The Lamp of the Body

Third Sunday after Pentecost / Third Sunday of Matthew, July 3, 2022
Romans 5:1-10; Matthew 6:22-33

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Christ said: “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

This teaching from the Lord Jesus is critical to much of how we live as Christians, but it may not be apparent at first what exactly it means. So let’s unpack it.

In much of the ancient world, vision was understood as light coming into the body through the eye. They did not have the detailed knowledge of how human eyes work as we do know, but this notion isn’t really that wrong. Light really does enter the eyes through lenses, and an image is projected onto the retina at the back of the eye, and through the retina the mind creates images, and this is what we see.

And much of what we believe and understand and do is based on the images we see in this manner. Thus, the language Christ uses of the eye as a “lamp” which illuminates the body makes sense even within the scope of our modern knowledge of human anatomy.

If you read what the Church Fathers say about this teaching of the Lord from Matthew 6, they use various ways of explaining it, but generally they are in agreement that the “eye” that Christ is speaking of is the eye of the soul, which is sometimes called the “mind”. In the Greek language used by many of the Fathers, the word for this is the nous. If you have read Orthodox theological works or if you have read the New Testament in Greek, you have probably come across this word nous.

It is a word that can be hard to understand, because if we just translate it as “mind,” then our conception of it goes something like this: The mind is basically the brain, or perhaps it is the activity of the brain, which we understand as a kind of organic computer inside our skulls. This computer generates thoughts, and this is all an internal process.

So the thoughts that we have are truly from ourselves, and we may even “hear” them in an internal voice which we think of as being our own voice.

Since a major element of the Christian life is dealing with our thoughts, this presents a particular problem to us. What if I am having evil thoughts? What if I keep having thoughts that tempt me to be gluttonous, to be lustful, to be greedy, to be angry, to be judgmental, etc.? What if I keep having thoughts like this?: I will never forgive him for what he did. I will never be able to give up my sins. I am actually better than that person over there. I am doing enough for God and His Church, thank you very much. And so on.

If we conceive of thoughts as being generated from within the computer that is our minds, then we may believe them as being who we truly are. And that might lead us to despair, with thoughts like I cannot give up this sin, or it might lead us to pride, with thoughts like I don’t need any help with my spiritual life. I’m doing fine.

And if we keep having thoughts over and over that we do not want—such as thoughts of rage, hatred, lust or unforgiveness—then we may think there is something fatally wrong with us. How do you get rid of thoughts? Does having the same thought over and over again mean it’s true? Does it mean that’s just who we are?

You can see how this presents a very difficult model for the life of the Christian.

This is where our modern conceptions get in the way of our ability to progress in Christian faithfulness. And I should say that this concept of the mind as a computer in a box is simply a model. It is not something that scientists have discovered. Empirical science still does not really understand what consciousness is or how it works.

So what is the concept of the mind held by the ancient people who first listened to Jesus and received the Gospels?

The mind—the nous—is much more like an eye. It is a kind of sensory organ that receives thoughts, not a computer that generates them.

Many of the Church Fathers, especially those who specialize in the monastic life, speak about thoughts and how to deal with them. And their teaching is based on the model of the mind as a sensory organ that receives thoughts.

For instance, St. Paisios, a very recent saint who reposed in 1994, described thoughts as being like airplanes that fly overhead. Your mind is like an airport. You do not have to invite every thought that flies by to land in your airport. You can let it fly by.

Most thoughts come from outside. They might come from God—every good thought comes from God. But they can also be from the dark demonic powers, who whisper thoughts of sin to us. We can give each other thoughts, too, by speaking or acting toward each other.

Many of the thoughts we have are ones that we invited to land in our minds and then gave them shelter and service like an airport crew serving an airplane. So they come again and again, and they define us. We identify with these thoughts, and they change us to become like them.

But just because you have a thought does not mean that that thought is who you are! You don’t have to believe everything you think.

So if we understand our minds therefore as sensory organs that receive thoughts, and if we understand that the thoughts we receive and then invite to take up residence within us change who we are, then we can understand the teaching of Christ that a “sound,” healthy eye will fill us with light, but an “evil,” diseased eye will fill us with darkness.

So then what is the Christian life? There are many things we can say, but in terms of our thoughts and how they affect what we become, the Christian life is this—to direct the eye of the soul as St. Paul says in Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”

That is why participating in worship is so important. And adorning our homes with icons and other beauty. And reading the Scriptures and other spiritual literature. And choosing things to watch and participate in that are beautiful and noble and excellent. All these things bring thoughts into our minds that transform us to be like what they are, orienting us toward what is holy and beautiful and changing us to be like the saints, to be like our Lord Jesus Christ.

So what is the cure for evil thoughts? If we sit depressed and are anxious over all the things that depress us, that anger us, that cause us to despair, then we become more like those thoughts. But if we orient our spiritual sight toward what is holy and good, then the evil thoughts being suggested by the demons will have no place in us to take root and grow.

Finally, it is critical that we see clearly that this spiritual pursuit is not merely about trying to create good thoughts—remember, our thoughts when receive them are not really generated from within. So this teaching is not “the power of positive thinking.” No, we orient our minds toward what is good precisely by doing what is good.

We purify our nous and are able to receive the thoughts of holiness by repentance, by faithfulness, by turning toward Christ and then walking in His direction.

To our Lord Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

One comment:

  1. Father, this is a very helpful explanation of the nous, which was always terribly mysterious to me. Your mention of the specific disconnect with modern ideas really made something finally click. And the airplane image is memorable.

Comments are closed.