My younger daughter and the other baristas were hard at work during the morning rush, pulling espresso shots and steaming milk. The coronavirus pandemic was continuing its relentless spread throughout the world, and her company began requiring everyone who entered its coffee shops to wear masks.
One day a regular customer entered the shop and was asked to put on a mask, and this formerly pleasant, friendly woman refused to comply. When the employees patiently explained that mask-wearing was now company policy, she screamed at them, saying, “You’re all a bunch of [insert profane anatomical word]!” She then gave them two upraised middle fingers and stormed out of the shop.
I would love to tell you that my daughter has encountered very few customers behaving badly. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Ask any retail worker, and they will provide you with a truckload of stories about viciousness in people’s words and actions over the past few years—including assault. Of course, the decay in civility in the US has been going on for decades, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear similar reports from Canada and Europe. The West is emphatically post-Christian, and long ago we lost our understanding of people as God’s creations, as well as the awareness that He will judge us for our words and deeds.
The New Normal
Rudeness, disrespect, and even violence toward others seem to have accelerated exponentially since the pandemic began in 2020. I have no data to prove this, just observation. Only a few years ago, people didn’t attack flight attendants unless excessive alcohol was involved. And only a few years ago, the coffee shop lady’s behavior would be outside the norm of cranky people in stores.
I have a theory about that woman. Her temper tantrum over a piece of cloth really didn’t have anything to do with masks. She was not expressing constructive disagreement on health policy or means of viral transmission.
Instead, this confrontation was her showdown at the O.K. Corral. She was standing on principle, standing up for her freedoms, and those in her way were the enemy. Including young, low-wage workers who have no say in company policy.
Why would anyone think and act this way? Was she under a lot of pandemic stress? Probably. But so were all of us.
I’m not a prophet. I don’t know what was going on in her personal life. But I would wager that her behavior was a natural outcome of what she had been reading, watching, and listening to.
What Goes In Must Come Out
As Jesus taught us, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34). What was in that woman’s heart? Or in the hearts of any gathering of protesters who scream at one another and hurl insults on the nightly news? Only God knows, but the abusive behavior played out in real life often mimics grandstanding commentators on social media, on YouTube, on television news networks, and on radio—people with a megaphone who demonize others. It’s not a big leap from consuming outrage and bad behavior through our screens to acting like a toddler in a coffee shop.
Of course, it’s easy to criticize those people out there, but what about me? Have I been following a healthy mental diet? What is overflowing from my heart, pouring into my words and actions? For me, this is the big question from the pandemic and its aftermath.
During the past two and a half years it has been all too easy to sit at our laptops, scroll through our phones, and vegetate on our sofas while consuming a steady diet of fear-mongering, anxiety, anger, and outrage. Isolated at home and with outside distractions removed, we’ve had the ability to take in vast quantities of information—and misinformation.
A steady media diet of negativity and disrespect will reset our understanding of what is permissible in words and actions. And when I peruse the media landscape, I have to hunt far and wide to find a traditional Christian view of other people as humans created in the image of God and worthy of my respect because they bear His image.
People on the left bear God’s image. People on the right bear His image. And people whom I disagree with vehemently are deeply, deeply loved by Him.
Do I really believe this? Do my words and actions reflect this understanding of humanity?
Lessons Learned . . . or Not
As a society, have we learned anything from the pandemic? I would say no. Oh, sure, we know a lot more about a specific virus and its mutations. But the reality of death and the strain of living through the various restrictions have not drawn us together. We have not shown love and compassion to our neighbors, much less our enemies.
As Orthodox Christians, have we learned anything? Are we more prayerful, or more fearful? Are we kinder and more forgiving, or more judgmental? Are we filled with grace or outrage?
As an individual believer, have I learned anything? I hope so. I pray that I have become slower to judge, quicker to make allowances for people under stress, and more prone to turn to God than to fear and anxiety.
My one big takeaway from pandemic life and its aftermath—the importance of what I feed my mind and heart—is nothing new. It’s as old as St. Paul’s letters and the teachings of the desert Fathers. I am using the terms mind, heart, and thoughts interchangeably in my musings, regardless of philosophical or theological categories, because whatever settles in our hearts first passes through the gateway of our minds. And how do we separate our thoughts and feelings? They all mix together.
Guarding Our Hearts
Keep your heart with all diligence,
For out of it spring the issues of life. — Proverbs 4:23
Early in the pandemic I blogged about my efforts to wean myself from distracting and negative digital input as well as my struggle to keep up with my new efforts at digital minimalism.
I still struggle. I’m not as consistent as I would like to be. Our world is steadily moving further from God, and, as Jesus warned in Matt. 24:12, “because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold.” I need to be watchful.
Abbot Nikon Vorobiev defined watchfulness in his Letters to Spiritual Children: “To be watchful means to pay attention to one’s thoughts, words, feelings; to monitor these, and with the Jesus Prayer to chase away all that contradicts the Gospel” (p.156).
This makes sense in theory, but this watchfulness can be difficult to put into practice. We are surrounded by chaos. The horrors in the world didn’t lift along with the mask mandates. Daily we learn of war crimes. Murderous racism. Mass killings. Creation itself seems to be at war with us.
And we have no control over any of it.
The Dangers of Our News Feeds
It’s easy for me to guard my heart by avoiding the media talking heads who are belligerent, insulting, and divisive—and possibly lying through their teeth, or at least distorting the facts. I honestly don’t want to surrender any headspace to those folks. They don’t tempt me.
But what about the evils and tragedies happening around the world? The desire to keep up with the news is more of a temptation for me. So should I cut the news out of my life entirely and remain blissfully ignorant?
Maybe. Maybe not. I know of an elderly couple who, early in the pandemic, kept the TV on literally all day, tuned to a network news station. The result of what they allowed into their minds—surprise, surprise!—is that they were filled with fear. Fear of getting infected. Fear of dying. Fear of venturing out of their homes because all of America, it seemed, was rioting in the streets.
In their case, turning off the TV is no-brainer advice in terms of mental health.
Read this quote from a beloved saint: “Let listening to worldly news be bitter food for you, and let the words of saintly men be as combs filled with honey.” Do you know who wrote that? Saint Basil the Great, in the 4th century. That makes me laugh. The temptation to stew, worry, and rage over what is happening in the world is not new. We simply have more opportunities to fill our minds with the stuff.
This is a good topic to discuss with a spiritual father. Personally, I want to stay informed. But how much of my desire to be informed stems from a healthy interest in the world and compassion for humankind, and how much of my impulse to be “in the know” is a result of pride, of wanting to be viewed as intelligent and informed?
Our Thoughts Affect Us
We cannot achieve salvation in any way other than by transforming our mind, making it different from what it was. Our minds become deified by a special act of God’s Grace. They become passionless and holy. A deified mind is one which lives in remembrance of God at all times. — Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, p.110
A good measuring stick for the health of my thought life is the peace I feel—or don’t feel—in my heart. This is subjective, I know. But generally speaking, when I am agitated, this means that I need to turn my thoughts toward God and take time filling my mind with the things that will counteract the world’s hopelessness. I can do this in many ways: Reading the Gospels. Spending time in silence and in reciting the Jesus Prayer. Reading a book of writings by a saint. Listening to a spiritual audiobook while driving. (Ancient Faith carries many beneficial and uplifting titles, by the way.)
A really practical way of considering the state of our minds comes from St. Porphyrios of 20th-century Greece:
As long as one deals with the spiritual, one increases one’s love for Christ. The spiritual and the carnal are like communicating vessels. When the spiritual ascends, the carnal thoughts descend, and when the spiritual descends, the carnal desire and the passions in general ascend. The spiritual is the love of Christ!
Is the spiritual ascending in my life? Or am I focused on the many evils of this world? My bad mood and agitated spirit provide a good answer to these questions.
Our Thoughts Affect the People Around Us
Our thoughts have a ripple effect. My worry and anger are not just matters between God and me. In a mystical way I can’t quite explain, my thoughts and emotions also affect the people around me.
Saint Seraphim of Sarov, in 19th-century Russia, famously said: “Acquire the spirit of peace and a thousand souls will be saved around you.”
Orthodox people love to quote this, but—just between you and me—I never really understood what St. Seraphim meant.
But I’m beginning to see more clearly how my own inner peace—or lack of it—affects others after reading the words of St. Sophrony of Essex, who established the Holy Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Essex, England, in 1959. He died in 1993, and in following passage he was counseling monastics. But his words about the influence of our thoughts on others apply to all of us. So when he writes “cell,” think “home.” When he writes “monastery,” think “school” or “workplace”—wherever we spend our waking hours among our fellow humans.
Every time you are in your cell or wherever and are thinking in a disparaging way towards your brothers or sisters, you are destroying life, and the brothers or sisters whom you are criticizing feel it and are wounded. How does this happen? Even between those who do not pray there is a psychological sensitivity, and they perceive the psychic waves, the psychic energy that others are emitting. No one notices anything; he doesn’t hear any words; he doesn’t see any gestures. That which happens, happens in secret—yet life is destroyed.
If someone—I won’t stop repeating this—allows himself to have bad thoughts about someone else, this destroys life because everyone has in his heart an innate perception that enables him to feel what others have within themselves. Every thought, positive or negative—even when we are alone in our cell—is an energy and a power that is reflected in the life of the whole monastery. When thoughts are positive, when prayer is fervent of one for another and of one for all and of all for one, then the walls of the monastery are strengthened. On the contrary, however, when our thoughts take a turn for the worse, and instead of loving we criticize our brother, then this makes cracks in the walls of the monastery, and everything falls apart.
This is sobering. When I allow fear, anger, and hatred into my mind, it not only wreaks havoc with my own spiritual health, but it affects others around me too—even when I don’t necessarily act on my negative thoughts.
We all know this intuitively at some level, don’t we? Have you ever encountered people who were so tense that you felt anxious in their presence? I have. I also possess an inner radar for hostile, angry people, and I avoid them. They don’t have to say or do anything; I just feel the emotional waves.
Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica explains,
We can keep guard over the whole world by keeping guard over the atmosphere of heaven within us, for if we lose the Kingdom of Heaven, we will save neither ourselves nor others. He who has the Kingdom of God in himself will perceptibly pass it on to others. People will be attracted by the peace and warmth in us; they will want to be near us, and the atmosphere of heaven will gradually pass on to them. It is not even necessary to speak to people about this. The atmosphere of heaven will radiate from us even when we keep silence or talk about ordinary things.
I have experienced this blessing in my own life—people who change the atmosphere of a room through their inner peace. Shortly after college, I worked in an office environment with a woman whose name I will never forget: Joanne. In my eyes she was pretty old—about 52. She now seems rather young to me.
She was not in a position of authority, but she had a way about her of really listening to people, always with a kind and encouraging word at the ready. When people talked to her, they knew they were valued. Whenever I discussed some random work issue with her, I would feel my shoulder muscles physically relax in her presence.
She loved others, and those of us around her felt that love. Her inner peace brought a taste of salvation to everyone around her. Who knows? Over her life, she may have influenced thousands.
When we seek the Lord, our heart begins to burn. The heart is warmed, and if our thoughts are concentrated in one point and the concentration is powerful, then the flame of the heart grows stronger and stronger, and we do everything from the heart. After that we see things around us changing—people’s thoughts also start to change—all because of the peace that radiates from us. We see the thoughts of people around us actually changing! The people are changing! They feel good in our presence. Perhaps they had been at war with us before, but now they feel us radiating peace. As for us, we now no longer return “an eye for an eye,” but rather good and kind thoughts. — Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, p.116
These various data points in my life—the violence and depravity of the world around me, my own inconsistent inner life, the teachings of capital-S saints, and my relationships with small-s saints—have raised many questions for me about my thought life and the state of my heart. The pressure cooker of these past few years has really emphasized for me the need to be vigilant.
If I don’t focus my thoughts intentionally, plenty of others, human and demonic, are more than ready to capture and control my thoughts.
I need to be filled: not with the latest news, not with fashionable opinions, and certainly not with the rage and fear that the world has to offer.
Try to fill your soul with Christ so as not to have it empty. Your soul is like a cistern full of water. If you channel the water to the flowers, that is, the virtues, you will experience true joy and all the thorns of evil will wither away. But if you channel the water to the weeds, these will grow and choke you and all the flowers will wither. — St. Porphyrios the Kapsokalyvite
So. Back to my original question, directed inward: Have I learned anything, now that this pandemic is kinda sorta over? Well, I certainly can’t mark any lessons “complete.” But I hope I have internalized the importance of guarding my heart and paying attention to my thoughts. Sometimes this means I will turn off the news. Always it means that, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, I will turn away from voices that tempt me toward despair and to see others as my enemy.
Have you learned anything during the past few years? I’m talking about spiritual lessons, not anything about politics or science. If you have the time to share, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below. I don’t make a habit of soliciting blog interaction, but dang, the world is so empty and hopeless right now. It’s good to encourage one another to “fill [our souls] with Christ so as not to have [them] empty.”
I will close with a prayer of watchfulness from the 19th-century Russian bishop and theologian, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov:
Plant love for You in my heart, so that I will no longer be parted from You, no longer be distracted by irresistible attraction to foul sin. Give me Your peace, so that it may preserve my soul in unbreakable calm, preventing my thoughts from running about the entire cosmos without any purpose, to my own detriment, to my own confusion. [Collected Works, Vol. 3]
I apologize to regular readers for publishing this blog post two weeks late. We’re mostly volunteers over here at AFM, and life happens. But the main cause for delay is that, ironically, I had a difficult time gathering my thoughts to write about . . . the importance of our thoughts. So if this episode felt a bit like a grab bag of ideas, that’s because it is. I hope you relate to the struggle, and I hope you can join me next time.