November 4, 2008

Bad Thoughts

I know that this is becoming a bit of a pet rant, but I am increasingly convinced that the problem with our practice of the Catholic religion is that the faithful have not been taught the sacred mysteries in such a way that they become practically portable into their individual lives. I get the feeling that people look upon the great mysteries of our faith--the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of the Lord--as beautiful and miraculous events to which we are spectators. The Word of God descended into our humanity in order to provide our humanity with path into God, not just to give us something beautiful to contemplate in itself.

One area that reveals to me the lack of basic spiritual formation for the average Catholic is the question of "bad thoughts." Many times people say that they are troubled by their evil thoughts and worry that they are sinful. To me this is a very unfortunate situation, because evil thoughts are actually one of the most useful things in the spiritual life.

Every time an evil suggestion pops into our head, whether it comes from the world, the flesh, or the devil (to name the classical suggestions for sources), we have the gift of an opportunity for worship and obedience. By rejecting the evil suggestion rather than nourishing it, we make a beautiful act of worship and recognition of a God apart from ourselves. Even better, if we replace the evil thought with a good one, we are practicing metanoia, changing our minds. This is the practice that the Buddha called "changing the peg." If we practice this over and over in our lives, we will eventually not only convert our minds from evil to good, but we will become that much more free of the tyranny of our thoughts and detached from our own internal discourse.

This freedom and detachment will be invaluable in our prayer. I once went to hear a meditation teacher and during the question period some kid asked him about being frustrated by distractions. The teacher said, "You are too possessive of your own mind." I didn't get it then, but I get it now. The teacher was pointing out that the problem is not the presence of absence of distractions, but being overly-identified with our own thoughts. I'm not exactly my mind, just like I'm not exactly my body. I'm certainly not the stream of conscious thoughts that roll through my head all day. Let go of distraction by letting go of all your thoughts. As Thomas Merton said, "In an age when everyone talks about 'being yourself,' I reserve the right to forget about being myself."

Evil thoughts aren't a good thing, but we can use them to discover the freedom and conversion that God wants to give us.


ben in denver said...

This is a beautiful meditation. One of my favorite elements of the life of St. Francis was his desire to die naked on the ground. I like this episode so much because it illustrates in a very profound way the desire of St. Francis to completely overcome his own ego and truly return to the dust from which he came. It is representative of his love for his state as a creature of God totally dependent on Him.

Prior to my conversion I studied many other religious traditions. I find the buddhist concept of detachment, which leads to nirvana very similar to some forms of christian mysticism in many ways, but also fundamentally different in important ways. When Buddha discusses "changing the peg", replacing a negative thought with a positive one, the Christian should be mindful that the positive thought is the one from the mind of Christ--it is something specific, not necessarily something restful or pleasing. So there is, I think, a very real sense of the christian "changing of the peg" that is cooperating with the grace of baptism and a real putting-on of Christ.

It seems to me that buddhist detachment and the spritual state that it leads to aims at being a detachment for creation itself, where one is not merely detached form the selfish ego, but also from the whole of creation with nirvana being the restfulness of the void. The christian, on the other hand, puts on Christ, and is able there by to detach from his own ego though love. However, unlike in buddhist detachment where the practioner is also detached from the whole of creation, the believer in love with Christ, is drawn away from sin and tepmtation and thus into a closer and more loving relationship with his fellow men and the rest of creation. It seems to me that the Chirstian detatched from sin, who has put an christ becomes more fully a man and more fully himself, and this is something I do not see in buddhism.

"For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it"

Portiuncula said...

How can anyone expect to become holy if we run away from the fire with fear and trembling?

We must face our deamons straight on and constantly exercise placing these unwarranted thoughts under the "Cloud of Forgetting." In other words, as we work to rid our minds of these thoughts, we grow ever stronger in our ability to rid our minds of these thoughts, until God Himself rids our minds of these thoughts.