Finally, brothers, 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 about these things. Phil 4:8
Some people tell me that they are scandalized because they see many things wrong in the Church. I tell them that if you ask a fly, “Are there any flowers in this area?” it will say, “I don’t know about flowers, but over there in that heap of rubbish you can find all the filth you want.” And it will go on to list all the unclean things it has been to.
Now, if you ask a honeybee, “Have you seen any unclean things in this area?” it will reply, “Unclean things? No, I have not seen any; the place here is full of the most fragrant flowers.” And it will go on to name all the flowers of the garden or the meadow.
You see, the fly only knows where the unclean things are, while the honeybee knows where the beautiful iris or hyacinth is.
As I have come to understand, some people resemble the honeybee and some resemble the fly. Those who resemble the fly seek to find evil in every circumstance and are preoccupied with it; they see no good anywhere. But those who resemble the honeybee only see the good in everything they see. The stupid person thinks stupidly and takes everything in the wrong way, whereas the person who has good thoughts, no matter what he sees, no matter what you tell him, maintains a positive and good thought. – St. Paisios
America in the 19th century was a hotbed of new ideas. The nation was moving quickly from its original agrarian roots towards becoming a great industrial giant. It was the land of invention and the creation of wealth. Seemingly inexhaustible resources invited the world to its shores to join the great modern experiment. America was not Europe and it felt no need to uphold the past. New was good, indeed, new was better.
Among the “new” things of that era were new religious ideas. An interesting group of those ideas fall under the heading of the powers of the mind. It was the great century of electricity and it seems only inevitable that such a force would become a power image for spiritual energy. Already in the late 1700’s, there arose “electrotherapists.” One such physician, T. Gale of upstate New York, who used electricity for the cure of mental and physical diseases, described it as the “soul of the universe.”
For Gale, his fellow electrotherapists, and their numerous patients, electricity was a material current of divine love; matter and spirit, nature and grace, were different aspects of a single reality. God, for Gale, was the “spiritual sun” whose love was “spiritual nutrition”; electricity was that spiritual substance in material form, “participation of the same element as the natural sun diffused through all the natural world.” There was, in Gale’s view, “no animation in the natural world” except by the heat of the “ethereal fire.” Echoing [Jonathan] Edwards, Gale believed that the discovery of electricity and its divine healing properties augured a worldwide Christian millennium. (McCarraher, The Enchantments of Mammon, p. 136)
Another figure of note was Phineas Quimby (1802-1866). He was fascinated with electricity – but also with “mesmerism,” and “positive thinking.” He is considered one of the founders of “New Thought.” Among his patients were Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. The historical threads that connect such figures to healing ministries (such as John Alexander Dowie, the founder of Zion, Illinois) as well as various movements (including Pentecostalism and the various “revivals” of that century) are an interesting trip through the backroads of American culture. Most of the present incarnations or inheritors of these movements have cleansed their histories and present a very different account of themselves. Nevertheless, when a televangelist throws the Holy Spirit like a baseball, knocking rows of people to the ground, he stands firmly in a tradition that goes back to these very roots.
It is with this background in mind that I offer some observations on the importance of thoughts in the Orthodox spiritual tradition. The small story from the life of St. Paisios points towards the importance of good thoughts, as does St. Paul’s admonition in Philippians. There is also the book on the life of the Elder Thaddeus of Serbia entitled, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives. Heard in the wrong way, such admonitions easily sound like an Orthodox version of positive thinking. However, the object of such admonitions and examples is not on the thoughts themselves, but on the heart.
I often think that in our contemporary times we are tempted to become “electric Christians.” We “send out thoughts and prayers” as though they were radio signals. We gather as many people who will agree to join us in prayer as though its power and effectiveness were somehow increased if more people “generate” it. It is a powerful image, and our thoughts in that direction are not intentionally wrong. But prayer and matters of the Spirit are not electrical forces (nor even like electrical forces). The Holy Spirit is quite silent for the most part (Jn. 16:13). Nevertheless, the Spirit is a person – not a force to be used. It is not for us to create such false images in an effort to explain what cannot be known.
The admonitions regarding our thoughts are not about the thoughts as such. Rather, they are about the state of our hearts. The heart that is filled with beauty, that considers God above all things, is an oasis for a world thirsting in ignorance. The presence of an abundant heart creates a possibility for those around it, a resource of grace if they choose to receive it.
We have many examples of the opposite. Angry words beget angry words and actions. Hopelessness and suspicion easily spread across a population. Scandal and slander, gossip and dark thoughts towards others, all create a heart that becomes a home for darkness. Such things do not radiate out like a force, but, in our globally-connected world, they are shared all too often and find welcome homes within others. All of us are far more easily prey to such things than we might imagine. As such, we do well to pay attention to our heart and to the things that we nurture there.
St. Paul is quite clear: naming what is true, honorable, just, pure, and lovely, he says, “Think on these things.” This is a conscious effort that often proves to be a battle. A number of the Fathers even suggest that we “make excuses” for our enemies so that we might think well of them, also.
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. (Lk. 6:45)
St. Macarius noted:
As the eye is little beyond all the members, and yet contains the heaven, the stars, the sun, the moon, cities, and other creatures; for all these are seen under one, are formed and imagined in the pupil of the eye. Thus also the heart is a little vessel. And yet there are dragons, and there are lions, the poisonous beasts, and all the treasures of wickedness, and there are rugged ways, and precipices. In like manner there is GOD, there are the angels; there is the life and the kingdom; there is the light, there are the treasures of grace: there are all things. (H.18.9)
There are all things.