In studying and contemplating Eastern Christian spirituality, one of the most confusing concepts for me has been the whole issue with "logismoi," commonly translated simply as "thoughts." Studying the Desert and other Eastern Fathers, it will not be long before one reads about this. In fact, most basic introductory texts and lectures on Eastern spirituality speak about "thoughts." Why? Quite simply because it is not possible to achieve hesychia/inner stillness without first calming our "thoughts." But what do the Fathers mean when they refer to logismoi/thoughts?
In my own reading and studying I have come across several different comments on thoughts. Some people consider thoughts to be that constant interior commentary or dialogue that goes on within us from the moment we wake up in the morning. Others consider thoughts to be basically an interior television show where images and scenes come and go within our minds, causing us all sorts of distractions. On another level some consider thoughts to be that basic gut reaction we have when faced with certain situations, persons, conversations, places, etc., etc., etc.
In reality logismoi seems to refer to all of these things, not just our mind's dialogue/commentary on our day-to-day lives. Logismoi, it must be said, are not always bad, and certainly not always evil. Some thoughts actually draw us up into contemplation of God, or rather, draw us down within our hearts where there we contemplate the indwelling Trinity. Logismoi/thoughts, when properly controlled, have lead to the production of beautiful works of art such as the iconography we encounter in our parishes, Michelangelo's ceiling painting in the Sistine Chapel or his amazing statues in St. John Lateran's basilica in Rome, etc., as well as monumental works of theology such as the Summa Theologica and the Philokalia, and various musical masterpieces.
Western spirituality, in general, has put a great deal of emphasis on this positive aspect of logismoi. In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages beginners at prayer to read the Scriptures and imagine that they are there, seeing what the crowds saw, hearing what they heard, tasting what they tasted, etc., etc., etc. St. Teresa of Avila also encourages such meditations in her writings. But two things must be pointed out here. First all the saints, both East and West, who speak of using logismoi in this way are adamant that this is a method for beginners. As such it is not indispensable, and it is also something that we must grow beyond with the help of God's grace and our spiritual director's guidance. Secondly this is not the sole tradition of the Roman/Latin West. In fact, there is also a very strong emphasis among Western mystics on a more "apophatic" or imageless form of prayer and meditation. St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul is possibly the first example that will jump into everyone's mind. Similarly, this positive use of logismoi can be found in the writings of the great Eastern mystics as well. According to Met. Kallistos Ware the writings of pseudo-Makarios encourage such methods of meditation. Again, however, it is also stressed that his is a method for beginners that one outgrows as one advances in prayer.
We could go on and on in our discussion about logismoi/thoughts, but I wanted to present for your consideration some of the common negative thoughts that jump into the minds of us busy folks throughout the day. In my own personal experience there have been three basic or common classifications of negative "thoughts" that jostle about in our minds. First is the "gut reaction," then there is the "what if," followed by its close relative "I wish that."
"Gut reaction" logismoi are probably the most common, and seem to arise out of our subconscious. For the most part we cannot explain the reaction; it usually just happens without our thinking about it. That anger we feel when our husbands (supposedly with malicious intent) so carelessly leave the toilet seat up, or forget to take the trash out. Or how about the anger we may feel when our wife didn't cook dinner for us, or let the dishes pile up a mile high, or didn't vacuum. These are some very common examples of logismoi that the majority of married couples experience at some point throughout their married lives. In fact, I'd say if you haven't experienced them yet, then you're either an extremely holy person, or you're still in the honeymoon phase of your marriage and may be in for a rude awakening.
"What if" logismoi are also very common, and perhaps a daily occurrence for most of us. "What if I hadn't been fired?" "What if I took that job instead of the one I'm working at now?" "What if I'd become a nun/monk/priest instead of getting married?" "What if we hadn't had children?" "What if we could have children?" Usually we experience these types of thoughts when we are emotionally, psychologically and/or physically drained. It's the "grass is greener" mentality. These thoughts can be very dangerous because if we aren't careful to stifle them the moment they arise they can lead to the third common type of logismoi.
"I wish that" logismoi are the thoughts that come to us after we have fallen into the trap of the "what if" logismoi. These thoughts in particular lead to bitterness and resentment in nearly all our relationships. You can take any of the sentences in the last paragraph and replace "what if" with "I wish that" and you will clearly see the darkness into which such thoughts will lead us. "I wish I'd never gotten married." "I wish I'd never have taken this job." "I wish I'd never had children." etc., etc., etc.
The problem with both the "what if" and "I wish that" types of logismoi is that they are pure phantasy based only partially in reality, and they ultimately lead to bitterness, resentment, anger, hatred, and all the other vices. These thoughts are a refusal to live the life that God has given us. They are a refusal to take up our Cross and follow Christ daily in love. Ultimately we are saying "I wish this cross wasn't in front of me." "I wish I didn't have to carry this cross." Who among us isn't familiar with the bitter housewife going about her daily tasks with a scowl on her face? Who among us isn't familiar with the disgruntled 9 - 5 husband, father, employee who would rather he had never had a family rather than work a job he hates?
These are just some examples of the negative logismoi that bounce around in our minds throughout the day. But how do we still such thoughts? Well, the short answer is we don't. It is only through God's grace and mercy that our thoughts are stilled. But as Christians we are called to make the effort to still our thoughts. The more we make the effort, the more God will see our true desire that our thoughts be stilled in order that we might live in the "peace from on high." God will give each of us stillness in His own time and according to our efforts and desire. For some this will take years of struggle, for others it may only take days or even hours.
But what can we do on our part? First we can pray the Jesus Prayer or some other short prayer any time these thoughts arise, focusing all our attention on the prayer. Secondly we can choose not to react and not to engage such thoughts. In thinking of the story of the first sin in Genesis, the very first mistake that we see both Adam and Eve making is engaging the serpent when he tempts them. Eve engaged the serpent by talking to it, and Adam engaged it by contemplating what the serpent had to say instead of crying out to our Heavenly Father for deliverance from temptation. So when such negative thoughts arise, pray and then ignore the thought. The more you ignore it, the quicker it will pass.
Some saints actually recommend turning our negative thoughts into prayer, discussing the temptation with God and asking for His aid. "Lord, I don't know why I get so angry when my husband leaves the toilet seat up, but I do. Can you please help me? Help me to understand my anger. Help me not to presume that my husband did this maliciously. Help me not to blow up in his face the next time I see him." etc., etc., etc. I've found this technique quite helpful in confronting my own anger, gut reactions, and "what if" and "I wish that" moments.
Of course, probably the most helpful tools out there for combating these negative thoughts are frequent confession of our sins to a priest, and frequent reception of Communion. The more we confess our sins, the more likely we are to see our own sinfulness and not react when we encounter the sinfulness of others. Likewise, the more we receive Communion, the more we want to be prepared to receive Communion, therefore we battle against these thoughts and temptations.
Whatever tool or method we use to combat these thoughts, the struggle is life long. Even the saints battled thoughts. St. Therese of Lisieux, for example, struggled against thoughts of despair and presumption right up until her death. For me this is a great comfort. If the great saints had to struggle against their thoughts, and repent when they engaged those thoughts and ultimately fell into sin, then there's hope for me too. God, it seems to me, doesn't look so much at how often we fall. Rather He looks at how much we get up again after we fall and take up once more the combat against our fallen nature.