Orthodox America

  A Guide to Confession - From talks by Archimandrite Ioann Krestiankin


The Sixth Beatitude Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8)

Here is the next step towards God on the spiritual ladder to Heaven. Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life (Prov. 4:23): The well-spring of life, a life holy and unblemished--this is the fruit of a pure heart, while a sinful life is the fruit of an unclean heart.

       The All-seeing Lord says, For from within, out of the heart of man, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness (Matt. 7:21-22). This is what makes a heart unclean. This is what we must repent of with many tears, constant weeping, heartfelt compunction, and the words of the holy Psalmist, Create in me a clean heart, O God!

        Where does this sinful impurity of the heart come from? We are, after all, created in the image and likeness of God, Who is pure and holy. It comes from the devil, who is often called, in the Scriptures, an unclean spirit, and, in the prayers of the Church, an alien spirit, foul and odious. This unclean spirit, after falling away from God, became a filthy vessel filled with all manner of uncleanness and sin, and defiled the hearts of the first-created people. Having deeply wounded their whole being--soul and body --with the filth of sin, it transmits this uncleanness, like a hereditary malignancy, to all succeeding generations, down to our own. This sinful uncleanness is so great, it has rooted itself so deeply and it is so difficult to get rid of it, that even the holy God-pleasers, who their whole lives were so vigilant over all the movements and thoughts of their heart, felt within themselves at times a storm, as it were, of evil, impure and blasphemous thoughts--se strong that some who had already reached the heights of purity and sanctity fell headlong into the sin of uncleanness; so strong that in spite of our frequent prayers, in spite of the grace of the Mysteries, in spite of the wisdom given to us in the word of God, and of all the chastening that God visits upon us for our sinful impurity, it still remains within us and will be with us to the grave. In some people, to the shame of humanity, it reveals itself with particular insolence and shamelessness. (St. John of Kronstadt)

       Most dangerous of all to purity of heart are thoughts, especially wanton and blasphemous thoughts; the involuntary springing up of various ideas, images, suggestions, inclinations, desires, recollections, etc.

      Thoughts take various forms. Some thoughts are germinated by Divine grace; they are planted in each Orthodox Christian through Holy Baptism. Other thoughts are brought by the fallen spirits.

      "... In the thoughts and feelings of man's fallen nature, good is mixed with evil, while in those of demons, evil often masquerades as good, acting, however, sometimes also as undisguised evil." (Bishop Ignatius)

      All of us almost always are slaves of our thoughts. They tear into our minds, littering it with needless, empty, even harmful, depraved ideas, pictures, memories. Bursting into the proper and calm order of thinking are extraneous thoughts having nothing to do with the matter at hand and disturbing our work: remembrances and ideas about yesterday's meeting, for example, or about an unpleasant conversation, about various plans, impressions, about something we read in the newspaper, etc. This litters the conscience and the heart, especially when a person begins to pray or comes to church. As if deliberately, literally from a cornucopia, there spill into our heads all sorts of strange thoughts, plans for the future, minor cares, anxieties, sometimes irritations towards another person, a need to do such and such... And you're unable to pray, and you begin to rush with your prayers so as to finish your rule as soon as possible and get to work.

       What is the cause of all this? Of course, it comes primarily from our undisciplined mind, from our being unaccustomed to keep it within the boundaries of the work at hand. But not only from this! In our enlightened twentieth century, especially in more educated circles, people are embarrassed even to think seriously, let alone talk about that external, alien demonic force, which strives by every means possible to pollute, defile and soil our consciousness with the aim of enslaving us, of robbing us of clarity and purity of thought, and of tearing us away from God. And not infrequently, without being aware and not wanting to be aware of it, we become the plaything of this external and evil force.

       The Holy Fathers and the Orthodox Church offer us a true, centuries-proven means and way towards cleansing our heart and mind from this pollution of thoughts. Here we are, already gray-haired, and it doesn't occur to us that we must war with our thoughts, and that such warfare is even possible. We have become so glued to our worldly way of thinking, to our material concerns, we are so far removed from spiritual life that we don't even consider to be evil this swarm of predatory thoughts, which mercilessly plunder whatever we receive from the Lord in the Mysteries of the Church! It is imperative that we tear ourselves away from the endless spinning of worldly cares and think about the immortality of our souls, that we concern ourselves with the cleansing of our hearts. For a clean heart--this is that wedding garment which the Lord spoke about in His parable, and only in this garment can we become partakers of the heavenly banquet in the eternal life to come! (Metr. Nicholas of Krutitska) 

      Lent is usually a spiritually beneficial time for us, provided we can lessen, at least to some extent, our concerns over earthly matters and our earthly well-being; if we try to devote at least a portion of our attention and strength to our poor, neglected, thirsty soul; if we look into our heart and try to understand what is happening there. Let us, therefore, devote some time to the teaching of the Holy Fathers concerning warfare with thoughts.

       The gradually increasing strength of thoughts in captivating our souls is described by the Holy Fathers as follows:

       A thought first appears in the form of a suggestion. This is any simple idea or representation of an object; it deserves neither praise nor censure until it evokes in us a reaction.

      The second stage occurs when we take notice of this object or thought, begin to examine it or, in the expression of the Holy Fathers, to converse with it, whether passionately or dispassionately. In this case, we do not repulse the thought and we allow it to remain with us, although we may not yet accept it. This is called conjoining, which the Holy Fathers consider to be possibly sinful, although it can also be praiseworthy if our consideration is based on whether or not the thought is pleasing to God, i.e., if, on noticing that it is sinful, we repulse it.

      The third stage comes when we begin to react sympathetically to the thought, we incline towards it and are ready to follow it. This is called resignation or consent, and it can have one of two outcomes: a) after a time of inclination in the direction of the thought, we can come to our senses and - repenting and confessing before God our mental sin, we overcome the thought; or b) the other outcome, according to Saint Gregory of Sinai, occurs "when the person willingly accepts from the enemy the thoughts that were introduced and, having consented and become friends with them, is conquered by them to such an extent that he not only does not resist them but decides to do all that they suggest; and if he does not act on his decision it is only because he finds no opportunity [no time or place] to fulfill his intent!" This is already an outright sin.

      The fourth stage occurs when the thought involuntarily or forcefully conquers our heart, unites with it, clings to it, and destroys our good disposition. This moment is called bondage. But even at this stage, the mind, with God's help, can free itself from the captivating thought. It happens, however, that the mind, as if carried away by the storms and waves of the evil thoughts, cannot come to its senses and regain its good disposition. This happens especially on account of worldly cares and many unprofitable conversations.

      Finally, the highest degree of captivity by thoughts is called passion. This occurs when the evil thought, after a prolonged period of nesting in our heart becomes, as it were, its temper and constant habit. A person comes to this state by his own will, and he is constantly inflamed by passionate thoughts, introduced by the enemy and rooted by constant use and dreaminess. To free oneself from such a state is possible only through repentance; and if this is not done, the person will be subject to future torments.

      You can now see how we must sit all our lives at the door of our heart, as Saint John Chrysostom says, and guard it from being corrupted by that which deprives us of communion with God. Our main misfortune consists precisely in the unkempt, uncared for, and neglected state of our heart. 

To be continued

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