“Of course, it is easier to say, ‘That is impossible nowadays. I will live my life however I please.’” Archimandrite Markell (Pavuk), confessor of the Kiev Theological Seminary and Academy, advises us not to seek the easy way but always to strive for perfection.
—The tenth commandment reads: Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s (Ex. 20:17). Fr. Markell, what does this commandment (“Thou shalt not covet”) caution us against?
—This commandment suggests that any sin arises first in our thoughts, in our mind. St. Gregory of Nyssa said that all our sins stem from wrong thinking; that is, wrong mental activity. When a person begins to think, to reason improperly, if he does not think of God and ways to please God but thinks exclusively of his own well being, then the desire to seize someone else’s possessions appears.
This desire is often stirred up by other passions by which we are enslaved one way or another. And people are prone to justify these desires.
For instance, Rodion Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment resolved to gain possession of the old woman’s (pawnbroker’s) money and began to justify himself, saying, “She is very old and does not need this money, and I will use it to perform good deeds.”
That is a sly self-justification.
—What should we do with our thoughts? We see something good that belongs to our neighbor and it arouses our envy, and now we wish to take possession of this thing. In effect, we already want to steal or seize this object, if it is impossible to obtain it in an amicable way. Can anyone get rid of these thoughts at all?
—Such thoughts may appear not only in the minds of unscrupulous men—these evil seeds are sown into the souls of righteous, good and kind people as well. And indeed it is a real problem: How to overcome these thoughts and desires? How can we reject them?
Reading the Psalter is the most effective method of combating bad feelings and desires, recommended by the holy fathers of old times. The Jesus prayer is immensely helpful as well.
—So it is necessary to read it a certain number of times per day?
—Experienced Christians can recite it up to 500 times, and for a beginner thirty times a day will be sufficient, but he should read it with attention, not formally.
It is also important that a Christian learn not to be afraid to tell his spiritual father about his unkind thoughts during confession. For example, we covet things that belong to somebody else. If we repent immediately, the unkind thought will leave us, but otherwise we can expect real trouble.
For example, why do family problems emerge? It sll begins with a “small” sin. If one spouse once accepted a thought of adultery into his mind and concealed it from his confessor and even did not admit it to himself, then lust will grow, and as a result family quarrels will become more frequent and the wall of distrust will become a separating factor.
In order to avoid this situation, it is necessary with earnest intent to figure out with the help of your spiritual father why this thought appeared. If you don’t repent of your wicked desires, the results may be deplorable—because your thoughts become your actions. If you properly analyze everything, you will find the root of the problem and your good thoughts will triumph over evil ones.
Recently Patriarch Kirill made a report at an assembly of monks, and the key idea was the following: Monastic life is impossible without revealing thoughts to your confessor. True, if there is no mutual trust between the brethren and leaders of a monastery, then there can be no question of any spiritual life. Some take this statement antagonistically: To whom will we continuously reveal our thoughts—to inexperienced abbots and fellow-monks?
And venerable professors of theology argue that there are no elders today.
Of course, it is easier to say, “That is impossible nowadays. I will live my life however I please.” But we must always strive for perfection.
—In all times people used to say that “there are no elders”…
—Yes, St. Simeon the New Theologian as far back as the tenth century tried to find an elder, but he was told that then there were no elders… However, he did not believe this. He eventually found an elder and became a great saint himself.
If we assume that today there are no experienced spiritual fathers and elders, we shouldn’t despair of our spiritual life. Now we have the priceless treasure—the writings of the holy fathers, which contain detailed instructions on how we can struggle against thoughts and temptations, how we can defeat passions. Unfortunately, many people don’t read patristic works.
—Yes, out of idleness. Besides, for those who are unprepared it will be an excessive burden. This is why it is important to popularize the patristic works.
—It is vital both for monks and laypeople to read the Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus of Mt. Sinai, the book of instructions on spiritual life by Abba Dorotheos of Gaza, the treatises and homilies of St. John Chrysostom and other patristic works. It is an immense spiritual wealth for both your mind and heart! For novices it will be very hard. These are not cheap novels! Comprehending patristic literature requires not only spare time but also assiduity and humility of intellect, so that holy texts could be perceived without skepticism, criticism or pride. Otherwise this reading will be like “wandering in a dark forest.”
Only a person who realizes his sinfulness and weakness will gradually be able to comprehend the meaning of these texts for his soul’s great benefit.
It is also important not to miss Sunday services and major Church feasts for healing the weakness of thoughts and overcoming jealousy. The spiritual atmosphere of church, coupled with a joint prayer and a priest’s inspired sermon, will give a positive impulse to your thoughts.
Both public prayer at church and private domestic prayer appease and calm a Christian and bring the wave of his dubious thoughts to naught.