Today’s Bible reading

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.—Matthew 13:45-46

More thoughts for meditation

During Lent we will be learning from great practitioners and teachers of Christian contemplative practice. Their shared wisdom and encouragement will inspire our own practice. Our words for Lent are “We need to feel it.” — our hunger, our lack, our sin, yes, but also the love that casts out fear, the presence of eternity in our here and now and the forgiveness that transforms our lives and the whole world. Contemplative prayer is a powerful way to practice feeling it.

Martin Laird’s A Sunlit Absence is a companion book to Into The Silent Land (Pastors’ Goodreads review here and Daily Prayer entries on that text here). He is one of our aforementioned “great practitioner of Christian contemplation.”

One of the reasons Laird is so palatable among ordinary people is because he teaches undergraduates at Villanova. His students provide a lot of applicable content to his books.

“Undergraduates today often have a remarkable psychological sensitivity and fragility. It doesn’t take them long to see the relevance of distance figures like Evagrius, and they are genuinely intrigued by how, before he became a monk, the life and lifestyle of this immensely talented church careerist suddenly came crashing down as a result of an affair with a governmental official. Cryptic as some of his sayings may seem, students perceive in Evagrius a person of deep compassion and insight, a person who understands the struggles they themselves go through because Evagrius, too, has lived them…

Students will often take writing assignments on Evagrius in a personal direction, as the follow examples reveal. Their own words in the following sections serve better than any summary to reveal how much they learn about their own mind-tripping, as their relationships with God develops…” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 26-27).

What follows is one of the examples:

Blind With Anger

“Evagrius seems to know that as much as our mind-tripping on inner videos causes suffering, we somehow find them fascinating and so we have to be careful. He says the demons use vivid images for this combat, ‘and we run to see them.’ Intellectually I understood that my friends were trying to help me. But the thought that they betrayed me gets me mind-tripping on self-pity, and I almost always just go with it. If I can see myself as being a victim, I can more easily stay in denial of the issues that concerned my friends. In a weird sort of way being this victim was more comforting than the fact that my behavior was making me ill and that my friends thought they needed to let someone know. I can see that I do this. This mind-tripping, what Evagrius calls ‘passions’ stirred up by a thought or image, can actually make us sick. Not just spiritually, but mentally and physically as well. If we’re not careful, he says, ‘under the influence of this part of our soul, we then grow unhealthy while our passions undergo a full-bodied development.’

Anger, resentment, self-pity can even make you completely crazy: ‘Those who long for true prayer but are given over to anger or resentment will be beside themselves with madness. They are like someone who wants to see clearly but keeps scratching her eyes.’ I don’t know if Evagrius came up with the phrase ‘blind with anger,’ but he basically says it: ‘Resentment blinds the reason of one who prays and casts a cloud over prayer.’  Blinded as I may be by my anger, all this mind-tripping seems very real at the time. Evagrius says, ‘These things are depicted vividly before our eyes.’ ‘The most fierce passion is anger… It constantly irritates the soul and above all at the time of prayer it seizes the mind and flashes the picture of the offensive person before one’s eyes.’ The purpose of all this mind-tripping is to keep us from going deeper within where God dwells, ‘to cease to pray so that we might not stand in the presence of the Lord our God, not dare to raise our hands in supplication to one against whom we have had such frightful thoughts.’

Another thing that Evagrius has taught me is how closely related are anger, fear, and pain. The more fear, the more anger. Evagrius seems to say this. He defines anger as ‘a boiling up and stirring up of wrath against one who has given injury.’ I found this statement very helpful. ‘I always thought of my anger as a response to something or someone who had offended me. But Evagrius suggests that anger is a response to pain, to being hurt. If I learn how to handle pain better, I might learn how to handle anger better. But what I find most helpful is the link he establishes between anger and fear. I have recently realized that anger and fear are very closely related. In psychology class we learned about the fight/flight response. But Evagrius sees that anger can sow the seeds of fear or can somehow turn into fear: ‘Images of a frightful kind usually arise from anger’s disturbing influence.’ I’ve always known that I struggle a lot with fear but have only recently come to see that when I’m very angry, I will wake up afraid” (Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 32-34).

Suggestions for Action

Laird says we run to our “inner videos” and that they can dominate our “inner life.” We run to them when they show up, when we are reminded of them, “like a dog to fire hydrant” (ibid., p. 36). We aren’t enslaved to them though, Evagrius says, “it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our obsessions,” (ibid., p. 41) Try using these flow questions to consider your own collection of videos. You may do this alone or in a group, like your cell or your household.

Where do you find your mind preoccupied? It might be anger, fear, or shame, for example.

What is a recent even that stirred up those feelings in you?

Do you feel “bound” by that experience? Are you blind with rage (or shame, fear, or whatever other feeling you have)?

What is a decision you can make to not accommodate this “video,” to not just subject yourself to this sort of “cinema,” if you like?

Another excerpt from a student who found his own contemplative practice to help him work resisting acting on his own inner video:

“Sometimes I think acting out strengthens it. Evagrius says, ‘Anger and hatred increase anger.’ This is something the Jesus Prayer can be very helpful for. Just say the Jesus Prayer in the middle of the anger. Evagrius says, ‘At times just as soon as you rise you pray well. At other times, work as you may, you achieve nothing. But this happens so that by seeking still more intently, and then finally reaching the mark, you may possess you prize without fear of loss.’ I think Evagrius is saying that it’s just as important to pray in the midst of difficulty as it is to pray when things are OK. With the Jesus Prayer you can do this” (ibid., 31).