Glory to God for All Things

Scattered Thoughts

We have noticed with sadness that nowadays men suffer dreadfully because their mind is fragmented. Imagination, which is only one of the mind’s activities, is overindulged and dominates men’s lives, leading some to hardness of heart due to pride, and others to mental illness. According to the teaching of the Gospel and the Scriptures, the mind works naturally only when it is united with the heart. Mind and heart are naturally joined together when the fire of contrition is in the heart.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart.

I’m certain that my experience of prayer is similar to that of most of my readers – a struggle to pray with a scattered mind. To read of the return of the mind to the heart is to know how far my prayers are from where they should be. It is also a realization that to “love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind,” is virtually impossible in such a scattered state. We lack the wholeness to make such an offering.

The desire of my heart is to not forget that there is such a thing as a mind united to the heart. My desire is to settle for nothing less. There is an emptiness in theology when it remains only a recitation of ideas and a fantasy of the imagination.

Thus, when I speak of a fullness (as I often do in my writings), I speak of something that belongs to God and can only come to man as a gift. There is a fullness in the sacraments of the Church, though in our scattered state we approach that fullness only with faith – with a hope for what we do not yet see. There is a need for steadfastness in that hope – a steadfastness that refuses to turn aside for something less.

We have been promised heaven – indeed I believe the union of mind and heart is a place where that promise begins to be fulfilled. Thus I will not turn aside for something else – whether argument or curiosity. For the fantasies of our scattered thoughts are not the stuff of reality – only the stuff of delusion.

There are moments of clarity – even for those whose most common experience is a scattered state. These moments come as flashes – sometimes in the Liturgy – sometimes in prayer – sometimes in very unexpected places. The flashes themselves are gifts – small insights that call us to remain steadfast and not to turn aside from hope.

In a very few cases in my life, I have had the pleasure of meeting someone whose thoughts were not scattered – who were wholly present – mind and heart. In each case it has been an encounter with humanity bordering on fullness – not something that overwhelms but something that welcomes and makes all things around seem brighter and more truly alive. I would not dare to say that I was encountering a saint, for God alone knows such a thing. But I have met those who were clearly moving in that direction in a way that we rarely see.

I saw it once in a woman who was a hospice patient. She had been homebound and bed-ridden for better than six months. I noticed that every day a constant stream of friends passed through her home. It was unusual. Generally when someone is sick for a prolonged period, vists become fewer as people readjust their lives and turn their attention elsewhere. It is sad but true. However, in this case just the opposite was happening. I cannot say that her friends were of such great quality that they never left her – but rather that she was a person of such good heart that people continued to visit because they always received more than they gave.

She was not Orthodox, but she was curious about my faith. What I was able to share with her was received with gratitude and with an understanding that immediately seemed to grasp the heart of each matter. I discovered that my visits to her (as her “hospice chaplain”) were themselves unusually frequent. I always left with more than I had brought.

She died perhaps eight years ago. As a priest, I have kept her name in my prayers of remembrance for the departed. I pray for her, for I hope that she will remember and pray for me.  

She was a fullness in an unexpected place. God’s grace appears where it appears. But the reality of it all is the heart of the matter for me. She, like several others I have known, was real and not a fantasy. She was a largeness of life that defied explanation apart from God. In such a life the mind is not scattered but brought to where it should remain – united to the heart. From such a heart love flows in a manner that draws the hungry souls of all around. And the fire of contrition burns in all who remain in its presence for arrogance and pride are reduced to ashes in such a holy furnace.

18 Responses to “Scattered Thoughts”

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  1. Atlanta says:

    Beautiful post Fr. Stephen. It is wonderful to pray, our prayers can be the center of our days.

  2. Epiphanist says:

    Welcome back. You left strength out of the great Commandment that I know? For me, strength (or lack of) would convey more about the human condition that I have been given to pray with. I can only try to pray with whatever I have got. Whatever is missing, for whatever reason, I just have to do without. Does that make sense? On another note, even though there are five Orthodox Churches quite close to my home, the only English speaking Orthodox Church available to me is more than two hours hard drive away. Looks like I might have to make do with Church as well as prayer!

  3. Karen C says:

    Epiphanist,

    May the Lord have mercy on you! To not have English in the service is hard, but even if you don’t have English if you can find a godly and understanding Priest and a congregation in which to share your life, I think you will benefit. I am struggling in my English-speaking parish right now (yet there are many more English-speaking parishes within an hour’s drive from me), so your post reminds me of how much more difficult things could be in that respect.

  4. Orthodoxy is still sparse in some areas, and quite ethnic in others. Our mission has barely begun in the Western world. God alone can tell you what to do. I would today go to a parish no matter the language – for the reality of the sacraments and the fullness of the liturgy, etc. I would be patient and not expect the sudden “fellowship” of a seeker friendly evangelical setting. But seek God and you’ll find Him (or Him you). This I believe.

  5. Margaret says:

    Thank you for continuing to discuss “fullness” as you do and for continuing to encourage prayer and contrition. I do tend to stray away from prayer because I don’t “feel” like I am in a proper state of contrition or that I am too “scattered”. I find myself thinking and acting on the premise that I must “get myself together” before coming before the Lord, instead of humbling myself. Your words are a blessing!

  6. elizabeth says:

    Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen.

    The story of the holy woman on hospice care reminds me of the character in Elizabeth Goudge’s _the deans watch_… who was crippled and learned to go beyond herself and really learn to love God and others. It sounds almost trite when this book is summed up in one sentance, but the more I am in church and listen to my spiritual father’s words on Sundays, I am realizing how hard it is to get beyond one’s self and be attentive in prayer, in listening to others and putting one’s self third (God and others first). Being in the Orthodox church seems to be at times the most comforting and other times the most challenging. Thank God.

  7. Robert says:

    Fr. Stephen I am not sure if I fully understand the concept of a scattered mind. Perhaps you can explain a bit more? By scattered you mean distracted? Or “carnal”? In what sense is the scattered mind wrong, or useless? Wherein lies the distinction between the heart and the mind? “Return the mind to the heart” – does this not presume the heart needs to be in a good place? Is there such a thing as a distinctively Orthodox understanding of the mind and heart?

  8. edbooked says:

    Yes, even in their scattered domain thoughts sometimes have an enlightening clarity to them. The trick is to assemble them into a coherent philosophy that connects with the scattered thoughts of others, let alone oneself. Compassionate love provides a formidable glue, enabling the randomness of lives to be connected in ways previously unimagined. The language of love is diverse and unlimited. Receptively open minds and hearts rejoice in a fullness closed minds can’t comprehend.

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  10. Robert,

    Yes, there is a distinctive Orthodox use of these words, which was once a common vocabulary, East and West, but became largely lost and forgotten over the centuries in the West for a variety of reasons.

    The term “mind” I am using here for the “rational” part of who we are, that which processes sense data, etc. Heart I am using for the Greek “nous” which is more our Spiritual Perception that more or less intuitively knows God, right and wrong, etc. In the Orthodox understanding there is something of a fracture between these two as a result of the fall. In addition the “nous” or heart, is clouded and does not perceive as it should.

    Generally the classic path in Orthodoxy, which was modeled on the original pattern of preparation for Baptism is: purification, illumination, deification (which is synonymous with the whole of salvation itself). If our hearts were pure, not clouded, we would “see God” as Christ taught in the Beatitudes.

    Repentance and humility, as a way of life, are generally descriptive of the path a Christian should follow as we make our way forward. All of that coupled with the constant remembrance of God, thanksgiving in all things, and the life set forth in the Church and her sacraments.

    That’s a very short description for something that should take volumes to describe. But I hope it’s helpful or clarifying.

    To a certain degree, much of modern Protestant thought has tended to “externalize” the entire question of salvation in a misunderstanding of justification. Perhaps two of the best Protestant books ever written on the inner life are the classics Holy Living and Holy Dying by Jeremy Taylor (Anglican). Though his Holy Living has a bit of a moralistic tendency than you would find in classic Eastern works on the inner life – it is still a valuable read. They were translated into Russian at some point and enjoyed some success there.

  11. Dominica says:

    Father Stephan,
    I have heard the words fullness and uniting the heart, mind, and soul several times before from various readings, but it never meant anything to me before reading your post. Now I’m at a loss as to where to begin. How does one begin to work on uniting the heart with the mind? How do you even begin to know your own heart? I know I am probably not asking an easy question or perhaps I’m asking the wrong one. I’d appreciate any insights. -Dominica

  12. Several places. Repentance (with confession as well from time to time) but allowing our heart to be “contrite.” Prayer, particularly the giving of thanks and calling on the name of God. And as much as possible, remembering God at all times.

    Generally, the mind in the heart is a gift of grace, not a technique we can master. The more we are repentant before God, and give Him thanks in all things, and seek to remember Him always, we dispose ourselves to the kind of wholeness that comes with heart and mind united.

    And be patient. If you have a good priest with some knowledge of this, he can be of help, or if there is a monastery he would recommend near you – help or direction can often be found there.

    There are also some books worth reading. I’ll try to do a post on several of them.

  13. Dominica,

    I’ll add a couple of more thoughts. When you pray, seek to pray with attention, that is putting yourself into the words. This is hard at first sometimes because our minds are scattered. But when it wanders, just gently bring it back.

    Archimandrite Zacharias, a wise elder, says that when prayer becomes “easy” it is a good indication that we are making progress. We should say our prayers with attention. It is also quite alright to pray extemporaneously (without a book). Oftentimes there are things in our heart that must be said that the book will not say. But again, keep your mind with your words.

    As much as possible in the liturgy – keep your mind with the words of the liturgy. Read them at home occasionally. This will help as well.

    But the union of heart and mind is a gift from God. When He gives it, it is something wonderful.

  14. Dominica says:

    Thank you for your insights, Father, this is very helpful. I will look out for the post on books.

  15. Olga Goltsova says:

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I am an editor for a small orthodox newspaper (the parish of Our Lady of Kazan, Puchkovo, Moscow Region, Russia). I liked your article so much that having read it I immediately started translating it into Russian- is it possible that we publish the translation?

    If you like, I can send you my translation, maybe it will come of use.

    Kindly Yours

    +

    Olga Goltsova

  16. Olga,

    Please feel free to publish it, and thank you. A copy would be wonderful and of use.

  17. Olga Goltsova says:

    Please, send me your e-mail address, and I’ll send the translation there.

    It will be published in a few days!

  18. Burning Hearts says:

    Thank you for this excellent article Fr. Stephen.

    Orthodox theology is very clearly the child born of two parents: holy and humility. This child has bequeathed to man, a true beatific vision of what he will one day be. The vision is of course consistent with all of Holy Scripture (not just externalities), yet it can in no way be manufactured.

    This I can now see, is what Orthodox call Holy Tradition but it is largely and tragically missing in the mechanized Western Church.

    Thus, as St. Maximus’ gives us the example of iron penetrated by fire, (as iron it cuts, as fire it burns), so St. Philaret of Moscow points to the Head and Lord of all who uses the same, to heal wounds inflicted by the serpent of old.

    There is an absence of lopsidedness in Holy Orthodoxy that the world cannot do without.

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