A hesychast wannabe. That was me.
I was about 25 years old and hip-deep in Eastern Orthodoxy’s spiritual treasures. I closely read the beautiful Russian narrative Way of a Pilgrim, sagely nodded over the bedrock of Orthodox spirituality, The Philokalia, and gamely noted every nuance in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses.
I was enamored. So much so that I declared to my wife, “I’m going to become a mystic.”
I know now that was a stupid, even illogical, thing to say. To declare that you’re going to become a mystic is kind of like declaring that you’re humble. Your words self-evidently contradict reality. You might as well verbally declare that you’re mute.
But I didn’t know that, so I bolded out in my efforts at mysticism. The first step: silence. Not mere outward silence, the Orthodox spiritual masters taught, but inward silence. Stilling the inner chatter. That’s hesychasm. Shutting down the parade of ideas that go through one’s head every minute of the day. Making the mind empty.
It’s not easy. The mind works almost autonomously. We don’t normally control our thoughts any more than a lone rancher with no dogs, fence or rope controls a pack of mustangs.
But I tried. I sat in the quiet, trying to stop any thoughts from going through my head. It was brutal, some of the most rigorous mental stuff I’ve ever done. It was also kind of weird. I tried it off and on for about a year or two. I never formally quit, but the practice kind of wore off and I surrendered my mind to those mustangs.
Ten years later, I read Marist Father Thomas Dubay’s Prayer Primer. I was startled when he advised readers to avoid such practices. “One should be aware of techniques for emptying the mind,” he wrote, calling such pursuits “unnatural” because our minds are “made to be filled, not emptied.”
That’s a pretty big divergence of opinion on an important religious subject.
But the two sides agree on one crucial thing. In our mental life, we have two fundamental options. Our thinking can be directed or our thinking can be grabbed. We can control our thoughts or our thoughts can control us.
You ever wonder why it’s often hard to read a book? It’s because reading forces you to direct your attention. You must tame the roving mustangs and settle them on the page.
It’s also one of the reasons prayer is hard. Elevated prayer ranges between reading and hesychasm. We stifle our thoughts like the hesychast, but we give our mind things to think about: Christ’s life and death, words from Scripture, the lives of the saints. It’s called “meditation” or “contemplation.” And it’s difficult.
Yet it’s worthwhile. Not only does the practice advance our pursuit of holiness, but it also exercises the highest faculties of our human existence.
Every person should understand a fundamental truth: Something will always occupy our attention. The only two questions are: What will occupy it — and will you have anything to say about what occupies it?
We can go through our days mentally aimless, letting our mind wander “where it will go,” as the Beatles sang during their psychedelic phase. As if desolate daydreaming were an unreservedly good thing.
A kind of “thralldom” is what the economist-turned-philosopher E.F. Schumacher called it, spending our days “captivated by this or that,” drifting, carrying out “programs that have been lodged in our machine.”
Or we can flex some cognitive muscle, setting aside times of the day when we will harness those mental mustangs and make them serve us — and God, the author of the human mind.
Eric Scheske writes from