The Wisdom of the Desert

Chapter XV:
On Evil Thoughts

THE necessity for struggling against evil thoughts occupies, as we might expect, an important place in the hermits' scheme of the religious life. The circumstances under which they lived afforded ample opportunities for all kinds of thought and meditation. Often for whole days literally nothing happened to distract the mind from its own musings. The voices of the world were silenced. Only occasionally faint rumours of great events reached the lauras in the desert. The isolation of even those of the Lower Egyptian hermits, who came nearest to living a community life, was for five days of the week almost complete. Other cells were in sight. The figures of other hermits could be descried going for their water-supply or toiling in their gardens. Yet, save for the weekly gatherings on Saturdays and Sundays, there was, under ordinary circumstances, little or no intercourse even between members of the same laura. The rare advent of some stranger might bring the hermits swarming from their cells to bid him welcome; an event of peculiar importance might set the abbot's rude bell ringing to summon the brethren to a consultation; but, as a rule, the life was solitary, and there was little or nothing in its outward circumstances to distract the mind. The work of mat-weaving and basket-making became, for their skilled fingers, purely mechanical. The thoughts were elsewhere even while the hands were busy. So it came that thoughts were not, as they are for men who live amid the world's hurried happenings, swift reflex responses to the excitements of impressions from outside, but wrought out mindpictures and imaginings of things on earth and things in heaven. We think of such day-dreams as the result of the mind's working upon the recollection of experiences long past, or its effort to realize the imagery of Holy Scripture. The hermits conceived them as the result of the mysterious suggestions of powers outside themselves, powers bent upon the conquest of their minds for good or evil. Thus when Isidore showed the abbot Moses the vision of Dothan he displayed a picture of what seemed to him to be literally taking place around the mind of every hermit. The demons never ceased suggesting evil thoughts. The hosts of angels crowded round with thoughts of what was holy and honest, and of good report.

Though the battle was thus being fought by powers outside himself, the hermit was no passive spectator, nor his mind the mere booty of the victorious side. He himself took an active part -- indeed, bore the chief share in the strife. On him depended, in the end, the issue of the conflict. It was, indeed, beyond his power to prevent the suggestions of the demons. He could not check the entrance of evil thoughts into his mind. He was, however, able to prevent the evil from obtaining a lodgment in his mind. He could refuse to dream and meditate on thoughts of pride, or hatred, or impurity. According to the vivid imagery of one of their teachers, the mind was a house into which the devil cast sordid things. It was the part of the good householder to pitch them out again speedily, before their accumulation made the home uninhabitable for what was good. Or, as another taught, the evil thoughts might be smothered and packed away, given no opportunity to develop their horrible nature, until, lke garments shut unaired into boxes, they mouldered into decay.

The advice of the teacher who would have us struggle against only one kind of evil thought, since for each man there is one from which all others draw their power, is suggestive of some deep spiritual experience. It seems as if there is in each soul some one weak point where, once the entrance is won by the demon who assaults it, all other demons are easily able to follow him. Thus to him who has given way to dreams of pride there comes a time when avarice and lust will obtain possession also of his mind. For each man, therefore, it is necessary only in reality to set himself to strive with one kind of evil thought.

While the hermits felt the necessity for watchfulness and struggle, lest they should fall, they gladly recognised that it was through the same strife that they obtained the chance of rising. It is, they taught, through evil thoughts that men make shipwreck of their souls, but also it is through evil thoughts that men are crowned. To them it did not seem a desirable thing to be freed, if that were possible, from the suggestions of evil. What they did wish was to meet the evil at its strongest, and then, through Christ, to vanquish it. To have no evil thoughts is to be no better than a beast. To be afflicted with them, and yet conquer them, is to rise into communion with God.

There are infirmities of the mind, like forgetfulness, which are not evil save in so far as they hinder the soul from the highest flights of all. To those who suffered thus the fathers were very tender. It is most comforting to read the gentle parable by which the brother was encouraged who was unable to bear in mind the religious exhortations which he heard.

In all their teaching about the struggle against evil thoughts the hermits recognised that the truest victory is to be obtained by filling the mind with holy imagery. It is not enough to cast the demons out. We must welcome the angels when they come, must store the mind with good thoughts by constant reading and repetition of Holy Scripture, must keep it stretched in meditation upon the love and the work of the Lord. This, if we can perfectly accomplish it, will certainly give us the victory over evil thoughts, and reduce to impotence the demons who suggest them.


Of a certain brother who was continually on the watch against evil thoughts.

It is related that seven brethren used to dwell together on the mountain of St. Antony. At the time of the date-harvests one of them used to be always keeping watch, so as to drive away the birds from the dates. One of the seven, an old man, when it came to his turn to guard the dates, spent the day in crying out, "Depart from within, ye evil thoughts; depart from without, ye birds."


The abbot Pastor teaches that evil thoughts are not to be avoided, but overcome.

A certain brother came to the abbot Pastor, and said, "Many evil thoughts come into my mind, and I am in danger through them." The old man led him out into the air, and said to him, "Stretch yourself out, and stop the wind from blowing." The brother, wondering at his words, replied, "I cannot do that." Then the old man said to him, "If you cannot stop the wind from blowing, neither can you prevent evil thoughts from entering your mind. That is beyond your power; but one thing you can do -- conquer them."


The teaching of the abbot Moses on the same subject.

It is impossible for the mind not to be approached by thoughts, but it is in the power of every earnest man either to admit them or reject them. Their rising does not depend upon ourselves, but their admission or rejection is in our own power. The movement of the mind may well be illustrated by the comparison of a mill-wheel. The headlong rush of water whirls it round, and it can never stop its work so long as it is driven by the water. Yet it is in the power of the man who directs it to decide whether he will have wheat, or barley, or darnel ground by it. For it must certainly crush that which the man in charge of it puts in. So the mind is driven by the torrents of temptation which pour in on it from every side, and cannot be free from the flow of thoughts, but the character of the thoughts we control by the efforts of our own earnestness.


The abbot Pastor speaks of a way in which we may overcome evil thoughts.

The abbot Isaiah once asked the abbot Pastor about evil thoughts which troubled him. Pastor answered him, "Just as clothes which are put away for a long time in some trunk, and not taken out at all, moulder and decay, so the evil thoughts of our hearts, if we do not put them into action, after a long time will fade away.


The abbot Moses speaks also of a way of overcoming evil thoughts.

We must constantly fall back upon meditation on the Holy Scriptures, and raise our minds towards the recollection of spiritual things, and the desire of perfection, and the hope of future bliss. In this way spiritual thoughts are sure to arise in us, and our minds will dwell on the things on which we have been meditating. If we are overcome by sloth and carelessness, and spend our time in idle gossip, or if we are entangled in the cares of this world and unnecessary anxieties, the result will be that tares will spring up in our hearts and take possession of them. As our Lord and Saviour says, Wherever the treasure of our works or purpose may be, there also our heart is sure to continue.


Of the infirmity of forgetfulness, and how we ought not to despond because of it.

A certain brother said to one of the elders, "Lo, my father, I frequently consult the elders, and they give me advice for the salvation of my soul, yet of all that they say to me I can remember nothing." Now it happened that there were two vessels standing empty beside the old man to whom he spoke. He therefore said to the brother, "Go, take one of the vessels. Put water in it. Wash it, and pour the water out of it again. Then put it back, clean, into its place." The brother did so. Then said the old man, "Bring both vessels here. Look at them carefully, and tell me which is the cleaner." "Surely," said the brother, "that is the cleaner which I washed with the water." Then said the old man to him again, "Even so it is, my son, with the soul which frequently hears the words of God. Even although the memory retain none of them, yet is that soul purer than his who never seeks for spiritual counsel."


Advice for the conquering of evil thoughts.

A certain brother once asked one of the elders, "How shall I overcome the evil thoughts which ceaselessly trouble me?" The elder said to him, "Do not attempt to strive with all of them. Strive only against one. All evil thoughts have a single head and source. -- In one man it is this, in another that. It is necessary, first of all, to find out each man for himself what is the origin of his evil thoughts. Then let him bend his energies to the conquest of that one thing, and all other evil thoughts will give way before him."


That evil thoughts are evil deeds.

"Brethren," said a certain elder, "you are striving to commit no evil deed. I beseech you strive, at the same time, to think no evil thought."


How temptation is not sin, but the means of being good.

A certain elder said, God will not condemn us because evil thoughts enter our hearts, but only if we make a bad use of our evil thoughts. It happens sometimes that men's souls are shipwrecked through evil thoughts, but also it is by the entering in of such thoughts that we become worthy of being crowned.


How we are to deal with evil thoughts.

A certain elder said, The devil is an enemy, and your mind is a house. The enemy ceases not to throw into your house every kind of filth that he can find, and to pour into it a world of sordidness. It is your part to be diligent in casting out of your habitation what he throws in. This if you neglect to do, your house will soon be filled with sordid things, and even you yourself will strive in vain to enter into it. Therefore, from the very first, cast out bit by bit everything that he puts in. Then will your house remain clean for you, by the grace of God.


Of our strife against evil thoughts.

A certain elder said, If we have no evil thoughts we are no better than the beasts. The enemy does what is in his power when he suggests them to us. Let us also do the duty which lies within our power. Be instant in prayer, and the enemy will flee. Find time for meditation on divine things, and you will conquer. Persevere, and the good in you will win. Strive hard, and you will be crowned.


How the abbot Moses saw the vision which once the servant of Elisha saw, and was strengthened.

Once, while the abbot Moses dwelt in the region called Petra, he was attacked by the demon of impurity with such fierceness that he could not remain in his cell, nor dared he be alone. He went, therefore, to the holy abbot Isidore and told him of the vehemence of the evil thoughts which came to him. The abbot Isidore bid him be of good cheer, and brought forth from the Holy Scriptures many words of encouragement and strength. Then he bid Moses return to his cell. But this Moses was not willing to do, dreading still to be alone. Then Isidore led him up to the hill which was behind his cell, and said to him, "Turn your eyes westwards and look." He gazed as he was bidden, and beheld a host of demons. Their regiments swept passionately past. They seemed as those prepared for battle, and eager for strife. Then said the abbot Isidore again, "Turn your eyes to the east and look." He gazed as he was bidden, and beheld a numberless array of holy angels. They seemed more glorious and splendid than the shining of the sun, and marched as the army of the good powers of heaven. "Behold," said Isidore, "those whom you saw in the west are the powers which fight against the saints of God. Those whom your eyes looked on in the east are they whom God sends to help His saints. Be sure that the army which fights for us is the stronger one, as saith the prophet Eliseus. Truly, also, St. John saith, 'Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.'" When he heard these words Moses took heart of grace, and, being comforted in the Lord, returned to his cell. There he gave God thanks, and praised the long-suffering and the kindness of our Lord Jesus Christ.


How a certain elder overcame the evil thought which prompted him to postpone his penitence.

It is told of a certain elder that very often his thoughts said to him, "Let to-day go by. Toumorrow will be time enough to repent." He always answered them, "I cannot do this, because to-morrow some other part of God's will must be worked out in me."

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