“During the visitation of divine grace the heart leaps,” St. Paisios the Athonite taught. “One time, I was praying for fourteen hours straight, and instead of getting tired, I felt exultation and joy! At one point I thought, ‘Since I’m so old, and missing two ribs to boot, I should put on on my belt and attach it to the ceiling with a rope. If I had some makeshift crutches, too, to hold myself up by the armpits, I could keep going and give it all I’ve got. And that was that! As soon as I had the thought, I collapsed, and all the exhaustion appeared. I was on the floor unable to move for fifteen minutes. It was like God was telling me, ‘It’s My grace that holds up, not your belt.’ It’s not that the thought was sinful or proud. I just thought, ‘In the the condition I’m in, I should be careful.’ How much more will a proud thought chase away grace? Spiritual life is so fragile, and you need to be so careful!” (From Elder Paisios of Mount Athos by Hieromonk Isaac, pp. 264-65)
Chasing away grace. It’s something we probably do everyday without noticing it. If we are truly spiritual people we can perceive it at times, the loss of grace, but for those of us who are spiritually insensitive our thoughts, words, and actions chase grace away little by little and we become less aware that God’s grace has retreated from us.
The Christian practice of watchfulness – being careful, simply put – is vital to our spiritual health. It is our guardian on the path of salvation, it keeps us from straying too far into sin. If, however, we do not attend to it, if we live our spiritual lives carelessly than suddenly we will find ourselves, “Midway upon the journey of life,” in a dark forest, “For the straightforward pathway had been lost” (opening lines to Dante’s Divine Comedy). But then what can be done? If we’re lost in the dark forest we don’t know how to discern the appropriate route back to the straight path. Only repentance and humility can save us then. So, what can we do to avoid this predicament?
One of the most practical methods to cultivate and encourage watchfulness that I learned from the monastics is to keep to track of my thoughts. Keeping a little notebook where we write down the predominant negative and positive thoughts and feelings we have each day can go a long way in helping us see the roots of our problems. Interior dialogues can reveal a lot to us:
“I was sad today.”
“What was my thought pattern like?”
“I had a lot of negative thoughts.”
“What could have potentially caused such thoughts?”
“Well, I read a disturbing news article this morning over breakfast that made me feel sad and after that it kind of coloured my attitude for the day.”
“Okay, well, let’s try to avoid reading things that cause us unnecessary distress.”
You see, this is just a small example of what we can do to keep an eye on our thoughts. We are not all as spiritual as St. Paisios so our thoughts – even if they’re also not sinful or proud – will not necessarily be as noble as the saint’s mistaken thought was in the excerpt we read above. However, his example perfectly depicts how easily our silly thoughts can lead us astray.
Whether we realize it or not everyday we can either acquire grace by praying, struggling to have humble thoughts, brushing off offenses (ie. justifying others’ bad behaviours with thoughts like, “So-and-so is just having a hard day, he didn’t mean to be offensive”). Or, we can chase grace away, as the saint mentions in his story, not only with sinful thoughts and actions, but with careless thoughts and actions.
Sr. Sarah once confided in me: “The success of my day wholly depends on whether or not I have controlled my thoughts.” I think there is much wisdom in this statement. A bad day begins with not being attentive to our careless thoughts and ends with us having accumulated more sins and passions than we initially woke up with. By accepting one stupid thought about someone – “She doesn’t seem to like me” for example – down the road we find ourselves envious or strongly disliking this person. If we trace our thoughts back to root cause we realize the passion came as a result of the negative thought that came into our mind which we unwittingly accepted.
So, let’s be careful since, as St. Paisios has said, “the spiritual life is so fragile”.