From Insanity to Peace
”Ask for repentence in your prayer and nothing else, neither for divine lights, nor miracles, nor prophecies, nor spiritual gifts -- nothing but repentance” (St. Paisios of Mount Athos).
St. Paisios was a peaceful man. He had the peace that comes from above, not something put on, nor a merely peaceful temperament. His was an internal peace. Indeed, he warned people not to seek external peace, nor to avoid situations because of their strains or tribulations. Rather, St. Paisios discovered true peace — the peace that comes only from a life of repentance. Rarely understood, and more rarely walked out, repentance is the return of all our inner thoughts, the murmer of our heart, to God. Repentance is the wandering sheep, our soul, brought back into the pasture of prayer.
Christ compares repentance to a redeemed sheep.
“Which one of you,” he asks, “having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance” (Luke 15:4-7).
This parable is often used to describe a non-believer who acknowledges Christ the Savior. However, it takes a deeper meaning for all of us, regardless of our faith. It is an allegory of the wandering heart.
Our hearts are tugged in a hundred directions. Every day starts out fresh. Yet, within the first 60 seconds of the day, your mind races back and forth and becomes drenched in the concerns of life. Before you step out of the front door, the soul has gotten tangled up in anxieties, fears, worries, angers, and everything else. We start the day new, but are dragged into the vacuum of the world. If you do not believe me, trying sitting still in the morning for 5 minutes. Do not twiddle your fingers. Do not even pray. Just sit, breathe, and be motionless. Watch where your mind runs. This is the wandering sheep.
This was a problem long before televisions or Iphones. Distractedness goes all the way back to the fall, and is, infact, its chief result. The Church Fathers call distractedness the crux of spiritual battle.
A monk from Mount Athos, Fr. Maximus Constas, explains it this way:
“The human mind, created in a state of rest, became agitated and distracted when it fell from grace…Forgetting God and grasping at the world, we become subject to unhealthy desires and addictive behaviors, driven by a continuous preoccupation with and pursuit of nothing… Habitually surrendering to our irrational drives and impulses, the mind becomes enslaved.”
Before sinning, Adam and Eve lived in our natural state, perfect peace with God. They walked with God in the garden. Their hearts were so still, so united, so focused, that they communed with God by simply breathing. Sin scatters our thoughts a part like a rock against glass. Then we get used to it; addicted to it. The neurons in our brains and the affections of our hearts have gone haywire, and that is the new norm.
“The waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold. I have come into the deep waters; the floods engulf me” (Ps. 69:1-3).
We are so used to being scatterbrained, that we do not even see the problem.
Yet, this is exactly what repentance is about. Christ tells us, the good seed is sown, but choked by our distractions: “The cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful” (Mk. 4:19). St. Symeon elaborates:
“To the extent that our inner life is in a state of discord and dispersed among many contrary things, we are unable to participate in the life of God. We desire opposing and contrary things, and we are torn apart by the relentless warfare between them, and this is called the ‘discord’ of the mind, a condition that divides and destroys the soul.”
Why are we so tired or stressed? Why do we have anger, sadness, or fear? The sheep of the soul is still wandering in the wilderness, rather than returning to the pasture of prayer.
Modern life makes it harder. People have always been distracted. Today, we have created a culture that glories in distraction. We need new gadgets that distract us better. We pay thousands of dollars for more flashing lights, louder noises, and the buzzing, intoxication of distraction. A 2009 New York Times article, “Driven to Distraction,” reported the increasing accidents caused by distracted drivers, hospital staff, and surgeons, hooked on social media. Further reports reveal: American workers spend 41% of their time on Facebook. Average college students invest 3 hours a day checking social sites. Taken together, Americans spend 12 billion hours in social networks on a daily basis. With all this distraction, where can we find peace?
We have to return to the fold of prayer. The prayers of the Church change us. When I first started praying the psalms, I felt a total disconnect. My head is full of things I want, hurt, or anger…meanwhile, the psalms wander around about pastures, corn and wine, roaring waters, and fortresses. The prayers in Mass also feel strange at first. When your head is still spinning from the noise outside, the Thee’s and Thou’s and the poetry of Church can sound like a foreign language. This is exactly why we need the Church’s prayers. We do not need to pray what is on our mind. We need our minds healed, in order that we can pray. Little by little, the prayers of the Church pull us away from the noise. We have to dedicate ourselves to these prayers. As we do so, the world lets go of our souls, and we can fly.
All heaven rejoiced over the return of one sheep. This is the ecstasy of true prayer. By God’s grace, the wandering sheep can come home. In a life of true repentance, a life of returning the heart in prayer, we can discover peace. May God open our hearts to hear his call, so that we return to the quiet of his heavenly fold.