this and which in Scripture is called the heart” (78). Since St. Gregory’s contemporaries reproached him when he spoke of the return of the nous to the heart, he wrote: “It would seem that such people are unaware that the essence of the nous is one thing, its energy another” (79).
Nous and heart
The nous is also called the essence of the soul, that is to say the heart. In many passages of Holy Scripture and in the Fathers there is this identification of nous and heart, since these terms are used interchangeably. The Lord blesses the pure in heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt,5,8). God is revealed in the heart and it is there that man comes to know Him. The Apostle Paul writes that God’s illumination is there: God has caused His light to shine “in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2Cor.4,6). The same Apostle prays “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your hearts being enlightened that you may know…” (Eph.1,17-18). The heart receives the revelation of the knowledge of God. Elsewhere this heart is replaced by the nous. When the Lord was among his disciples after his resurrection, “He opened their understanding (’nous’) that they might comprehend the Scriptures” (Lk.24,45). Since man comes to know God through opening the eyes of his heart and purifying his heart, the phrase “He opened their understanding” is the same as “He opened their hearts”. Likewise “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” is, I believe, linked with the apostolic passage: “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind (nous)…” (Rom.12.2).
So in this sense the nous is also called heart and the two terms nous and heart interchange. St. Maximus the Confessor, interpreting Christ’s saying: “Give alms from what is inside, and you will find that everything is clean for you” (Luk.11,41), says: “This applies to those who no longer spend their time on things to do with the body, but strive to cleanse the nous (which the Lord calls ‘heart’) from hatred and dissipation. For these defile the nous and do not allow it to see Christ, who dwells in it by the grace of holy baptism” (80). So the nous is called the essence of the soul, that is, the heart. In this conception nous and heart are identical, since Christ dwells in the nous.
Nous and reason
However, the energy of the nous, “consisting of thoughts and conceptual images”, is also called nous. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians: “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my nous is unfruitful. What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the nous also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the nous also” (1Cor.14,14-15). In this passage the spirit is the gift of tongues, and the nous is reason. So here ’nous’ is identified with reason, intelligence. There are many passages in Holy Scripture with this meaning.
Beyond these things St. Maximus the Confessor, giving the name nous to the intelligence and the heart, which is the centre of our being, through which we acquire knowledge of God, presents the distinction and energy of each function. “A pure nous sees things correctly. A trained intelligence puts them in order” (81). The nous (heart) is that which sees things clearly and therefore should be purified, and the intelligence is that which formulates and expresses what has been seen. With this passage we come to the point of asserting that in order to be a Father of the Church it is necessary to have not only a clear nous but also expression, that is trained speech, in order to express these supranatural realities as far as is possible.
Nous and attention
Other Fathers use the term ’nous’ to define attention, which is more subtle than reason (82). Theoleptos of Philadelphia links nous with attention, word with invocation, spirit with compunction and love. When the powers of the soul function in this way, then “the whole of the inner man serves the Lord. But it sometimes happens that while the mind is offering the words of prayer, the nous (the more subtle attention) does not go with it, does not fix its gaze on God, with whom the words of the prayer are speaking, but it is distracted by different thoughts without realising it. So the mind says the words from habit, but the nous is taken away from knowledge of God. Therefore the soul too then seems not to be aware or organised, since the nous is scattered in various fantasies and is engaged in things which deceive it or in things which it desires” (83).
So the nous itself, which is not simply the thoughts, but the subtler attention, should return to the heart, to the essence of the soul, which is located, as in an organ, within the bodily organ of the heart, since this bodily organ is the seat of intelligence and “the first intelligent organ of the body”. Thus we should concentrate our nous, which is scattered abroad by the senses, and bring it back again “to the selfsame heart, the seat of thoughts” (84).
We have not exhausted the subject of the nous. In this section we simply wanted in some way to distinguish the terms nous, heart and soul and to point out their relations and differences. We shall return to these concepts when we speak at greater length about nous, heart and thoughts.
In this section we want briefly to emphasise that the term ’nous’ has many meanings in the biblico-patristic tradition. The nous is identified with the soul, but at the same time it is also an energy of the soul. Like the soul, the nous too is in the image of God. And just as the soul is divided into essence and energy, the same is true of the nous. And just as in God essence and energy are separated inseparably, so it is with the nous. That is why in some places the Fathers characterise nous as essence, that is the heart, in which case the nous is identified with the heart, and in other passages they characterise nous as energy, conceptual images and thoughts and the subtler attention which is poured out through the senses, when it should return to the heart. The Fathers mainly refer to the nous more generally as the heart and the soul, without excluding the other names which we mentioned before.
We have lost our tradition relating to it, and many of us identify the nous with intelligence. We do not at all suspect that aside from intelligence there is also another power which has greater value: the nous, the heart. The whole of civilisation is a civilisation of the loss of the heart. And a person cannot understand what he has not in his heart. The heart has died, the nous has been darkened, and we cannot perceive their presence. That is why this clarification has been necessary. A person who has the Holy Spirit within him, who is “in the revelation”, does not need many clarifications, because he himself knows from experience the presence and existence of the nous, the heart.
Intelligence (logiki) and Thoughts (logismoi) |
Intelligence and thoughts play a leading role in the sickness and cure of the soul. It is in them that one is provoked to evil, that simple thoughts become compound, and as a result a desire is conceived which leads one to commit sin. Therefore an Orthodox therapeutic method must look into the subject of thoughts and the meaning of intelligence. This is why we are now going to examine intelligence on the one hand and thoughts on the other, in order to see how the curing of our souls takes place.
We have already said that the soul of man, created by God, is intelligent and noetic. St. Thalassios writes that God created intelligent and noetic beings “with a capacity to receive the Spirit and to attain knowledge of Himself; He has brought into existence the senses and sense objects to serve such beings” (365). While the angels have intelligence and nous, men have reason, nous and senses, since man is a microcosm and a summing up of the whole creation. So it is through the nous and the intelligence that man knows God. The intelligent energy of the soul is linked with the noetic energy. There is no identity between the two, as we shall see in what follows.
When we spoke of the soul we saw that it was created in the image of God. And since God is Trinitarian: Nous, Word and Spirit, the same is true of the soul as well: it has nous, word and spirit. To say that the soul has nous, word and spirit is to make certain presuppositions. The first presupposition is that, according to the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, man’s representation of the trinitarian mystery is not meant in the sense that the Trinity should be understood anthropomorphically, but man is to be understood in a trinitarian way (366). That is to say, the Trinitarian God is not interpreted on the basis of man, but man is interpreted on the basis of the Trinitarian God. And this interpretation is not merely psychological and human, but revelatory. This means that it is only when a person is within the revelation, as all the saints lived, that he can grasp this fact. The second presupposition is that while man has nous, word and spirit in accordance with the trinitarian mode of being, man’s nous, word and spirit are not hypostases, as is the case with the Persons of the Holy Trinity, but energies of the soul. So “these three are ‘inseparable from one another’ but they do not have a personal character” (367).
The nous is the eye of the soul, which some Fathers call the heart. The word is spiritual knowledge “implanted in the nous as always co-existing with it” (368). As Christ the Word is He who reveals the will of the Nous, that is, of the Father, so also the word of man is that which reveals what the nous perceives and experiences. And just as it is impossible to conceive of a word without spirit, so also in man the word is linked with the spirit (369). And just as the Spirit, which is a particular hypostasis, is “an ineffable love of the Begetter towards the ineffably begotten Word himself” (370), so also the spirit in man is a certain impulse of the nous, “which involves an extension in time, in conjunction with our word, and requires the same intervals and proceeds from incompletion to completion” (371).
These things have been said in order to show the position and value of the word in man’s soul. The word is that which expresses the experience and life of the nous, and this takes place in the spirit.
In many Fathers, as in St. Maximus the Confessor, the word is also called the ’logistikon’, intelligence. The word in man is said inwardly but also expressed outwardly. Outward silence does not mean that there is not an inner word. But after a study of the works of the Fathers it can be asserted with some caution that the word is inward and outward and is united with the nous, while the intelligence which is connected with mind is the organ through which the word is expressed. Thus it can be stated that there is a subtle difference between the word and intelligence, just as there is between word and mind. St. Thalassios teaches that “the intelligence by nature submits to the Logos” (372). The intelligent man must submit to the Word. The mind, according to St. Gregory Palamas, is not the eye of the soul. The nous is the eye of the soul, while the mind deals with the sensory and the intellectual. He writes: “When someone speaks of the ’eyes of the soul’, which have experience of the heavenly riches, do not confuse them with ‘mind’. The latter exercises its faculties on sensory and intellectual things” (373). That is to say, it is not the mind but the nous which knows the heavenly treasures. The mind simply makes thinkable the things which man’s nous lives experientially. God is revealed to the nous, but the mind records this experience in intelligent sentences.
It is usually said that man is an intelligent (’logiko’) being, in the sense that he has intelligence and thinks. But in patristic theology an intelligent person is not one who simply has intelligence or speech, but one who, by means of the word and intelligence seeks to find God and to unite with Him (374). A person who purifies his nous, where God is revealed, and afterwards, through the word and mind, expresses this inner experience, is intelligent. Apart from this setting man is without word and does not differ from the dumb animal. To be sure, he has intelligence and the word, but because he is not connected with God, he is dead. The dead soul manifests the dying of the word as well.
This is how the word functioned in man before the fall: the nous perceived God and the word expressed the experiences of the nous. “A pure nous sees things correctly. A trained intelligence puts them in order” (375). According to the theology of St. Thalassios, which we mentioned before, the intelligence by nature submits to the word and disciplines and subjugates the body, while it is an insult to the intelligence to be subject to what lacks intelligence, that is, the body, and “concern itself with shameful desires”. It is also an act of depravity for the soul to abandon the Creator and worship the body (376). Thus man’s nous before the fall had a relationship with God, and the word expressed this experience and life with the help of the mind, that particular instrument of the body.
But after the fall came the dying and death of the soul. As a result, it became impossible for the whole inner world of the soul to function naturally and for all the harmonised inner functions to go on. Man’s nous was confused, hidden by the passions and overcome by impenetrable darkness. The word, not having to express the experiences of the nous, was identified with the mind. Thus the intelligence was raised above the nous and now holds sway in fallen man. In fact this is the sickness of the word and of the intelligence. The intelligence is overnourished, it has been raised to a greater position than the nous and has captured the word. The overnourished intelligence is the source of great abnormality in the spiritual organism. Arrogance, with all the energies of egoism, which is the source of the abnormality, is raging there.
What Archimandrite Sophrony writes about the movements of the intelligence in fallen man and about the abnormality which this creates in the whole spiritual organism is characteristic. I quote it in its entirety because it is very expressive. “The spiritual struggle is a manifold struggle but the struggle with pride strikes deepest and is the most grievous. Pride is the supreme antagonist of divine law, deforming the divine order of being and bringing ruin and death in its train. Pride manifests itself partly on the physical plane but more essentially on the plane of thought and spirit. It arrogates priority for itself, battling for complete mastery, and its principal weapon is the reasoning mind.
“Intelligence, for example, will reject the commandment ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ (Matt.7,1) as nonsensical, urging that the faculty of being able to judge is a distinctive quality in man, which makes him superior to the whole world and affords him the power to dominate.
“In order to assert its superiority the intelligence points to its achievements, to its creativeness, producing many convincing proofs purporting to show that in the age-old experience of history the establishment or affirmation of truth falls entirely within its province.
“Intelligence, functioning impersonally, is by nature only one of the manifestations of life in the human personality, one of the energies of the personality. Where it is allotted priority in the spiritual being of man, it begins to fight against its source - that is, its personal origin.
“Rising, as he thinks, to the furthest heights; descending, as he believes, to the lowest depths, man aspires to contact the frontiers of being, in order, as is his way, to define it, and when he cannot achieve his purpose he succumbs and decides that ‘God does not exist’.
“Then, continuing the struggle for predominance, boldly and at the same time miserably, he says to himself:
“‘If there is a God, how can I accept that I am not that God?’”
“Not having reached the frontiers of being and having attributed to himself this infinity, he stands up arrogantly and declares, ‘I have explored everything and nowhere found anything greater than myself, so - I am God.’
“And it is a fact that when man’s spiritual being is concentrated on and in the mind, reason takes over and he becomes blind to anything that surpasses him and ends by seeing himself as the divine principle.
“The intellectual imagination here reaches its utmost limits and, at the same time, its fall into the darkest night” (377).
No wise people without God can have pure word and pure intelligence. St. Gregory of Sinai says: “Only the saints, through purity, have become intelligent in accordance with nature. None of those wise in words have had pure intelligence, because they corrupted it from the start with evil thoughts” (378).
In order to see the corruption of intelligence in fallen man and what it does to our whole spiritual organism, we shall examine three levels on which fallen intelligence enters.
First, in our relationships with God. Whereas it was the nous that attained experience of God, now fallen intelligence undertakes to do this. Thus intelligence attempts to create arguments to demonstrate the existence of God, and this naturally is absolutely impossible to achieve. For the only argument for the existence of God is the pure nous’s experience. Therefore in its attempt to advance alone on the path of the knowledge of God, fallen intelligence fails because it either does not meet God at all or creates a false image of God. Thus from time to time various philosophical theories about God and various religions have been created. The heresies which have shaken the Church of Christ were due to this arrogant conceit of intelligence. Therefore it is emphasised by the Fathers that the saints do not theologise in the Aristotelian way, that is through intelligence and philosophy, but in the manner of a fisherman, that is, through experience (like the Apostles, through the Holy Spirit), after inner purification and disclosure of the nous.
On this point the dialogue which took place between St. Gregory Palamas and Barlaam the philosopher is characteristic. Barlaam asserted that man’s intelligence alone is worthy of receiving knowledge of God. This is the noblest element in man’s being. Then he claimed that what the prophets saw in the Old Testament and the apostles saw on Mt.Tabor was symbol, and therefore the philosophers had more authentic knowledge of God than the prophets and apostles. So he called vision of the uncreated light “inferior to our intellection”. In reply St. Gregory taught that the saints’ theoria is not from without, but from within, through inner transformation and purification. Therefore the light is not simply an external and material symbol, but a natural symbol, that is, energy of uncreated grace. The uncreated light is not a phantom and symbol which comes and goes, and so it is not “inferior to the energy of intellection”, but it is “ineffable, uncreated, eternal, timeless, unapproachable, dazzling, infinite, unbounded, invisible to angels and men, archetypal beauty, immutable, glory of God, glory of Christ, glory of the Spirit, ray of divinity…” (379). In reply to Barlaam’s view that the uncreated light is “inferior to our intellection” he writes: “Oh earth and heaven and all those who see in them the light of the Kingdom of God, the beauty of the age to come, the glory of the divine nature - are they all lower than intellection?” (380) The uncreated light is the glory of the divine nature, the beauty of the age to come.
Barlaam’s mentality of raising philosophy higher than the vision of God, a thing which compelled St. Gregory Palamas to call him a philosopher rather than one who sees God, is the attitude of all heretics who have wanted to replace revelation by philosophy, and vision of God by knowledge coming from overuse of intelligent thought. Actually when human intelligence has dominion in a man, it leads him to a variety of heretical theories. Here the difference between philosophers and theologians is evident. The former philosophise about God. The latter, after purifying their nous, behold God. The former have a darkened nous and interpret everything one-sidedly through intelligence, while the Holy Fathers, the real theologians, acquire experience of God through their nous; and then intelligence serves their nous by expressing this inner experience in propositions.
The way of knowing God in patristic theology is different from that of the philosophers. True knowledge of God is founded on humility: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt.5,3). On purity of heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt.5,8). On keeping the commandments of Christ: “Anyone who transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son” (2Jn.9). On love: “If one loves God, one is known by Him” (1Cor.8,3). It is not through human wisdom, through mental wealth and intelligence, that one can know God. The wisdom of God was unknown to “the rulers of the age, for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1Cor.2,8). In fact “the unspiritual man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God” (1Cor.2,14).
Secondly, fallen intelligence affects our relation to ourselves, that is, our knowledge of ourselves. Many people influenced by Pythagorean self-knowledge try to find themselves and acquire knowledge of themselves through intelligence. But according to St. Gregory Palamas, this is a heresy of the Pythagorean and Stoic philosophers. The attempt to investigate oneself by intelligence can quickly end in schizophrenia. For one will attribute one’s inner problems to other causes and so will fall into melancholy and anguish. The method of Orthodox therapeutic treatment and Orthodox self-knowledge consists in making the nous humble and guileless not by syllogistic, analytical and divisive methods, but by painful repentance and assiduous asceticism, as St. Gregory Palamas says and we have explained before (381). Thus we acquire knowledge of our inner world not through intelligence, but through watchfulness, purification of the nous, ascetic living and repentance. In attempting to keep his nous pure a man becomes aware of his inner problems, he discovers the passions that hold sway in him.
Thirdly, disturbance of intelligence appears in the way in which we approach our fellow men. Usually psychiatrists observe the thinking of their patients and work their way into it in order to be able to identify their illness. Thus much intelligence is used which may lead to erroneous inferences. When this extends into interpersonal relationships it leads to their destruction, to the development of the passions of judgement and condemnation, which are not pleasing to God. Our own behaviour towards our fellow men is not characterised by intelligence but by love. We avoid judging others and classifying them in various categories. We try especially to do the reverse of what human intelligence dictates to us. We try not to see the sin and bad actions of our brother but to have love and compassion towards him. According to St. Makarios of Egypt, Christians should strive “not to pass judgement of any kind on anyone, neither on a prostitute nor on sinners nor on disorderly persons. But they should look upon all persons with a single mind and a pure eye…”. We should behave in such a way that also if someone is suffering from a bodily ailment, we cannot look at it and pass judgement on it (382).
As spiritual fathers we face people personally. That is, we divest ourselves of every image, characterisation and idea and pray that God may reveal to us the person’s real problem and guide us to give him the right therapeutic treatment. Each one interests us personally. In this way we avoid judging the one who’s soul is ill, we avoid placing people in categories, we try to offer true personal therapeutic treatment. This means that we stand personally before the one who is making his confession.
From what has been said it is plain that fallen man is possessed by the power and authority of the intelligence in his relations with both God and his neighbour. The ‘rule of reason’, which is the basis of the whole of Western civilisation is the foundation of every internal and external anomaly. We who live in the Orthodox Church are trying to restore things. Our objective is twofold. We are striving on the one hand to limit the authority of intelligence, and on the other hand to discover our nous. We can see, from the fact that in fallen man the nous is in deep darkness and intelligence constitutes the only source of existence, that in order to arrive at the condition before the fall and to be guided to a life according to nature, the terms must be reversed, that is, nous and intelligence must each be put in its natural place, as we have described. In other words, the intelligence must be restricted, the nous must be developed, the word must be brought to birth by the illuminated nous, and then intelligence must formulate the nous’s knowledge in words and sentences.
Obedience to the will of God has a significant role to play in restricting intelligence. We strive not to place trust in our own judgement and our own opinion, which comes from intelligence. Abba Dorotheos says: “In all things that come upon me I never desire to run around in quest of human wisdom, but I always act with the small power I have on whatever it is, and at the same time leave the whole to God” (383). Indeed the same saint has a whole chapter entitled: “That a man ought not to rely exclusively on his own judgement” (384). When the devil finds in someone one bit of self-will or self-righteousness, “he will cast him down through that” (385). Similarly we are told to obey the will of God uncritically as it is expressed in Scripture and in the works of the Fathers of the Church. Our intelligence will certainly rebel and protest, but it is necessary to subject it to the will of God. And since it is possible not to know God’s will in so many details of our daily life, we are required to obey a spiritual father who will guide us on our spiritual journey. According to Abba Dorotheos, “No one is more wretched, no one is more easily caught unawares, than a man who has no one to guide him along the road to God” (386). Thus disobedience is death, while obedience is life. St. John of the Ladder writes: “Obedience is absolute renunciation of our own life, clearly expressed in our bodily actions. Or, conversely, obedience is the mortification of the limbs while the mind remains alive. Obedience is unquestioning movement, death freely accepted, a simple life, danger faced without worry… a safe voyage, a sleeper’s journey. Obedience is the burial place of the will and the resurrection of humility…to obey is to put aside the capacity to make one’s own judgementObedience is self-mistrust up to one’s dying day, in every matter, even the good (387).
Obedience is mortification of one’s own will, of one’s own understanding, not in order that passion should be mortified but that it should be transformed. Obedience practised in the way proposed by the Church does not destroy intelligence but heals it, placing it in its natural position. Therefore it is life. The Church’s long experience has shown that anyone who can be obedient can be cured of his soul’s inner sicknesses, that his whole inner world can be transformed. Obedience is a means of progress for man.
Along with restricting intelligence we try, through repentance and the ascetic life of the Church, to purify the nous so that it may be illuminated by God’s uncreated energy. This is achieved by watchfulness, prayer - chiefly the noetic prayer of the heart - and by the whole active and contemplative life. Through all the means outlined by the Orthodox tradition, the nous receives grace, is vitalised, raised to its right position, and then sheds grace on the intelligence as well. In this way intelligence becomes a servant of the nous that is favoured with grace, and we return to our natural state.
Intelligence which is not subjected to this nous endowed with grace is sick and creates innumerable anomalies in our life, while, when it is subject to the nous it is healthy and natural. This is the aim of the ascetic therapeutic training of the Church.
II. Thoughts - Logismoi
It is in the intelligent part of the soul that evil thoughts operate which excite desire and attempt to capture man’s nous so that sin is committed. The development of sin starts with thoughts. Therefore anyone who wishes to purify his inner world, to be released from sin, to be freed from the captivity of his nous must keep his intelligence safe from the impact of evil thoughts. So in this section we shall try to analyse what these thoughts are, what causes them, what results they produce in our spiritual organism, and finally what methods cure us of them. This is a very crucial matter because our spiritual death or spiritual life depend on our confronting them. Furthermore, as we shall see in what follows, many physical abnormalities and illnesses originate from unbridled thoughts.
What logismoi are
When the Fathers speak of ’thoughts’(logismoi), they do not mean simple thoughts, but the images and representations behind which there are always appropriate thoughts. The images with the thoughts are called ’logismoi’. “Images in some cases appear to take on visible form, while others are mostly products of the mind, but more often it is a combination of the two. As visible images also generate some thought or other, ascetics label all images ‘intrusive thoughts’” (388). The various satanic thoughts sometimes use as their vehicle what the senses bring to the nous, sometimes they mobilise fantasy and disjointed memory, and they attack the person with the ulterior aim of effecting his capture.
According to Hesychios the Priest, most people are unaware that these thoughts are nothing but “images of material and worldly things” (389). As it appears from this text, imagination plays a very important role in the formation of the image in us. Thus one can say that logismoi are painters of various images and representations in our intelligence, most of them memories of the past. One brother who was being attacked by memories of the past said: “My thoughts are old and new painters: memories are troubling me, and idols of women” (390).
All things have their inner principles (words, logoi) with which they speak and communicate with man. According to St. Gregory of Sinai, Holy Scripture also calls these ‘words’ of things ’thoughts’. The words of things are also called conceptual images, and vice versa. Their action “is not material in itself, but it takes the form of material things, and its form changes” (391). The words of things are used by the demons and therefore they can also be called the words of the demons (392). St. Gregory of Sinai characterises evil thoughts, or rather their onslaught, as a “flowing river”, which, through assent to sin, is transformed into a deluge that drowns the heart (393).
In speaking of ’thoughts’ and trying to pinpoint exactly what they are, I think that we must refer to the division made by St. Maximus. He says that some thoughts are simple, others composite. Thoughts which are not linked with passion are simple. Passion-charged thoughts are composite, consisting “of a conceptual image combined with passion” (394). The memory of a thing, when combined with passion makes the thought passion-charged or composite. I think that at this point it is well to outline the distinction between a thing, a conceptual image, and a passion as St. Maximus analyses them. Gold, a woman, a man, and so forth, are things. The simple memory of gold, a woman, or a man is a conceptual image. A passion is “mindless affection or indiscriminate hatred for one of these same things”. An impassioned conceptual image is a thought compounded of passion and a conceptual image. Therefore we must strive to separate the passion from the conceptual image so that the thought remains simple. And this separation can be made through spiritual love and self-control (395).
Impassioned thoughts either stimulate the soul’s desiring power or disturb its incensive power, or darken its intelligence (396).
Evagrius emphasises that there are thoughts which cut off and there are thoughts which are cut off. Evil thoughts cut off good ones, but also evil thoughts are cut off by good ones. He offers an example. The thought of giving hospitality for the glory of the Lord is cut off by the tempter, who suggests a thought of hospitality for the sake of appearing hospitable in the eyes of others. Likewise the thought of giving hospitality to gain human recognition is cut off “when a better thought comes” which prompts us to be hospitable for the Lord’s sake and for the sake of virtue (397). So it is possible for one thought to start off as evil, but through our own effort and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to be transformed into a good one, and vice versa. However, we shall look at this more analytically later, when we speak of curing from evil thoughts. At least we see here that there are thoughts which cut off and thoughts which are cut off, good thoughts and bad thoughts.
The cause of evil thoughts
What we have written about the nature of evil thoughts also shows their causes. According to St. Gregory of Sinai, the origin and cause of evil thoughts lies in “the splitting up, through man’s transgression, of his single and simple memory” (398). Before his transgression man’s memory was simple, that is, it had no passion and it was turned entirely towards God. All the powers of the soul were centred on God. Immediately after the transgression this single memory was split up. St. Thalassios teaches that evil thoughts arise from three sources: the senses, the memory, and the body’s temperament. The worst are those that come from the memory (399).
I think that St. Isaac the Syrian gives us a starting-point for seeing more clearly the causes of evil thoughts and what it is that provokes them. He teaches that “the movement of thoughts in a man originates from four causes. Firstly, from the natural will of the flesh; secondly, from imagination of sensory objects in the world which a man hears and sees; thirdly, from mental predispositions and from the aberrations of the soul; and fourthly, from the assaults of the demons who wage war with us in all the passions. Therefore as long as a person remains in this world he cannot avoid thoughts and warfare” (400).
The basic cause of evil thoughts is the warfare of the devil. The majority of evil thoughts are from the devil. The devil’s aim is to lead a man to sin either in thought or in action. He even waged war against Christ Himself, naturally without any success. The demons who are always trying to lay hold of our soul do so “by means of impassioned thoughts” so that they may cause it to sin either in the mind or in action (401). When a man thinks evil, he sins in thought, whereas when he does the will of the devil and gratifies his desire, he sins in action. The committing of sin is called sinning in action. The demons constantly sow thoughts in order to capture the nous. The saints recognise “the seeds of the demons” and advise people accordingly (402).
St. Gregory of Sinai says that thoughts are the words of demons and the forerunners of passions. First comes the thought, and then the sin is committed (403). According to Ilias the Presbyter, demons wage war against our soul first through thoughts and not through things. “Hearing and sight are responsible for the warfare waged through things, habit and the demons for that waged through thoughts” (404). The demons constantly implant impure and shameful thoughts. Each passion has its corresponding demon, and St. John of the Ladder emphasises that shameful and unclean thoughts in the heart come from the deceiving demon of the heart (405). The cunning of the demons in this warfare is great, and only the saints whose nous is pure and who have the gift of insight can distinguish it. Thus St. John of the Ladder writes that he once noticed the demon of vainglory doing a double piece of work. In one brother he sowed thoughts of vainglory, and at the same moment he revealed those thoughts to another brother so that he would be praised as a thought-reader and thus fall into the sin and passion of vainglory (406). Therefore the devil’s warfare against us by means of thoughts is harder than that waged by means of material things (407).
But usually the devil takes his opportunity from the passions which exist in our soul in order to launch the appropriate warfare of thoughts. He knows the passions that are there and he excites the soul at those points. “The passions lying hidden in the soul provide the demons with the means of arousing impassioned thoughts in us” (408). And since the most basic passion, from which all the others are engendered is self-love, it is in the passion of self-love that “the three most common forms of desire” have their origin (409). When the heart of man inclines towards self-indulgence, it becomes a source of evil thoughts: “From a pleasure-loving heart arise unhealthy thoughts and words” (410). Since there are voluntary and involuntary thoughts, that is, thoughts which come to us unsought and thoughts coming from our own will - for involuntary ones arise from previous sin, while voluntary ones are from our free will -therefore we can say that the voluntary thoughts are causes of the involuntary ones (411). The causes of thoughts are the passions, and the causes of passions are sinful acts (412).
In general we can say that the thoughts which come from the demons capture the nous and lead it to commit sin in thought and deed. And when this sin is repeated many times and the organism acquires a habit, passion comes into being. Then from the passions, which in a way are the wounds of the soul, come the corresponding evil thoughts. It is the same as with wounds of the body. Something causes the body to be wounded, and as a result the wound causes an irritation, whereupon the problem continues and increases further.
At many points in His teaching the Lord mentions that the evil thoughts come from within the heart. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt.15,19). Luke the Evangelist mentions that an argument arose among Christ’s disciples “as to which of them would be greatest”. “But when Jesus perceived the thought of their hearts, he took a child and put him by His side” (Lk.9,46f). When the Lord appeared after the Resurrection, he said to His disciples: “Why are you troubled? And why do questionings arise in your hearts?” (Lk.24,38). All these passages show that questionings come from within the heart of man. Indeed the nous is the first to be attacked by the thought, but then passions work in the heart, and through them the devil takes the opportunity to put his own thoughts into play. Therefore it is said that questionings come from within the heart.
The teaching of St. Diadochos of Photike is related to this. The heart produces good and evil thoughts. However, it does not produce evil thoughts by nature, but from the memory of evil, of that first sin which it committed and which led to the habit. The heart conceives most of its evil thoughts as a result of the evil of the demons. However, we feel that they arise from the heart. Man’s nous, being highly responsive, makes its own the thoughts sown in it by the evil spirits. The same happens also with the flesh. Since the flesh delights in being flattered by deception and since there is a union between the soul and the body, the thoughts sown in the soul by the demons seem to come from the heart (413). The nous provides the nourishment for the heart. Whatever it has, good or bad, it transmits directly to the heart. Since most of us are inexperienced in this spiritual combat and since this transmission takes place very quickly, we feel that the thoughts are produced by the heart.
Aside from the devil and the passions, things in themselves engender thoughts. But, as St. Gregory of Sinai teaches, things in themselves give birth to simple thoughts, while suggestions of the devil engender evil thoughts (414). So matter is not bad; what is bad are the shameful desires within us, the passions in us and the provocation on the part of the demons. “Just as it is impossible to stop a watermill from turning” and grinding the wheat or tares that we throw into it, so it is with our mind; it is in constant motion. it depends on us whether we give it spiritual meditation or works of the flesh. Therefore when we are occupied with worldly concerns and matters of the flesh, and when we give ourselves over to pointless and useless conversation, “these base thoughts multiply in us” (415). So the use of the world and the being of the world are not bad, but what is bad is our own disposition, our own self-will.
Certainly aside from evil thoughts there are good thoughts, those coming from God. How can we distinguish these thoughts? Those of us who are beginners in the spiritual life should ask experienced spiritual fathers, and especially those who have the gift of distinguishing spirits. In any case, one general teaching is that when a thought suggests something to us and joy comes, it is a sign that the thought is from God. The thoughts of the devil are full of disturbance and dejection. St. Barsanuphios teaches: “When a thought suggests to you to do something according to the will of God, and you find in this matter joy, and at the same time sorrow which fights against it, know that this thought is from God…The thoughts which come from the devil are filled with disturbance and dejection, and they draw one after them secretly and subtly; for the enemies clothe themselves in sheepskins, that is, they instil thoughts which in appearance are right, but within are ‘ravening wolves’” (416). It must be noted that a thought is capable of evoking a joy which, however, comes from vanity and a self-indulgent heart. Therefore thoughts can be distinguished only by one who has tasted the grace of the Holy Spirit and has been cleansed from the passions which are found in the soul. Those who lack this experience should consult experienced spiritual fathers, because the devil suggests righteous thoughts, while he is unrighteous.
Now that we have pointed out what thoughts are and what causes give rise to them, we must look briefly at the different kinds of thoughts. Thoughts are analogous to the passions. For each passion there is a thought. St. Cassian of Rome divides them into eight and analyses at length the eight thoughts of evil. These are: “gluttony, unchastity, avarice, anger, dejection, listlessness, self-esteem and pride” (417).
St. Thalassios says that there are three basic thoughts: gluttony, self-esteem and avarice. All other impassioned thoughts follow in their wake (418). These three thoughts correspond to the three great general passions: self-indulgence, love of glory, and avarice or love of possessions, to which the temptations of Christ refer.
We must make mention of one great, disgraceful thought, that of blasphemy. St. John of the Ladder, recognising the wickedness and seriousness of thoughts of blasphemy, as well as the fact that they mainly attack those who are struggling in the spiritual life, devotes a whole chapter to describing them and presenting methods for ridding ourselves of these thoughts. He writes that the thought of blasphemy comes from pride. It attacks a man even during the Liturgy, even at the time of preparation for Holy Communion. It attacks the nous and distracts it from the words of the prayer. It stops many from praying and cuts many off from Communion; it causes the bodies of some to be worn away with grief. St. John of the Ladder advises us not to regard ourselves as the cause of thoughts of blasphemy. They are the demon’s words intended to estrange us from God and His Church (419).
Yet evil thoughts are the beginning of the devil’s warfare against us. A thought planted by the devil develops until the sin is committed and leads to passion. Therefore in what follows we shall try to see this development of evil thoughts in the light of the experience of the Holy Fathers.
St. Maximus teaches that the impassioned thoughts aroused by the passions lying hidden in the soul fight the nous and force it to give its assent to sin. When the nous has been overcome in this warfare “they lead it to sin in the mind; and when this has been done they induce it, captive as it is, to commit the sin in action”. After the action the demons who have desolated the soul by means of these thoughts, retreat, but the spectre or idol of sin remains in the nous (420). Thus thoughts take the nous captive and lead it captive into sin. If the idol of sin is not driven away by intense and lasting repentance, it is a source of abnormalities in the spiritual organism.
This in general outline is the development of an intrusive thought and the course it takes. But we would do well also to see a few details about it, again as described by the Fathers.
The thought that has entered the soul’s intelligence endeavours to capture the nous. To this end it prompts a feeling of the pleasure to be afforded by one or another passion which is in the soul. This stage is called temptation and is not to be reckoned as sin (421). Prolonged delectation afforded by the passion attracts the attention of the nous (422). If the nous does not tear itself away from the suggested delights, it finds itself attracted, favourable conversation with them begins, coupling follows, and it comes to assent. The increasing pleasure captures the whole nous, and the will as well. Thus the person’s resistance becomes weak. Then the sin is committed. When the captures are repeated, the habit of a passion is formed, “and then all man’s natural forces are at its service” (423). The presence and prolongation of pleasure are very important for the capture and activation of passion. Therefore the Fathers advise mortifying the pleasure as far as possible, or better, its transformation, when it captures the person’s nous. Abba Dorotheos says that whenever passionate desires reappear in the soul of those who put up a fight, they are immediately rejected (424).
Hesychios writes about the mingling and uniting of the soul’s thoughts with the provocation of the demon through fantasy: “…its thoughts become entwined in the fantasy provoked by the devil”, and so it comes to assent and to action (425). Fantasy plays an important role, especially in cases where the object or person is far from us. But also when the person or object is seen, that is, when it is linked with the senses, then too fantasy magnifies things and increases their beauty in order to capture the nous and lead it to consent. From this point of view we can say that impassioned thoughts blur and confuse the nous, fill it with impure images and carry it “unwillingly and forcefully towards sinful acts” (426).
It seems that a man’s freedom gives its consent not only at the time when it receives the temptation, the proposal from the demonic thought, but also beforehand, when, with freedom’s consent, the eye and the ear of the soul are darkened. As Philotheos of Sinai teaches, the reason why a person looks on things adulterously is that “the inner eye has become adulterous and darkened” and the reason for wanting to hear about foul things is that “our soul’s ears have listened to what the foul demons inside us have whispered to us” (427). If a person is corrupted inwardly, the eye of his heart is defiled and then his outward bodily senses are also corrupted. That is why man’s struggle must first be carried on inwardly.
Likewise when a person keeps thoughts within him and elaborates them, pleasure arises and the nous comes to assent and action. “As eggs warmed in dung hatch out, so unconfessed evil thoughts hatch evil actions” (428).
What has been said shows clearly the consequences of prolonged and elaborated thoughts. In the next section we shall present these consequences.
Consequences of evil thoughts
When a thought is prolonged in us we become enslaved to the attraction. “When a thought lingers within a man, this indicates his attachment to it” (429). Attraction is a person’s attachment to created things and his desire to realise them and acquire only those things. When the nous is disengaged from heavenly food, from the remembrance of heavenly things, it constantly offers itself to the sensory and created things of the world. This is called attraction. It is led there by the thought which lingers within it.
The person becomes intemperate. He cannot control himself. “He whose mind teems with thoughts lacks self-control” (430).
“The person who in thought does not fight the thought of sin, saying nothing against it, commits it bodily” (431).
When an evil thought lingers in someone and is not opposed but put into action, it reinforces the passion in him, and then it fights and torments him further (432).
Thoughts rot us and crush us, also creating problems in interpersonal relations. “We spend all our time corrupting ourselves by the thoughts which we have against one another and tormenting ourselves…” (433).
Evil thoughts defile and pollute our soul (434), they damage it, they poison it. “Such is the cunning of the evil one, and with these arrows he poisons every soul” (435).
“A man who is carried away by his thoughts is blinded by them; and while he can see the actual working of sin, he cannot see its causes” (436). This acceptance of thoughts gives the devil mastery over him and can lead him even to suicide, since he cannot resist the power of the devil.
An impure thought debases the soul (437), it throws a man’s soul down on the ground.
Impassioned thoughts stimulate the soul’s desiring power; they disturb the incensive power and the intelligence. “It is in this way that the nous’s capacity for spiritual contemplation and for the ecstasy of prayer is dulled” (438). Without God a man is dead.
Anyone who continuously feels disturbed by thoughts and whose underbelly is aflame shows that he is far from the fragrance of the Spirit (439).
Intimacy with God is lost. “When the nous associates with evil and sordid thoughts it loses its intimate communion with God” (440). God cannot have communion with someone whose nous is constantly defiled by evil and impure thoughts. And God is disgusted by a man who accepts unclean thoughts while standing at prayer, just as an earthly king would be disgusted by a man who in his presence turned his face away and talked to his master’s enemies (441).
Not only does a man of unclean thoughts lose his intimacy with God and the fragrance of the Holy Spirit, but he is completely separated from God. “For unclean thoughts separate God from man.” God does not disclose His mysteries to one who is possessed by evil thoughts (442). Abba Dorotheos says very clearly, “A single evil thought can turn a man away from God when it is taken in and adhered to” (443).
Since thoughts separate a person from God, they are followed by other, bodily abnormalities. Anguish, insecurity and physical illnesses are caused by thoughts. Physicians too have become aware of this, so they advise us not to keep thinking about things and worrying. One thought can let a person lie sleepless for a whole night. So we say that thoughts disturb a man and even break his nerves. Abba Theodoros said: “A thought comes and bothers me…” (444)
The results of evil thoughts are truly terrible. We have pointed them out very briefly, but we could have cited more patristic passages. We have tried to indicate the general abnormalities which they produce in our psychosomatic organism.
A psychotherapeutic method must, however, also describe the ways in which people are healed of evil, demonic thoughts. We now come just to this topic.
Curing of evil thoughts
As with all diseases of the soul and body, so also with thoughts there is preventive treatment as well as therapeutic treatment after the illness. We shall look at both.
The preventive work is to try not to let the thought enter us and capture our nous. This is achieved by watchfulness, attentiveness, hesychia, and cutting off evil thoughts. The Apostle Paul instructs his disciple Timothy to be constantly watchful: “As for you, always be watchful” (2Ti.4,5). The patristic writings contain an extensive analysis of this struggle.
Watchfulness is also called guarding of thoughts. St. John of the Ladder teaches that it is one thing to guard thoughts and another to watch over the nous. Watching over the nous is higher than guarding thoughts (445). This is true in the sense that we defined earlier, that the nous is the eye of the soul, the heart, while a thought is what functions in a man’s mind. It is one thing to try to keep the mind pure and another to try to keep the nous, that is the heart, pure. Nevertheless purity of thoughts is needed, because it is impossible to keep one’s inner self free from sin if one has evil thoughts (446). The patristic commandment is to concentrate our nous (the soul’s energy in its essence), to be watchful of thoughts and to fight against impassioned thoughts (447). It is essential that we pay attention to our reflections, recollections and notions (448). Indeed in this struggle to keep the nous pure and have constant remembrance of God, we have to discard the good thoughts as well, because even with good thoughts the nous gradually forms the habit of withdrawing from God. The monk Silouan taught: “The saints learned how to do battle with the enemy. They knew that the enemy uses intrusive thoughts to deceive us, and so all through their lives they declined such thoughts. At first sight there seems to be nothing wrong about an intrusive thought but soon it begins to divert the nous from prayer, and then stirs up confusion. The rejection of all intrusive thoughts, however apparently good, is therefore essential, and equally essential is it to have a nous pure in God” (449). We should never have a single thought in our heart, whether senseless or sensible (450). We should protect the eye of the soul from every thought, as we do the eye of the body from every harmful object.
When a person becomes accustomed to this holy struggle of laying aside all thoughts, then the nous tastes the goodness of the Lord and acquires purity so that it can distinguish thoughts and “store in the treasures of its memory those thoughts which are good and have been sent by God, while casting out those which are evil and come from the devil” (451).
This watchfulness of the soul, this guarding of thoughts, is called inner hesychia. Therefore in Orthodox teaching hesychia is not simply stillness from outward stimulations (this too is the beginning of hesychia, especially for the beginner), but it is mainly stillness of the heart. St. Thalassios advises: “Seal your senses with hesychia and sit in judgement upon the thoughts that attack your heart” (452). According to St. John of the Ladder, “stillness of the body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feelings and perceptions, but stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts and is an unassailable mind”. Brave and determined thinking, watching at the doors of the heart, killing or driving off invading notions are the friends of hesychia (453). When a person perseveres in this struggle, and especially when the nous has been captivated by the Kingdom of God, then the thoughts vanish just as the stars are hidden when the sun rises (454).
Apart from watchfulness and stillness of the nous, another way to prevent the nous from being irritated is to avoid the causes which evoke thoughts. St. Maximus gives an example to show how we must struggle to maintain purity of heart. As we know, the demons of passion either stimulate the soul’s desiring power or disturb its incensive power and its intelligence. Therefore a monk should watch his thoughts and seek out and eliminate their causes. “The soul’s power of desire is stimulated by impassioned thoughts of women. Such thoughts are caused by intemperance in eating and drinking and by frequent and senseless talk with the women in question; and they are cut off by hunger, thirst, vigils and withdrawal from society. The incensive power is disturbed by impassioned thoughts about those who have offended us. This is caused by self-indulgence, self-esteem and love of material things. It is on account of such vices that the passion-dominated person feels resentment, being frustrated or otherwise failing to attain what he wants. These thoughts are cut off when the vices provoking them are rejected and nullified through the love of God” (455).
Furthermore, in order to be rid of thoughts one should struggle against passions, since it is from these that the demons find occasion to implant convenient thoughts. With regard to the passion of unchastity St. Maximus advises: “fast and keep vigils, labour and avoid meeting people”. With regard to anger and resentment: “be indifferent to fame, dishonour and material things”. With regard to rancour: “pray for him who has offended you and you will be delivered” (456).
Another struggle is to reduce the pleasure-loving of the heart (457), because thoughts try to kindle pleasure and attract the nous. Along with the pleasure-loving of the heart, it is necessary to tackle the pleasure-loving of the body as well. Everything which evokes bodily pleasure and bodily comfort must be driven away by the athlete of the inner struggle. For if a person gives in to bodily pleasure, “he will necessarily, even if he does not wish it, be led off by force to the Assyrians, to serve Nebuchadnezzar”(458). If a person does not take a very firm stand towards himself on the subject of pleasure, he will not be able to maintain or acquire his inner freedom.
As we pointed out a little earlier, we must avoid things and people that evoke evil thoughts in us. One ascetic, answering the question of a brother who said that he was struggling with memories of women and the desires of the past, said: “Do not fear the dead, but flee from the living, and before all things persist in prayer” (459). We surely are not asked to avoid all people. This is possible for a few who are seeking perfect purity in order to give themselves wholly to God, but we must avoid those people who are a temptation to us, not so much because they are bad, but because we ourselves are inwardly weak and susceptible to sickness. When a person makes it a principle to watch his nous and pay attention to matters and objects and people, he can learn for which of them he has a passion (460).
The fear of God helps to liberate us from warfare with thoughts. The fear of God is God’s gift to man. He who receives this gift struggles all day not to do anything displeasing to God, or rather he does not simply struggle, but the fire of the fear of God melts every oncoming thought. But even if there is not this charismatic fear, let us at least of ourselves struggle to create the sense of the presence of God and of the judgement to come. “As wax melts before fire, so does an impure thought melt before the fear of God” (461). The fear of God is the shepherd that leads the sheep, that is, thoughts. Without the shepherding fear, thoughts will be in confusion (462).
Parallel with these things, toil and the ascetic life are a method of therapy. Fasting, vigils and prayer help the nous to avoid capture by the oncoming thoughts. “Waste your body with fasting and vigils, and you will repulse the lethal thoughts of pleasure” (463). “Keep your body under control, and pray constantly; in this way you will soon be free from the thoughts that arise from your prepossessions” (464). St. Mark the Ascetic teaches that if we do not want to be moved by evil thoughts, we must accept humiliation of soul and affliction of the flesh. And this must not be just on particular occasions, but “always, everywhere and in all things” (465).
These things which have been mentioned can be used by a person to prevent sickness due to thoughts, but also if he is sick they are needed as a method of curing from thoughts. But let us look more analytically at how we can cure the soul which has been affected by thoughts.
In the first place one must not be at all agitated. The demons’ effort is to create agitation in a person and then in the confusion to interfere more actively in the soul and take it captive. Therefore St. Maximus teaches: “Stand up courageously against the thoughts that surge over you, especially those of irritation and listlessness” (466). Facing thoughts with courage is a second martyrdom. The advice of all the Fathers is not to be agitated when we are attacked by satanic thoughts. St. Barsanuphios says: “If the thought comes, do not be alarmed but understand what it wants to do and counteract it without agitation, calling on the Lord.” The bad thing is not that a thief enters the house, but that he takes what he finds in the house (467).
Some people allow the thought to enter their nous and heart in order to hold a dialogue with it and overcome it by the power of Christ. This is done by a few who are abundantly blessed with the grace of Christ and who want to enter into face-to-face combat with the devil in order to destroy him. However, this is not possible for most Christians, who are powerless to take up this strenuous and dangerous combat. So most of us have to scorn intrusive thoughts.
It must be said that the less experienced in spiritual matters a man is, the slower he is to perceive the entrance of the thought. Usually those who are practised spiritual athletes perceive the thought before it has entered their intelligence and even when it is preparing to wage war on the athlete. Some perceive the thought only when there is coupling or when there has already been assent, or on the very threshold of action or even after sin has been committed. “The spiritually inexperienced man generally encounters sinful thoughts only after they have progressed, unnoticed, through the first stages of development - that is, after they have acquired a measure of strength - when the danger approaches of actually sinning” (468). In any case, wherever he meets it he must immediately fight against it. And the more practised he is in this holy game, the more he perceives the thought in the first stages of its development.
A better way than dialogue is to scorn the thoughts and cut them off. Archimandrite Sophrony presents the teaching of St. Silouan about the best method of fighting thoughts: “The Gerontas was saying that the experience of the Holy Fathers shows various ways of combating intrusive thoughts but it is best of all not to argue with them.
“The nous that debates with such a thought will be faced with its steady development, and, bemused by the exchange, will be distracted from remembrance of God, which is exactly what the demons are after - having diverted the nous from God, confuse it, and it will not emerge ‘clean’.
“Stephen the Hermit (out of whose hands a leopard fed) as he lay dying (Ladder, Step 7), disputed with intrusive thoughts, as was his wont, and so found himself struggling against devils.
“St. Mark of Thrace for having tried to comfort his soul before departing from this life by enumerating his efforts was kept swinging in the air ‘for an hour’ - which suggests that it could have been for all time.
“Other Fathers were more discriminating in their spiritual struggle” (469).
So it is not safe, especially in the beginning of the spiritual life, to let thoughts enter the heart. “But as soon as we perceive them we should counter-attack and repulse them” (470). To scorn a thought is a good way especially for beginners in this struggle.
Without entering into dialogue with the thought, we should refuse to do what it says to us and in that way also weaken the passion itself, and “fighting in this way little by little, and with the help of God, he overcomes the passion itself” (471). This is called resistance to a thought.
Someone said to Abba Poemen: “Abba, I have many thoughts and they put me in danger.” The old man led him out and said to him: “Expand your chest and do not breathe in.” To the man’s answer that he could not do it Abba Poemen replied, “If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.” So we cannot prevent thoughts from coming to us.
We need to oppose them. And the opposition consists, on the one hand, in utter scorn, and on the other hand, in not doing what they say. “If we do not do anything about them, in time they are spoiled, that is to say, they disintegrate” (473). Just as when someone shuts a snake or a scorpion in a bottle, in time it will die, “so it is with evil thoughts: they are suggested by the demons; they disappear through patience” (474). When a thought led Abba Agathon to criticise, he said: ‘Agathon, do not do that,’ and so the thought was still” (475). Likewise Abba Theodore and Abba Lucius spent fifty years mocking their temptations by saying to the thought of leaving the place of their asceticism: “After this winter we will leave here.” When the summer came, they said, “After the summer we will go away from here.” Thus they passed the whole time and mocked the demons (476). Postponing the time of satisfying a thought helps us to be rid of it.
Another way of healing is the struggle not to let thoughts persist. The struggle lies in not letting a simple thought stir passion and not letting a passionate thought be given assent. “Both these two forms of counter-attack prevent the thoughts themselves from persisting” (477). For a thought which persists will engender other thoughts and create many problems in the inner world and will take our nous an unwitting captive.
Likewise we should not let the simple thought become a compound or passionate thought, but also a compound thought should be turned into a simple one. A compound thought is composed of passion and a conceptual image. It will be necessary with self-control and spiritual love to separate the passion from the conceptual image, and then the thought will become simple (478).
Since an intrusive thought tries to kindle sensual pleasure, which will then take the nous captive, the nous must cut off the intended pleasure (479). St. Maximus teaches that we must become murderers not only of bodily passions but also of the soul’s impassioned thoughts (480).
Apart from cutting off and scorning thoughts, it is necessary to chase them away, and this is done mainly by prayer. St. Gregory of Sinai teaches that a beginner cannot chase a thought away unless God does it. The strong can wage war with thoughts and chase them away, but again even they do it with God’s help. “When thoughts come, call to our Lord Jesus, often and patiently, and they will retreat; for they cannot bear the warmth of heart produced by prayer, and they flee as if scorched by fire.” In prayer the name of Jesus is pronounced, which flogs the devil, and the presence of divine grace creates warmth of heart. These things burn evil thoughts and drive them out of the nous. If anyone lacks the energy to pray, let him imitate Moses: lift his hands and eyes to heaven, and then God Himself will drive the thoughts away (481). Just as smoke is dispersed in the air, so evil thoughts are dispersed by the invocation of the Name of Christ (482).
We cannot rid ourselves of demonic thoughts by means of human thinking. We must abandon every thought, even if we are wise, and rest all our hope in God, saying “Lord, arrange the matter as you wish and as you know…"(483). This passage is significant because in time of temptation many people attempt to confront it with human intelligence. However powerful intelligence is, it cannot be more powerful than the devil’s thought. For in the struggle against a thought we are fighting against the devil and not against a simple thought.
Praying with watchfulness clears the mind of all images of evil thoughts, and so our mind is made conscious of both the devices of our enemies and the great benefit of prayer and watchfulness (484). Through prayer the athlete of the spiritual life is clearly aware of the whole thought, makes a sober study of it, and in this way without having put the thought into action, is aware of its consequences. Therefore the ascetics who have practice in this spiritual contest, who do not allow the thought to enter them, usually know very well the life of the sin and the sinner without having their own personal experience.
If the enemy’s seed is fire, hope in God through prayer is the water which puts out the fire (485). Abba John the Dwarf said: “I sit in my cell and I am aware of evil thoughts coming against me, and when I have no more strength against them, I take refuge in God by prayer and I am saved from the enemy” (486).
An effective method of getting rid of thoughts is to confess them to an experienced spiritual father. St. John Cassian says that “just as a snake which is brought from its dark hole into the light makes every effort to escape and hide itself, so the malicious thoughts that a person brings out into the open by sincere confession seek to depart from him” (487). Nothing so harms a monk and brings such joy to the demons as hiding his thoughts from his spiritual father (488). In this way his whole spiritual life is twisted and he becomes a plaything in the hands of the devil, who can do what he likes with him. Therefore St. John Cassian teaches that nothing leads so surely to salvation as confessing our private thoughts to the most discriminating of the fathers and being guided by them rather than by our own thoughts and judgement (489). “He who conceals his thoughts remains unhealed” (490). Therefore we must confess the persistent thought, bring it to our spiritual father who has responsibility for our salvation. “Any thought that tarries in you and engages you in warfare, reveal to your Abba, and he, with God’s help, will heal you” (491). When we speak of a persistent thought we mean one that does not go away in spite of our objection, scorn, and prayer, but continues to wage war against us, like the impassioned thought which is united with the passion.
St. John of the Ladder cites the case of a monk whom he met in a coenobium. He had a small book hanging in his belt and said that he wrote his thoughts in it each day and showed them all to his shepherd (492).
The discriminating shepherd can be illiterate according to the world, not knowing the wisdom of the world, but knowing God’s wisdom. Abba Arsenios had the habit of going to ask about his thoughts to a discriminating father who nevertheless was crude, illiterate and uneducated. Another brother asked him: “How is it, Abba Arsenios, that you, with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied: “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant” (493).
When a person has learnt to open himself to God through his spiritual father and to expose all his wounds created by thoughts, and the thoughts themselves, and at the same time listens to his advice, he is released from each one, he is inwardly at peace, and he knows what the peace of Christ means.
As we confess to our spiritual father we also ask for his prayer and blessing. St. John Chrysostom, referring to Christ’s words to his Apostles when they were entering a house to give peace, says that often without anyone disturbing us we are at war in thought and are agitated, and cunning desires rise up in arms. This battle sends down the word of the saints, that is the saints’ blessing, and this brings much calm within us. “At that utterance, every diabolical desire and unseemly thought slipped away from our soul” (494).
As we have emphasised in another place as well, we can rid ourselves of thoughts by cultivating the various virtues. Self-control and love rid us of impassioned thoughts (495). By controlling anger and desire we quickly do away with evil thoughts (496). Vigils also contribute a great deal: “The vigilant monk is a fisher of thoughts, and in the quiet of the night he can easily observe and catch them” (497).
The reading of God’s law and the lives of the saints cut off thoughts. Therefore the words of the Apostles and Fathers as well as their lives have much power and give peace to the soul.
Another way is to create good thoughts. Indeed we have previously observed that we must cut off and cast away every thought, even if it is a good one, especially at the time of prayer. But at other times, particularly when we are at the beginning of the spiritual life, we can cultivate good thoughts. But again we need to be watchful not to cultivate fantasy through them, because in that way we would develop a demonic type of spirituality. “Cultivate good thoughts with care so that you find them again hereafter” (498). Let us receive everything with a good thought. Even if everything is ugly, let us receive it with equanimity and then God will right the anomalies of things. “Accept with equanimity the intermingling of good and evil, and then God will resolve all inequality” (499). Or yet let us transform the evil thoughts into good ones.
One of the best ways of curing and disposing of thoughts is to keep our nous in hell burning with the flames of the inferno. St. Silouan taught: “St. Makarios the Great, flying through space, never ceased humbling himself, and when devils, outdistanced, cried to him from afar that he had escaped them, he replied that he had not yet evaded them. He answered after this fashion because he was accustomed to stay his mind in hell, and thereby really did elude the devils.
“St. Poemen the Great, schooled by long experience of battle against devils, knowing that far the most dangerous and powerful enemy is pride, fought all his life to acquire humility, and so said to his disciples: ‘Be assured, children, that where Satan is, there am I also’. But at the bottom of his heart, knowing how good and merciful is the Lord, he trusted that He would save him. To humble oneself in this wise is the best means of keeping one’s mind pure from every passionate thought” (500).
For a person to keep his mind in hell and for all his thoughts to be burnt by the flames of hell is a state which is imbued with repentance and especially with the great and ardent repentance which is a gift of the grace of Christ. If this is not present, at least a person should hold in remembrance the thought of impending death and his judgement in hell. This thought is enough to purify the nous and release the person from the tyranny of thoughts.
When a person is freed by this whole ascetic method from the tyranny of thoughts and both nous and heart are pure, then he is filled with the energy of the Holy Spirit and experiences the healing of his soul. The soul is freed from all its wounds and becomes a temple of the Holy Trinity. The person becomes a true priest of the grace of God and has a foretaste of the good things of the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the true, natural man, the man made divine by grace.