Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi
Q. What are sinful thoughts and what are their spiritual substance?
A. They are thoughts opposed to God's will and operate in the area of the human intellect either by their own will or not. The mind is restless and it either produces thoughts or external factors are continuously displayed on the screen of the mind.
Q. Where do such thoughts come from?
A. Their source is either the passionate heart of man or demons themselves. Christ Himself reveals: "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, blasphemy" (Matt. 15:19).
The passions of man are produced and fed with sinful thoughts. Demons are certain beings that feed on excessive hatred for humans and impinge in any way the salvation of man. Their main job is to sow evil, wicked, vile, sinful, blasphemous thoughts in the intellect of man.
There are of course divine thoughts as well whose source are in God Himself and the Saints, who encourage the sinner to repentance, and bring consolation in any way to those who are troubled, illuminating the virtuous so that "they can know the deep things of God" (1 Cor. 2:10).
The spiritual advancement of man appears primarily in the quality of one's thoughts. We must cultivate the pure, holy and divine thoughts. We must make our mind into a factory of good thoughts, as the blessed Elder Paisios would say.
Q. How do we identify these thoughts and how do we distinguish them from sinful thoughts?
A. Only with watchfulness (nipsis) can we observe the mind, and be careful to identify our thoughts. Watchfulness is temperance, the attention I impose on my mind.
This is achieved by invoking the all-honorable, majestic and sweet name of our Christ. The prayer, the "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me", is the greatest weapon against the demons and passions, and it is able to uphold the mind that is controlled by and observes the thoughts.
Thoughts are like airplanes that fly in the air. It doesn't depend on us if airplanes fly continuously in the air. It does depend on us and we must not allow thoughts to land within us, to accept them, to give them consent.
Q. What is the difference between desire and thought?
A. Desire is the mood we have to do something, to ask for something is a movement of the heart, while thought moves in the area of the intellect.
First we desire and after this desire it is expressed internally through thoughts. Desire is the beginning, the root. By cutting off sinful desires we are essentially freeing ourselves from sinful thoughts.
This is why our Lord emphasized: "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman with desire has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). He wanted to cut off the root of the passions.
Saint Gregory Palamas says that the intellect of the believer who struggles in prayer is easily purified of thoughts, just like the heart of a person (which is the power that produces thoughts), cannot be purified unless all the other powers of the soul, the appetitive and spirited, are purified.
Q. Must we confess all of our thoughts?
A. The thoughts that come into our minds daily by the thousands are countless. Most of these thoughts are vain, vile and sinful. The demon knows his job well and cultivates these thoughts. We are liable only when we consent to them, when we implement these thoughts into practice.
Depending on what spiritual state a person is in, so they are judged on how they deal with their thoughts. For example, for the perfect, who have perfect spiritual knowledge and supervision of thoughts, consent to a sinful thought is sinful. For someone who has now begun the spiritual life it may not be sinful.
The person who struggles correctly confesses their thoughts that do not cease to press on them, which through prayer and struggle alone cannot be resisted. It is not possible for someone to confess all their thoughts. This is psychological illness. Many come to confession with a notebook in which is written their thoughts, hundreds of thoughts that pass daily through their intellect. This is not right. They not only tire the Confessor/Spiritual Father but they themselves do not benefit. This is not observing one's thoughts, it is not a fruit of watchfulness and spiritual progress, but it is a situation of illness.
Q. Can we come to the Holy Chalice in a situation where right before Divine Communion there comes to us a sinful thought?
A. Of course we come forward. What do we read from Saint John of Damascus right before Divine Communion?: "I stand before the doors of Thy temple and I still do not forsake my wicked thoughts."
The war with thoughts is described by the Fathers as difficult. In this particular case we need to have contempt for this thought because it was brought by the enemy to rob us of the blessing of Divine Communion. Unless it is a thought connected with a deadly sin that has not been confessed, though I think such a thought would not battle us at that moment, since it would already be rebuked by our conscience.
Q. Are there certain pernicious thoughts that lead to spiritual death?
A. Yes, the thoughts of despair and hopelessness. These thoughts, say the Fathers, are like cutting off the head of a struggler. The believer must never forget the love and mercy of God our Father no matter what depth of sin they have fallen into. They must never forget that hope exists and repentance exists.
Christ did not come to judge the world but to save the world. Christ accepted the repentance of the thief, the villain on the cross who was at the throes of death, saved him, and placed him in Paradise.
Q. Should couples confess to one another the thoughts they have towards each other?
A. I think not. It is better to say their thoughts to their common spiritual father. Be aware that the devil, from the moment when certain people are united with the crowns of marriage, has placed upon them a target to separate them at some point. This is why there is a war that unfortunately most couples do not recognize. While the beginning of marriage is all milk and honey, and love united them both, but then disagreements begin, and quarrels, and "I don't like you", and "I don't love you". All this is war.
Why? What happened after ten years of marriage or more and the one doesn't love the other? It is better in the beginning for a couple to address such problems to their common spiritual father, who through the illumination of the Holy Spirit will guide them accordingly and with his prayer will banish the demonic energy that has come between them to separate them. And by God I am not saying that couples should not discuss things between each other, as this is essential for there to be unity and love, but do not tell each other your sinful thoughts which are sowed by the devil.
Q. How can we fight against thoughts?
A. With watchfulness and the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me". Saint John of Sinai in his book The Ladder says: "The name of Jesus plagued our enemies." Our enemies are our passions, our sinful thoughts, the demons. There is no more effective way, than when the prayer is said with self-reproach and pain of heart.
If you see a thought persists despite your effort and prayers and does not leave you alone, then it is good to bring this thought to confession. Confession is practical humility, and "God gives grace to the humble" (Jam. 4:6). The shame we feel before our spiritual father through the confession of this sinful thought, will justify us before God and God will relieve us from the energy of this passion, this sinful thought.
It is also very good to cultivate good thoughts and despise the sinful ones, or bad thoughts, but this requires much diligence.
The contempt we show towards bad thoughts sown by the devil will make the same devil deflate, be trapped, to flee, because the devil is arrogant, and he wants us to care for him and be occupied with him, and he cannot tolerate being despised.
If you can cultivate in this way, it is the most bloodless, as Saint Porphyrios of Kavsokalyva would say. Let us ask for peace, joy and the love of Christ and not care for our evil selves, our passions, our sinful thoughts. Let us turn our face - our whole being - towards Christ and seek His face, His mercy. Thus slowly, without realizing it, we will be sanctified, and the old man with its desires and thoughts will flee, which bothered us, and we will be clothed with the new which is "created by God" (Eph. 4:24).
Translated by John Sanidopoulos.