February 12, 2017
John W. Sewell
MATTHEW 5: 21-24, 27-30, 33-37
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. † 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
The Trouble begins and ends with freedom. Freedom is an aspect of creation. Our elder brothers in faith, the Jews, call this TZIMTZUM (Contraction). God chose to no longer be all there was and contracted to make room for creation to have its appointed degrees of freedom.
Jesus: “You have heard…. But I’m here to tell you.” I have come not to abrogate the law, I’ve come to fulfill the law! Or, “I have come to fill the law full!” Full of What? John says that the word became flesh and came and dwelt among, “full of Grace and Truth.” This grace and truth went all the way through Jesus. There was nothing else to find in him except more grace and truth!
The law filled full of grace and truth just as our Lord is full of grace and truth. In other words, God does not act in a contradictory manner. And of course we too are called to not act in a contradictory manner. That is the goal of the Christian life, that our insides will match up with our outsides.
In the Gospel we hear Jesus tell us that obedience must become internal if it is to bring authentic life. The Gospel is troubling. Not only are Christians not to do certain things, apparently they are not even to want to do them. Grace and truth must become our automatic unthinking response.
This is troubling because most of us have a Zoo on our insides. We can be of several opinions at the same time, with thoughts and feelings coming and going constantly. The question is what do we do with this? We have this ideal that we so far from attaining. So how do we then live, this being the human condition?
Christians have always felt tension between the inner and outer life. In the third century one of the Desert Fathers, Evagrius Ponticus, wrote about this very issue. Evagrius contends that the arch-enemy of the soul is in practice a certain kind of thought, which he called logismos. I am much indebted to Simon Tugwell’s book: “The Way of Imperfection”, for his discussion of Evagrius.
Evagrius Ponticus set for himself the task of detailing the different traps and temptations that can distort understanding by imposing on the mind some false perspective. These logismos are thoughts that bewilder and befog the mind so that slowly, bit by bit, we drift away into a world of self-destructive fantasy. Logismos involves choosing to see the bad — bad in the sense of “unreal,” not fitting reality. Logismos destroy proper perspective on the world and thus prevent us from concentrating on the actual reality of our life, leading us further and further from our actual condition, making us try to solve problems that have not yet arisen and need never arise.
Evagrius says that there are EIGHT categories of these thought-traps. The seven deadly sins grow from his work.
1. GLUTTONY: not over-eating as harmful as that may be. The essence of the problem is anxiety about one’s health. The ‘thought’ of gluttony goes like this, “Imagine that you are going to get ill, and then you won’t have medicine, your doctor will be out of town… Then the ‘thought’ calls to mind other people who gotten ill from various diseases which we might catch.
Notice that the heart of the temptation is a train of thought leading us further and further away from our actual condition, making us solve problems which have not yet arisen and need never arise.
2. FORNICATION: Again it is a matter of allowing our fantasies to run away with us. The ‘thought’ of fornication fills our minds with desire for ‘a variety of bodies” (notice how abstract it all is). This is not a matter of a real relationship with a real human being. A real relationship which goes wrong does far less damage than these purely imaginary entanglement.
3. AVARICE: the love of money. The essential problem is one of futile planning for an unreal future. This ‘thought’ says, “you are going to live into a terrible old age, in which all sorts of dreadful things happen. You will poor and have to be dependent on others. Here we are preoccupied with what does not yet exist, with hopes and fears, with imaginary or future things.What we ought to do of course, is have faith in God and leave the future to him.
4. ENVY: involves obsessing about the past. A haunting remembrance of “the old days” as those “happy days” now gone and never to return. Much of the pain of spiritual suffering comes from wallowing in wishes and fantasies of things being other than the way they are.
The difference between Psychosis and Neurosis:
Psychosis is: 1 + 1 = 7.
Neurosis: 1 +1 = 2, but I won’t have it!
It is a real trap that thought.
5. ANGER: not the emotion but a clinging to the resentment that refuses forgiveness. Evagrius as an example, offers the experience of obsession with someone who has wronged us, the situation of being “unable to think about anything else.” Such fixations can ruin our health, As always, the trouble comes from failing to see the real issue. After all, if someone has wronged us, our Christian duty is simply to forgive them, and that should be the end of it. Anger, which is inevitable, is not to be squandered by focusing attention on the wrongs of others; rather, it should be directed at our own faults, and especially at how we have wronged others, thus moving us to make amends, to do something kind even for the people who have offended us.
6. ACEDIA: Listlessness: This is a condition in which we cannot settle down to do anything; nothing appeals to us, nothing engages our interest. The day seems eighty hours long. … Everything that we have to do goes sour on us. The “thought-trap” is self-pity and the temptation is, of course, to make us abandon our course, thinking that the spiritual life is really beyond us anyway. Again the problem is not being in reality.
7& 8 VAINGLORY/PRIDE:
7. Vainglory: daydreaming about our own magnificence and imagined glory.
8. Pride consists in supposing that we can do anything without the help of God, it is to claim to be God.
What do we do with these thought traps by which we get trapped into pointless and irrational reactions.
The first step is that we should come to be aware of the situation and bring some order into our lives.
- For example, the ‘thought’ will come to us that we are entitled to be annoyed at somebody. If we succumb to this, then we shall devote our attention to the thought of the person with whom we are annoyed. What is needed is to focus attention on the fact that we are annoyed.
- Instead of seeing some other human being angrily, we turn our attention to see our own anger.
- We can then begin to fight against it. And at first we may have to use any device we can think of…
- Most essentially we need to reclaim anger for its proper purpose. It is always a waste of good anger to get annoyed with other human beings.
- Instead we should turn our anger against the thoughts. …
- In this way we shall be using anger in accordance with its true nature, to clear a way thorough the thoughts which swarm all around us, so that we can gradually come to a clearer perception of what it is all about.
- All knowledge is characterized by clarity. What we need is to get clear and then make choices accordingly.
As Tugwell says, “The desired goal of this whole exercise is a state in which we are no longer at the mercy of inappropriate reactions. And this is a profound state of balance and harmony.” We are called to see ourselves in the proper perspective. “Pay attention to yourself!” The emphasis on honest self-knowledge. How to we foster this honesty?
1. Practice self-observation, what is going on here?
Not just from my perspective, but from the other persons?
2. Pay attention to our sleeping dreams. Dreams do not lie.
they tell you the truth. Twelve Step groups know how true this is. We cannot make on our own.
Ernest Kurtz writes, “As our vision of the world changes from a strictly self-centered view point in which feelings are in control to an other-oriented perspective in which “feeling good” flows from “being good,” we begin to see how we are connected with other realities and especially with other people. Most important, the tradition of spirituality suggests, we come to see that the criterion of spirituality is not subjective feeling but the reality of our “relationships with others, the reality of community.
This week we will have chances to watch what is going on in us and around us. Let us experiment with the Grace that God gives us to get beyond the ‘thoughts’ that beset us. Amen.