Letter 51: Purifying the emotions

Cassian quotes Abba Moses replying to Cassian and his friend Germanus’ questions about the spiritual life in his Conference One, sayingthat “the aim of our profession is the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. But our point of reference, our goal is a clean heart, without which it is impossible for anyone to reach our target.”

This “clean heart” is exactly the aim of Evagrius, Cassian’s teacher, in ‘watching the thoughts’– a way of coming to a state of being when the passions have been purified. He called this state:‘apatheia’– later called by Cassian,‘purity of heart’. To Evagrius to pray was the way to truly follow Christ and it is therefore not surprising that he emphasized that “the goal of the ascetic life is compassion/love”, i.e. the Kingdom of Heaven. When we are re-connected with our original ‘purity of heart’, we are in a state of synthesis, harmony, wholeness, and we are living in the consciousness of the Divine Reality. ‘Apatheia’does therefore not mean ‘being apathetic’, being emotionless, but it signifies a state where we are not driven, not overwhelmed by disordered emotions/unmet needs. Once the emotions are purified back to their original nature they are a pure expression of Divine compassion/love‘agape’. As Evagrius states:“Agapeis the progeny of‘apatheia’….. ‘Apatheia’ is the very flower of ascesis’ (spiritual practice).The link that Evagrius makes between ‘apatheia’ and ‘agape’shows clearly that we are not talking about an emotionless state, but emotions that are unadulterated by any consideration of self. Thomas Merton expressed the meaning of ‘apatheia’as follows: “purity of heart, an unconditional and totally humble surrender to God, a total acceptance of ourselves and of our situation….It means the renunciation of all deluded images of ourselves, all exaggerated estimates of our own capacities, in order to obey God’s will as it comes to us.” (The Wisdom of the Desert)

Watching the thoughts’ and thus ‘purifying the emotions’ seems quite a task to undertake. But we have already discovered that meditation is a way to self-knowledge, to re-discover our true self in Christ. Meditation therefore goes further than ‘mindfulness’ by itself, which many see purely as a way to relax and deal better with life’s stresses. It makes us aware that we are much more than our sensations, feelings and thoughts, it helps us to get in touch with the spiritual side of our being. It is not something we achieve by dint of our own rational effort. All we can do is train our attention and awareness. Then we clear the way to the Higher Spiritual Reality. Insights, inspiration and healing always come from that Source. That is why Evagrius finishes his instruction to ‘watch the thoughts’ with “Then let him ask from Christ the explanation of the data he has observed”. This input of our higher mind is indispensable for true insight and growth.

Evagrius was very aware that it is quite a task and that many of his monks might have been tempted to stay on the first level of silence and relaxation or even give up altogether, as some of us meditators may well prefer to do. He describes this temptation as an attack by the demon of acedia: “The demon of acedia - also called the noonday demon- is the one that causes the most serious trouble of all. He presses his attack upon the monk about the fourth hour and besieges the soul until the eight hour. First of all he makes it seem that the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long. Then he constrains the monk to look constantly out of the windows, to walk outside the cell, to gaze carefully at the sun to determine how far it stands from the ninth hour [their main meal of the day], to look now this way and now to that to see if perhaps one of the brethren appears from his cell. Then this instils in the heart of the monk a hatred for the place, a hatred for his very life itself, a hatred for manual labour. He leads him to reflect that charity has departed from amongst the brethren, that there is no one to give encouragement. Should there be someone who happens to offend him in some way or other, this too the demon uses to contribute further to his hatred. This demon drives him along to desire other sites where he can more easily procure life’s necessities more readily find work and make a real success of himself. He goes on to suggest that, after all, it is not the place that is the basis of pleasing the Lord. God is to be adored everywhere. He joins to these reflections the memory of his dear ones and his former way of life. He depicts life, stretching out for a long period of time, and brings before the mind’s eye the toil of the ascetic struggle and, as the saying has it, leaves no leaf unturned to induce the monk to forsake his cell and drop out of the fight. No other demon follows close upon the heels of this one [when he is defeated] but only a state of deep peace and inexpressible joy arise out of this struggle.”

I am sure you recognise some of these reactions when you are meditating! Distraction upon distraction. But the message is to persevere and ‘deep peace and inexpressible joy’ is the fruit of our faithful and committed path of meditation.

Kim Nataraja