As some of you know, I like swimming. There is something about the water that shuts out the rest of the world for me and allows me to recharge. For a few meters as I glide off each wall, the only sound in the world is that of water going by my ears. I like that near-silence, made precious by its fleeting nature.
The alarm, the coffee maker, the engine, road repair machinery, the ambulance driving by, the clickety-clack of the keyboard, radio, tv, birds, dogs… we are surrounded by sound. Sometimes the sounds have practical purposes: they wake us up, the remind us of things we need to do, they warn us to pay attention to something. Sometimes the sounds are restorative and bring and restfulness. And then there are the other sounds. They are ever-present and everywhere. They do not require our attention, so we can easily assume that they do not affect us.
Little by little, our brain adapts to its environment. Noises become normal for us; we expect to be surrounded by them. They become a habit formed without our choosing; one that leaves us uncomfortable in those few times when we find ourselves in a quiet place. We become addicted to the distraction that everyday noise brings. This is already a problem for our spiritual lives, because, while God is everywhere present and filling all things, for us to be attuned to his presence, we need to be able to hear a small, still voice, light breeze, or vibrant silence (cf. 3Kgds/1 Kings 19:12).There is a second problem associated with constant noise and distraction in our lives: they prevent us from paying attention to our thoughts. The lack of attention to our thoughts does not mean that we stop having them.We all know that at any given time, thoughts pass through our heads that range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from silly to grandiose, from evil to holy. The desert fathers knew this well, too.
One brother came to Abba Pimen and said, "All sorts of distracting thoughts keep coming into my mind, and I'm in danger because of them." Then the elder pushed him out into the open air and said, "Open up your cloak and capture the wind in it!" But he objected, "I can't do it." So the elder said to him, "Exactly! And if you can't catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head. Your job is just to say no to them."
There are two things to note here. The first is the wisdom of Abba Pimen and his advice (to which we will return shortly). The second is the brother who came seeking help: he comes knowing that there is a problem; to a certain extent even knowing what the problem is. These thoughts are distracting and sometimes beguiling. If we are not aware of them, they can lead us into danger. If we are distracted or fooled, we can easily say yes to a thought to which we should be saying no. And, as the Church teaches, assent to a sinful thought is the beginning of sin.
And here we come back to Abba Pimen. What he tells the brother is that a thought, on its own, is not the problem. Thoughts come and, as he says, we cannot help that. We may, as time goes on, if we are vigilant about our thoughts and nourish ourselves with holy materials, become less susceptible to sinful thoughts, but, in this life, they do not disappear entirely. So, what is left to us is the response to thoughts. Abba Pimen puts it very simply: our job is to say no to sinful thoughts.
Getting there, however, requires that we be aware of the kinds of thoughts we have. We need to be in the position of the brother, who knew he was facing an obstacle which hindered his spiritual life and was an obstacle to his knowing and encountering God. We begin by finding time away from the noise; time to become aware of our thoughts, to learn what kinds of sin we are susceptible to.
We also need time to feed holy nourishment to our souls, so that they are strengthened in what is good and learn to choose it. This is where the services of the Church can help by filling our ears with grace-filled words of Scripture and prayer, with poetic recollections of the lives of the saints and with meditations on the meanings of the feasts for our lives. The various prayers of the church, said attentively in our prayer corners, and scripture readings are also helpful. And, occasionally, it helps to have someone – perhaps not quite of the stature of Abba Pimen, who is a saint of our church – but someone who is traveling the same spiritual path and to whom we can go to receive counsel about the practical aspects of growing in vigilance over our thoughts.
As we come to November and December, it is a rich time of celebrating important saints and meditating on the great mystery of the incarnation and nativity of our Lord. Let us take the opportunities presented to us to nourish our souls with the grace of our services and do the necessary work that leads to vigilance over our thoughts. Directing our lives in this manner is a gift worthy of the infant lying in a manger. Let us offer it to Him as we draw near to worship Him and glorify Him.
With love in Christ,