Evil thoughts (IV:3)

CHAPTER IV. What are the Instruments of Good Works
20 Jan. 21 May. 20 Sept.

44. To fear the Day of Judgment.
45. To be in dread of hell.
46. To desire with a special longing everlasting life.
47. To keep death daily before one’s eyes.
48. To keep guard at all times over the actions of one’s life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. To dash down on the (Rock) Christ one’s evil thoughts, the instant that they come into the heart.
51. And to lay them open to one’s spiritual father.
52. To keep one’s mouth from evil and wicked words.
53. Not to love much speaking.
54. Not to speak vain words or such as move to laughter.
55. Not to love much or excessive laughter.
56. To listen willingly to holy reading.
57. To apply oneself frequently to prayer.
58. Daily to confess one’s past sins with tears and sighs to God, and to amend them for the time to come.
59. Not to fulfil the desires of the flesh: to hate one’s own will.
60. To obey in all things the commands of the Abbot, even though he himself (which God forbid) should act otherwise: being mindful of that precept of the Lord: “What they say, do ye; but what they do, do ye not.”
61. Not to wish to be called holy before one is so: but first to be holy, that one may be truly so called.

It seems to me that, of all the Instruments of Good Works set forth in today’s series, there are two without which a man will not be able to persevere in the monastic life. They would be the 50th and 51st:

Cogitationes malas cordi suo advenientes mox ad Christum allidere.
To dash down on the (Rock) Christ one’s evil thoughts, the instant that they come into the heart.
Et seniori spiritali patefacere.
And to lay them open to one’s spiritual father.

The real struggles in the monastic life are not fought at the level of observances and outward discipline. They are fought in the arena of one’s thoughts. If a monk has difficulties with the observances and a falling away from outward discipline, these things are symptomatic of the conversations he is holding with his thoughts. There is, however, something even more subtle and dangerous; it is when there are no symptomatic indications in a brother’s outward comportment of the thoughts that are assailing him inwardly. I say this is more dangerous because in the case of a brother who manifests outward symptoms of inner distress, the spiritual malady is more easily recognised and treated. In the case of a brother who conforms outwardly to all the observances, it is much more difficult to recognise and treat the hidden spiritual malady.

Crises in the monastic life can be salutary. Every monk has one, or two, or three, or more major crises at key moments in his journey. The traditional wisdom identifies the crisis of the novice, who having entered the monastery in a blaze of fervour, or in a great impetus of generosity, discovers after four months, or eight months, or twelve months in the cloister that the enclosed life is hard, that the horarium is inexorable, that the brethren are not all chaps with whom he would have chosen to associate in the world; and that the abbot is very much an earthen vessel, and a cracked one at that. All of these things emerge in the novice’s thoughts. If he holds conversations with them, they will poison his thinking and cause him to sink into acedia. If, on the other hand, he refuses to engage with them and dashes them against the Rock that is Christ as soon as they begin their pernicious whisperings in his head, and if he exposes them to the spiritual father, they lose their hold on him. He will go away relieved and reassured. He will find himself saying: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life: of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 26:1).

There is the crisis of the young simply professed monk: he has completed the noviciate and finds himself tossed back and forth between a certain inner assurance that he is doing the will of God and intermittent tempests of uncertainty and doubt. The young simply professed monk will discover in himself vices that he never knew were in him. Dragons he thought slain long ago will stir from their long hibernation and begin to terrify him again. He will discover that he wants the very things he thought he had renounced.

How well we remember the fish that Egypt afforded without stint, the cucumbers, the melons, leeks and onions and garlic! Our hearts faint within us, as we look round, and nothing but manna meets our eyes. (Numbers 11:5-6)

The manna, of course, represents the terrible quotidian, a tasteless sameness that elicits nothing but weariness and disgust. Things cast off in the joy of his first steps as a novice come back to haunt a man after his simple profession. The things in monastic life that he thought would be easy become hard, and the things that he feared would be hard become strangely dull. Again, this struggle may be hidden behind an outward compliance with all that is asked of a good monk, but the thoughts are there, and unless they are annihilated by being dashed against the Rock that is Christ, and exposed to the spiritual father, they will do serious damage. The young monk in this crisis needs to pray Psalm 72, lingering over the final verses:

For what have I in heaven? and besides thee what do I desire upon earth? For thee my flesh and my heart hath fainted away: thou art the God of my heart, and the God that is my portion for ever. For behold they that go far from thee shall perish: thou hast destroyed all them that are disloyal to thee. But it is good for me to adhere to my God, to put my hope in the Lord God: That I may declare all thy praises, in the gates of the daughter of Sion. (Psalm 72:25–28)

There is the crisis of the solemnly professed monk that generally occurs around mid-life. There are thoughts of despair and of a terrible anguish. “I have but one life to live and this one life of mine is half over. If I have made a terrible mistake, it is too late to go backward. I am too old to compete in the mad race that is life in the world and, at the same time, I feel too young to go forward in the same stultifying daily round, with the same men, all of whom are themselves growing old, and with no relief in sight except death.” There are monks who struggle with these thoughts, and who are too embarrassed to admit having them. A brother may even begin to hate himself for thinking such things. What is the remedy? Where is the solution? Is there any escape? Refuse to entertain such thoughts. Send them back to hell whence they came. Dash them against the Rock that is Christ, and confess them to the spiritual father simply and without drama. And pray Psalm 15, remembering how  sweet it sounded when first you heard it:

The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my cup: it is thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me. The lines are fallen unto me in goodly places: for my inheritance is goodly to me. I will bless the Lord, who hath given me understanding: moreover, my reins also have corrected me even till night. I set the Lord always in my sight: for he is at my right hand, that I be not moved. Therefore my heart hath been glad, and my tongue hath rejoiced: moreover my flesh also shall rest in hope. Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; nor wilt thou give thy holy one to see corruption. (Psalm 15:5-10)

Finally, there is the crisis of the old monk. He begins to think—always the thoughts—”I’m too old to change. Why not simply coast down the hill into senility or death? Why make the effort to keep going? Why try to keep up with the observances? Why pretend to be interested in the things that once, long ago in a distant past, so filled me with fire and with light? The fire has gone out. The embers are cold.  What if none of it is real? What if I have wasted my life? The last verses of Psalm 87 leave him with a bitter taste:

Ever since youth, misery and mortal sickness have been my lot; wearily I have borne thy visitations; I am overwhelmed with thy anger, dismayed by thy threats, that still cut me off like a flood, all at once surrounding me. Friends and neighbours gone, a world of shadows is all my company. (Psalm 87:16–18)

The old monk may be tempted to think that he no longer has the energy or the strength to dash his thoughts against the Rock that is Christ prostrate in Gethsemani. This is one of the deadly lies that the Enemy reserves for monks in their final years. Know this: Christ waits for every monk in Gethsemani. It is the encounter that cannot be avoided, nor circumvented, nor delayed. Some remain with Him. Others slumber.

Then Jesus came with them into a country place which is called Gethsemani; and he said to his disciples: Sit you here, till I go yonder and pray. And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to grow sorrowful and to be sad. Then he saith to them: My soul is sorrowful even unto death: stay you here, and watch with me. And going a little further, he fell upon his face, praying, and saying: My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh to his disciples, and findeth them asleep, and he saith to Peter: What? Could you not watch one hour with me? Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh weak. (Matthew 26:36-41)

In the memory and imagination of the old monk the Enemy plants thoughts of despondency that whisper, “It’s all useless. It’s game over. Give in. Keep your habit on. Follow your pathetic little observances. Just give in. No one will know.” If by the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the old monk replies without delay, Libenter igitur gloriabor in infirmitatibus meis, ut inhabitet in me virtus Christi, “More than ever, then, I delight to boast of the weaknesses that humiliate me, so that the strength of Christ may enshrine itself in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9), he will be astonished by Christ’s speedy response, and he will remember the words spoken long ago to a weary Antony of Egypt, bruised and battered after a night of spiritual combat, “Antony, I was here, but I waited to see your fight; wherefore since you have endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to you” (Life of Saint Antony, 10). And, then, out of the old monk’s heart there will rise a song that cuts through the residue of a lifetime of thoughts: Suscipe me, Domine, secundum eloquium tuum, et vivam, et non confundas me ab exspectatione mea. “Take Thou me to Thyself, O Lord, even as Thou hast promised, and I shall live. Let me not be confounded in what has always been my hope” (Psalm 118: 116).

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