“The Word of God…judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4: 12)
“There are good thoughts, and good volitions; there are evil thoughts and an evil heart” (St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 6).
One of the themes in St. Isaac’s homilies is the changeableness of our experience. Even the greatest and holiest monk experiences change against his or her will. We live in a dying body, a body constantly changing, a body that influences our mood, our thoughts and feelings. And although we can discipline the body and train it to a certain extent to be our servant, still we cannot completely conform our bodies to our wills. For example, one cannot will not to get sick; and once sick, one cannot will oneself to have the energy to do what you would like to do (what you will to do) if your body does not have the energy to do it. Similarly, you cannot attend to God in prayer with a migraine headache, when pain fills your entire consciousness and you can’t even think to will anything.
And this changeability goes beyond the matter of sickness, it extends to matters of our chemical and hormonal makeup. Depression is often triggered in us by imbalances in our chemistry. Not enough sleep, too much or too little of certain foods, political or tragic events we hear about, all such things change our bodies and affect our minds in ways that change us and make it difficult for us to live, act and relate to God according to our volition. Thoughts often come to us inspired by environmental triggers (things we hear, see, smell, etc.), triggers that we have no direct control over. Memories of past sins—perpetrated by us or against us—appear in our minds without warning. These memories rush upon us again suddenly and with all of the images, arguments and emotions that we thought we had dealt with long ago. At the very moment of prayer, when you feel that you are finally praying or acting in some way in your relationship with God or with others according to your good intentions, according to how you will to express your love and faithfulness to God, in that very moment of apparent success, suddenly thoughts and their attendant emotions overwhelm you. In that moment, it seems, it feels like, all is lost. You cannot fight off the thoughts—or your attempts to fight off the thoughts completely distract you from prayer or from whatever other good you had been attending to at that moment.
And then there are the concrete circumstances of our lives: who we live with, how much wealth or other resources we have at our disposal and our social standing (at work, in the church, in broader society) all play a part in limiting and influencing to what degree we can and cannot act on and fulfill the good volitions of our heart. A job that demands long hours and is physically exhausting limits the amount of time one can spend in hidden prayer and meditation on Holy Scripture. No matter how much one’s heart longs to rise early to pray, one may not be able to do so if he or she is caring for small children day and night. Life is changeable. It is a rough sea that we must row across, knowing that sometimes the wind or the waves will be against us and other times the sea will be calm, and sometimes, circumstances will work even in our favour. What is important is that we row, that our intention stays fixed in repentance, in following Christ, in striving to bring every thought captive to obedience to Christ—even when the wind is blowing and the sea is raging and we cannot seem to capture any thought whatsoever, but rather we seem to be completely caught by unwanted and unruly thoughts.
It is good to know that even great saints like St. Isaac experienced changeability in their pursuit of God. St. Isaac is writing his homilies for hermit monks, men and women who have completely devoted their lives to God in prayer in the desert—as far away from distraction as possible. And yet St. Isaac says to these hermits, “The soul does not have rest from the movement of changing thoughts.” Not until we shed this body of death and are clothed only with Christ will we be able to bring our thoughts fully under the control of our hearts. And although a hermit may find some relief in “the still air of freedom which gathers the mind for a long span of time by forgetting all earthly things,” those of us who are “newly come forth from the intricate bonds of the passions by repentance” are like young birds whose feathers have not yet formed, who cannot yet take flight, and who “hop upon the face of the earth where the serpent slithers.”
For most of my readers, I am not telling you anything new. If you have tried with any fervour and for any length of time to follow Christ with your whole heart then you know: try as you might, your thoughts and feelings, moods and emotions just do not follow your heart as well as you want, as you would will it, according to your volition. So why am I telling you this? Why does St. Isaac tell the hermits these things? I believe St. Isaac says these things to us because we forget. In seasons when things are easy, we forget. When it is relatively easy to do the good that the good intention of our hearts is guiding us to do, then we can develop a kind of pride. We can think that doing good is merely a matter of our willing to do good. The test for whether or not this is a species of pride comes when things get hard again. When I can’t keep my eyes open in prayer, when I find myself yelling in anger when I meant only to speak kindly, when I cannot give to God what I want to give Him, what is His due. At that moment, do I feel that I have somehow lost God’s favour? Do I think that God loves me less? Am I afraid that God has rejected me? Such thoughts often come from wounded pride.
St. Isaac says that it’s “in proportion to the extent of [our good intention or volition]—and not according to the movement of the thoughts—the recompense for good and evil is meted out.” God knows our circumstances. God knows the weakness of our bodies and the craziness of the world we live in and the web of relationships we are tied to. God knows. God knows our thoughts and God also knows our intentions, our volition. And God rewards us according to that, according to what we are striving to do and be, not according to the mess we often actually turn out to be. The test of the farmer is not that he labours in the field when the weather is agreeable, but that he labours in all weather. Similarly, in our life in Christ we must labour to know Him, to love Him and to love those God has brought into our lives even when—especially when—it is hard to do so. The results are in God’s hands. The farmer cannot make the sun shine or the rain fall or the crops grow. The farmer can only labour to prepare the soil, pull the weeds and plant the seed, getting things ready for when God is ready.
God sees our hearts. He knows our intentions. And God’s love for us never changes. When we appear to succeed in our spiritual life, God loves us. When we appear to fail, God loves us. “He knows our frame and considers that we are but dust,” as the psalmist says. We may be a mess, but we are God’s mess. And He loves us.