As beginners in the spiritual life, when we consider purification, the first of the three steps or aspects of becoming like Christ, we usually think of our behaviour, or our moral life. It is true that any sort of purification must begin with what is easiest to control: what we actually do. St. Paul says, “Let him who stole, steal no longer” (Eph. 4:28). If we are going to take seriously our spiritual life and participate in the transformation into the Image of Christ, then we must begin by changing basic outward behaviour that we know to be contrary to Christ. If we are stealing, we should stop stealing. If we are fornicating, we should stop fornicating. If we are doing anything that we are pretty sure Christ would not want us to do, then we should stop doing it. This is the beginning of repentance.
However, once one seriously engages repentance, one finds out that our outward behaviour is much harder to control than we imagined. We find out that our outward behaviour proceeds from a mind a jumble with discordant thoughts and a body driven by strong feelings. Purification, then, begins with the outward and moves quickly to the inward. Repentance begins with the outward and moves inward. “First the natural, then the spiritual” (1 Cor. 15:46). Jesus said that it is from the heart that murders and adulteries flow. So for those beginners who take the spiritual life seriously, the work of purification quickly becomes a matter of spiritual warfare, or controlling of our thought life.
The Fathers of the Church offer several techniques to gain victory over our disordered thoughts. All of them require effort. St. Isaac of Syria highly recommended the reading of scripture (both the Bible and spiritual works by trusted Fathers and Mothers in the Church). Others recommend physical labour. St. Pacomius recommended the unceasing recitation of the Bible (from memory). However, in the Orthodox Church today, probably the most commonly recommended technique is the recitation of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner.”
One of the mistakes we beginners make as we are learning to purify our thoughts is that we attempt to control our thoughts by our will, or we try to counter one thought with another. It doesn’t take long to realize that thoughts cannot be controlled by will power: Don’t think of a pink elephant! Once you set your mind not to do something, your mind is already doing it. Forcing yourself not to think about something only increases your thinking about it. The second technique, that of countering one thought with another, sometimes works–which is the problem. Countering thoughts with thoughts sometimes moves our minds away from a specific thought that we want to flee, but such countering often creates a cycle of argumentation in our mind. Soon we find ourselves mentally constructing arguments against antagonists that don’t even exist–except in our mind. One of the Desert Fathers said that arguing with your thoughts is like trying to drive away dogs by throwing biscuits at them. A well aimed blow may spook the first dog, but will only attract more dogs.
In my experience, the best way to deal with disordered and wicked thoughts is for me to turn my mind towards God. When I do this, the thoughts will be screaming at me, but if I ignore them and engage God in a short and repeated prayer, the thoughts begin to lose their traction in me. The Jesus Prayer is a good example of this sort of prayer, but it is not the only prayer I have used successfully. Sometimes a short prayer to the Theotokos or another saint is effective. Other times, a short passage of Scripture is very effective. Once when I was intensely worried about how my mistakes may be hurting others, I repeated ceaselessly (or at least whenever I was bothered by worrying thoughts–which seemed ceaseless) “Lord, let none who wait on Thee be ashamed because of me” (Psalms 24/25: 3). It took some time and effort, but before too long, I was seeing victory over my disturbing thoughts.
When we call out to God, He comes to our aid. I have discovered that I am not smart enough nor strong enough to battle my disordered thoughts. As soon as I notice that I am being besieged, I turn to God and fervently cry out for help. And God does help. The Jesus Prayer and similar prayers are not “Christian mantras.” We are not merely playing a mental game. Like Peter drowning in the sea, we are calling out desperately: “Lord, save me!” And the Lord has compassion and saves.
Purification of thoughts leads to purification of heart. And here I’m on thin ice again. I cannot speak much of the heart for I am a beginner. However, I can say that when, with the help of God, the battle in the mind calms a little, peace is often found lingering in my heart. Attending to this peace often keeps the mind from wandering. Attending to peace in my heart often functions as a kind of wall around my thoughts. Or better put, attending to peace in my heart functions kind of like a bright light that keeps shadowy thoughts out of my mind. And perhaps, that is the beginning of Illumination. I couldn’t say for sure, but perhaps it is.