Sunday, October 9, 2022

Monastic Mindfulness

    I've been promising to write about the ancient monastic approach to sin, and how it's different from the guilt, shame, and threats approach. So this goes back before St. Benedict, to the Egyptian "desert fathers and mothers" of the 3rd-4th century. To drastically oversimplify, it's pretty much Greek Stoic philosophy overlaid onto Coptic and Syriac Christian asceticism. The guy who seems to have been most responsible for developing this synthesis of different traditions is Evagrius Ponticus, a Greek who ran away to Jerusalem after a disastrous love affair with a married woman, and finally ended up among the Egyptian desert monastics. It was further refined and translated back to the European monastic movement by John Cassian, whose books of monastic Conferences and Institutes are cited in St. Benedict's Rule. It's Cassian's version that I've mostly read myself.

    The basic teaching I'm interested in here is what Evagrius and Cassian wrote about the "Eight Principal Thoughts:" gluttony, lust, covetousness, anger, dejection, acedia, vainglory, and pride. Sorry, there's no good English equivalent for acedia; to me, I think of it as that kind of bored restlessness, when you get irritable, critical, and rebel against doing all the tedious things we have to do in everyday life. I might write about it another day. For now, though, does that list look kind of familiar? Yes, it's a lot like the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony and sloth. The seven are, in fact, a direct corruption of these eight, by the monk-turned-pope Gregory the Great, who should have known better. 

    What's the difference between the 8 thoughts and the 7 sins? The monastic version says that the sin is triggered by a thought or pattern of thoughts. That includes sins of thought, like ruminating or fantasizing about revenge or adultery. It is based in a recognition that we do not act badly because we don't care, we act in spite of our good intentions. We might feel powerless to avoid temptation, but what Evagrius and Cassian taught is to step back from the moment of temptation and pay attention to what led up to it. Don't just cry over the spilt milk, investigate why it spilled (the jug was too full? someone snuck up behind me and yelled "boo!"? I have a tremor in my hands? there's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza?). That is, why do I indulge in compulsive or impulsive bad behavior? Hint: the answer is not "because I'm a bad person." I don't care what you've been told before, I promise you, that is not the answer. 

    I can't tell you what the answer is, although I can give you some suggestions. The thing is, we need to actually investigate it for ourselves. The thing is to change the question from, "why do I always DO this?? I'm such a jerk!!" to "hmm ... why do I so often fall into doing this thing, I wonder?" And the answer is to pay attention. That is: pay attention to our thoughts, and how our thoughts make us feel, and how our feelings motivate us to act. This is what it's all about. It's about mindfulness. Yes, that oh-so-trendy word, mindfulness. Trendy, maybe, but rooted in multiple ancient wisdom traditions, so stop rolling your eyes. The Christian monks borrowed it from the Greek pagan Stoics, and modern psychiatry has borrowed it from the Buddhists. It's just wisdom.

    Mindfulness is a practice. It is not so much a way of directly attacking a specific problem as it is a way of gradually addressing all our various sinful tendencies at their root. We get to know ourselves more accurately, with less condemnation and more compassion. We begin to recognize our actual weaknesses, and the emotions that are present when we feel that temptation to act out, whether it's boredom, insecurity, loneliness, fear, lack of self-confidence, desire for present pleasure at the cost of future pain, or the desire to drown out the guilt, shame, or fear we've been taught to feel by those who should have been teaching us about the love and grace of God. 

    This is SUCH a big topic ... I've gotten a little bit of positive feedback from readers, so I guess I will go on with it next week. Next week, I propose to get more specific: gluttony, which is the first on Cassian's list, and one I really could stand to re-focus on for myself. I've been more or less overweight since I quit smoking 25 years ago, and since I moved to Europe it's tipped towards more. I do not have this figured out! But that doesn't mean I can't learn. I believe in this stuff. I believe that I can learn and gradually, step by step, live a better, holier life. And so can you, with the grace of God. Amen.

~°~°~ PEACE ~°~°~

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