Guarding the Heart Amidst the Distractions of Life
With the true definition of Christian freedom—freedom from the bondage of sin—Archbishop Averky now turns to the inner man to demonstrate how one seeks out such freedom. In order to free ourselves from sin, we must engage in battle with our sinful thoughts first and foremost.
Where do evil thoughts in the heart originate? They do not arise there of their own accord, but emanate from outside.
This is a very interesting statement, and for me, contrary to much of the anthropology into which I’ve been educated. I attended a Reformed Seminary, where the doctrine of total depravity was emphasized, and the source of all evil within a man was exactly that: his heart.
This is a friendly reminder of how much I have had to, and still need to, relearn from a truly Orthodox perspective.
Our hearts are soiled by harmful impressions that we receive from outside, from the world surrounding us, which, according to the Apostle, lies under the sway of the wicked one (1 John 5:19).
So rather than our own hearts, it is external influence which impresses upon us. The words from St. John the Theologian lead us to conclude that such impressions are of wicked intent.
It is impossible be unaffected by the impressions of this world while living in it. But it is possible to limit the onslaught of harmful impressions; it is possible and necessary to struggle internally with them, striving to eradicate them from one’s heart.
Spoiler alert! This same concept is mentioned in future chapters. We cannot close off ourselves completely to outside influence, but once we are influenced, we must then ensure that we are not captivated by such evil thoughts.
This, after all, is the essence of the spiritual life, which is nothing other than a struggle, particularly a struggle with sin. And the ultimate source of sin in one’s soul are the harmful impressions, accepted without struggle, and allowed to bring forth their lethal fruits in the soul.
This is the heart of spiritual warfare. We must remain vigilant to constantly battle against worldly influence in our hearts.
We must more often and in greater measure keep closed the “windows of the soul,” as the Holy Fathers call our sensory organs: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch.
“Windows of the soul” is a very illustrative image; our sensory perceptions are all potential inlets for influence from the world that must be diligently monitored for potential exploitation.
Both the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers caution us against a distracted life.
Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation (Matt 26:41), And what I say to you, I say to all: Watch (Mark 13:37).
“Sons of the world see distraction as innocent,” says St Ignatius (Brianchaninov), “but the Holy Fathers see it as the beginning of all evil.”
This is very convicting for many of us who constantly have headphones on, Netflix playing in the background, or spend 9 hours on any given Sunday watching Football. We label it as “unwinding” or “amusement”, but in reality it is opening the windows of the soul and freely allowing passage to a host of influence into our hearts.
One of the greatest ascetics of old, St Poemen the Great, said, “The beginning of evil is distraction.”
Echoing the words of St. Ignatius…
a distracted person is not capable of being vigilant in regard to himself.
Indeed. It should be no wonder that the values of the world propogated through media and entertainment conglomerates becomes the norm for even those who call themselves Christians.
How can he observe his own heart when the main object of his attention is not his inner life but the events of the outside world?
This is spot on. So many of us are saturating ourselves with nonstop influence of evil and doing almost no conscious battle against it.
Our time is primarily one of distracted lives, and understandably so. For, as we have said, the self-assertive human pride that prevails today sets as its aim not the cleansing of the heart, but the accumulation of a maximum of benefit and profit for the self, all of whose desires are considered legitimate and deserving to be immediately satisfied.
we have neither the time nor opportunity to concentrate and to occupy ourselves with our inner labor.
Once more it comes back to pride. Base amusement and distraction is all about preventing any sort of “boredom” or self-reflection to occur. As such, we are never made to reflect upon ourselves or our own sinfulness.
The distracted man has a very simplistic and superficial understanding of all things, including the most important. He is not capable of deeply penetrating into the essence of things, of rationally and circumspectly considering what takes place around him.
Of course! This is the whole point of the “bread and circus” mentality. If people are kept distracted enough, there’s no need to go beyond the distraction, or “into the essence of things”.
This is the aim of the enemy of the human race, the devil: to continually sift us like wheat, forcing us to constantly spin in the whirlwind of entertainments and diversions, not allowing us to collect ourselves and contemplate our inner state, our soul.
Exactly. As Pascal put it, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” That quiet is a necessary precondition for watchfulness (νεπσις, nepsis) which allows us to reflect upon the state of our souls and guard against evil influence.
How do we battle with distraction and how do we learn “attention to oneself” in a vigilant life?
Great question. As usual, His Excellency offers solutions to the problems he addresses.
We need to allocate our time in such a way as to be constantly occupied with sensible, useful, and practical activities. Fulfilling one’s duties, private and public, without excessive fuss or agitation, will never lead to a distracted life but, on the contrary, is conducive to attention to oneself and vigilance.
It’s certainly not flashy, but it is sensible. The question our contemporary society may need to ask is “how do we define sensible, useful, and practical activities?”
above all, it is necessary to fear and avoid idleness.
Startling words as our world is currently influenced primarily by political demagoguery from corporate media seeking to keep us all angry with one another (instead of them—wink wink) and blending the worlds of journalism and entertainment.
As I write this, we’re approaching our eighth month of lockdown and “social distancing” measures due to COVID-19. I cannot think of two words that describe the world more accurately than fear and idleness.
We must remember well that a distracted life leads to the increase of evil in the world and that only “attention to oneself” and spiritual vigilance leads to the suppression of evil and, consequently, to the well-being of all of mankind.
Alright, so it is for the good of mankind that I focus on putting to death the sinful man that I am. No pressure.
Lord, help us all.