The Holy Preaching 1. The Eight evil thoughts: Introducing the Mental Scaffold

by Sr Rose Rolling o.p.

What is the Holy Preaching? 

The first community that St Dominic set up in the newly formed Order of Preachers was not of itinerant friars but of enclosed nuns. He gave this first community the rather affectionate name of the Holy Preaching of Prouille, Prouille being the village in France where the monastery was located. This community lived in the middle of a spiritual wasteland, at a time of schism inside the church and great social division outside it. But this reality did not faze St Dominic, indeed, it was precisely in this environment that he saw the need for a community which would witness to the beauty and truth of Christ in both word and deed.

The Holy Preaching was, if you like, St Dominic’s answer to the very contemporary ecclesial question of synodality. Dominic recognised that our preaching to the non-Christian world must be founded on how we as Christians love each other. There are countless ways of preaching, but love is

 the most universal and effective of them all. That is why there was no contradiction for St Dominic that the nuns of Prouille could be both enclosed and preachers at the same time – their fraternal love for each other was to be their preaching.

We’ve named this initiative after the Holy Preaching of Prouille to communicate our wish to welcome you in as part of our extended family, and to offer nourishment and encouragement to each other in what can sometimes feel like the spiritual wasteland of our society.  

Why this theme series?

Our first series of talks will all come under the umbrella of The Eight Evil Thoughts and the Healing of the Modern Mind. This is a series which will reflect on the Eight Evil Thoughts – also called the Logismoi – and handed down to us by the Desert Fathers. The Logismoi refer to persistent thoughts and/or images which tempt us away from Christ and the good.

This theme of the Eight Evil Thoughts has been chosen for two main reasons.

The first is that as Dominicans, our theological reflection is always informed by our pastoral engagement, and a great deal of the distress that we see in pastoral work is rooted in mental anguish and/or moral crisis. This deep dis-ease of the mind and its manifestations in things like poor mental health, overstimulation, ignorance of faith and morals, and disillusionment, appear to be the most common forms of suffering afflicting modern people.  

The second reason is because, as Dominicans, our particular charism, which means the gift that God has given us for the service of others, is study and preaching. We recognise that our conversion will ultimately come through the mind. The word metanoia, which is the Greek origin of the word repentance, literally means a ‘change of mind’, and this is why study has such an important place in Dominican life. Given the current situation, perhaps now is the time when the gifts of the Order are called forth in a particular way to help heal a generation so afflicted by this ‘dis-ease’ of the mind and in so doing, prepare the way for the conversion, integration and transformation we are all called to.  

The ultimate aim of this series of talks then, our hope, is that it will help you to increase in self-knowledge and knowledge of our great Catholic spiritual tradition, and in so doing, enable growth in freedom and peace of soul, which is precisely what Christ came to do.

The Mind of Christ

So let’s begin at the end: if we want to know where we are going, we have to know our destination. Our destination as human beings is Christ: to be like Christ in His humanity, Who is the perfect Man, and to be united with Christ in His divinity forever in Heaven. Christ is the master key to unlocking our transformation.  

This transformation starts with our minds. In the Letter to the Romans 12:2, we are told to “not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." Do not conform but be transformed. This last word – transformed - is the same word used in the original Greek to refer to Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration. 

But what are the qualities of this transformed mind?

The answer to this is found most clearly in what we call the Christological Hymn of Philippians 2:5-8. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI[1] says that these verses depict a mind wholly characterised by generosity, humility, obedience to God and the gift of self. These are the supreme qualities of the mind of Christ and the keys to our transformation. I encourage you to meditate on these verses in your private prayer, especially during this Lenten season as we seek to imitate the self-emptying of Christ more fully.

So, we have our goal set: to put on the mind of Christ in all generosity, humility, obedience to God and self-giving. For most of us, however, as we start out in earnest on our journey of transformation, we run into roadblocks.

Roots of Bondage:

Now, grace builds on nature. So, before we even start looking at the moral life of temptation and vice, we need to begin by understanding our raw human material. The initial roadblocks hindering our development begin in our minds and usually operate under one of the following distortions:

  • The wound of Original Sin. Our whole human nature, including our mental faculties, have been wounded by Original Sin. The consequence for our minds is that Original Sin darkens the intellect and weakens the will – so we find it harder to know the good and to do the good.
  • Our psychological wounds. This refers to specific personal traumas, such as bereavement, abuse, neglect, or experiences of war or natural disasters. These are major episodes of trauma, but there are also the ‘everyday pinpricks’ which can leave psychological wounds: for example, the older sibling who always pushed you around, the mother who always criticised how you dressed, the colleague who puts you down to make themselves feel better. All of these can leave us feeling fearful, insecure and unworthy and create barriers which prevent us from fully surrendering ourselves to God’s love.
  • Our own inner critic. The little inner voice sending out a negative feedback loop of criticism, judgement and condemnation. The strength of our inner critic is usually related to the degree of our psychological wounds.
  • Ignorance of truth. Ignorance especially of faith and morals, which are the overall guardians of our spiritual health.
  • Our social environment: This includes our country, culture, local community and family networks. Our environment may reinforce or exacerbate our ignorance or inner critic. It may also keep us bound in a web of social sin, which refers to those structures, laws and policies that perpetuate injustice.
  • Temperamental weakness: The 1st Letter of St John 2:16, describes a three-fold concupiscence: the concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life. These are the root sins or the mother sins that give birth to all other sin. One of these sins – either pride, vanity or sensuality – will have a stronger attraction to us than others. This will be our root sin, our Achilles heel.
  • Evil spirits: Temptation is the usual mode of operation for evil spirits, but they can also cause mental obsession, which is continuous and involuntary negative rumination. Demonic obsessions can be distinguished from psychological OCD by their intensity, their content and that fact that they are often brought on by engaging in holy practices. The intensity of the attacks often dissipates in the wake of deliverance prayers.

All of these contribute to what I’m going to call ‘dysmorphic thinking’, which ends up forming our basic mental scaffold. You’ve probably all heard of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, the anxious preoccupation with the flaws in one’s body or part of one’s body. Well, I think there is a wider form of dysmorphic thinking, one in which we have all kinds of false perceptions of ourselves, of God, and of other people.

The first thing we need to do is to heal and strengthen our mental infrastructure. The Benedictine nun Sr Mary Margaret Funk says that “we generally live life in a cloud of unthinking, totally unaware of the inner stirrings and sensitivities of our hearts”[2]. St Teresa of Avila said that spiritual growth depends on self-knowledge. So, we need to come to know ourselves and to start mapping our inner landscape: Where are my psychological wounds? What is my root sin and what are my temperamental weaknesses? In what ways am I ignorant? What is it in my social environment that leads me into temptation, or keeps me weak? These are all important questions to take to prayer and to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you.

 

Once we’ve got a basic self-knowledge and started to become attentive to the movements of our thoughts and emotions, the spiritual combat begins in earnest.

Evagrius:

It is at this point where we meet Evagrius, who will be our spiritual mentor throughout this series. Evagrius is a sympathetic companion, for he writes from personal experience. Initially, Evagrius served as a lector and deacon before joining a monastery. Seeking still more to be wholly converted to Christ, he retreated to a life of solitude in the Egyptian desert, and it was here that the demons in the depths of his own heart manifested with full force. The Eight Evil Thoughts come from the recordings of his own spiritual combat, which he fought through lifelong perseverance in prayer, self-knowledge and monastic stability.

Evagrius says that the first thought of all is love of self, and after that, follow the eight.[3].

The Eight Evil Thoughts are:

1. Gluttony

2. Lust

3. Avarice

4. Sadness

5.Anger

6. Acedia

7.Vanity

8. Pride

 

Each month we will unpack one of these topics and explore it in-depth, so I hope you will come back! However, I do just want to draw out a few key points in this list.

  1. Gluttony is often the first thought for those setting out on the spiritual path. Stripped of other pleasures, food becomes an obsessive preoccupation and a consolation. Gluttony refers to the obvious issue of overeating, but also includes the more subtle preoccupations of insisting on the most delicate food, the most expensive food, or an excessive concern for one’s health.
  2. Lust is often the most persistent thought in our spiritual battle since sex is connected to our deepest impulses towards love and generativity. Lust refers to a disordered desire for, or excessive preoccupation with, sexual pleasure.
  3. Avarice is the most all-encompassing thought. It is simply the desire for more: the concern to accumulate wealth and possessions are the obvious example, but avarice also applies to our desires for immaterial things such as acquiring a high status, or accolades etc.
  4. Sadness is the thought most connected to our human nature. Evagrius uses it to refer to the monk tempted to return to his home, family and former life after a spell in the monastery, saddened at his separation and resentful of the trials he now experiences. Sadness sometimes arises from frustrated desires (like the natural desire for family and home), or sometimes from anger. Interestingly, bereavement counselling recognises that anger is often the first level of grief, which would support Evagrius’ connection and understanding of monastic life as a ‘death’ to the world.
  5. Anger is the sharpest thought and potentially the most destructive, a boiling movement of indignation against a wrongdoer or a presumed wrongdoer.
  6. Acedia is the most burdensome thought, also called the ‘noonday demon'. It refers to the lack of zeal or joy for spiritual things, a kind of weary restlessness, and a particular temptation for monks or those who have been faithful Christians for many years.
  7. Vanity is the most subtle thought, and the one which easily infiltrates those whose lives are going well. It concerns the desire for human acclaim, especially in spiritual things.
  8. Pride is the most destructive thought, and can lead the soul to its worst fall. It refuses to admit God’s help and credits the self rather the God for its achievements.

Again, in this Lenten season, I really encourage you to spend some time meditating upon these thoughts and start becoming attentive to when they erupt in your own minds. Learn to identify and name them, to read their origin and intensity. Knowledge of one’s adversary is the first stage of victory.

The order in which Evagrius lists the “thoughts” is deliberate. The list is given in what he saw as the general pattern of development in a person’s spiritual growth. Beginners tend towards thoughts concerned with the physical aspects of a man’s nature, the desire for food, sex, and one’s own possessions. Desires which although natural in themselves, when taken to excess lead to gluttony, lust and avarice and leave us little room to attend to spiritual matters.

Christians who have reached the middle of the spiritual journey, a spiritual adolescence if you like, are plagued more by the inner moods and growing pains typical of teenagers: sadness, anger and acedia. This is often the bridging point in the journey, the point where we either regress into childhood or step up to adult responsibility.  

Finally, for those who are advanced along the spiritual path, the temptations become spiritual and all the more dangerous and deceptive for that reason, manifesting in the forms of vanity and pride, the Pharisaical sins Jesus came down so hard on.  

Bondage:

So: so far we’ve seen that we have our mental distortions (rooted in our basic human nature) and our temptations (as a product of the spiritual battle). These lists are intended to serve a diagnostic purpose: one which helps identify the process and content of our own natural and spiritual strengths and weaknesses, as well as our moral temptations,

If our mental distortions and moral temptations are both strong enough, and even complementary, the result will be habitual sin.

One of the questions that I hear quite a lot is: ‘what’s the point of confessing the same sins over and over again’? well, to briefly answer, the point is your desire for conversion and the reception of God’s grace.

However, what is more important is the implicit issue which surfaces in the question – there are many people who do indeed find themselves confessing the same sins over and over again. This is what we call habitual sin – we are in the habit of some wrong action, for example, frequent gossiping, fits of rage, the use of pornography or masturbation, cycles of lying etc. Habitual sin is one of the prime blocks to God’s grace and spiritual growth in our life.

Too often, habitual sin tends to be accompanied by an attitude that this is just the way it is – that’s me, or that’s life, or that’s the consequence of the fallen world. Sometimes this attitude comes from presumption – well, I’m mostly a good Christian, and God understands. Or, more often in my experience, a feeling of despair or shame, which is also the feeling that accompanies most addicts – we want to be free, we want to be good, but feel struck in a rut in which we feel powerless to change. Why am I like this? Why does God allow me to go on sinning?

Well, there are two points I want to make in answer to these questions.

The first is that you can be a practising Catholic, spiritually connected to Christ through baptism and the life of grace, but still in spiritual bondage.

This is because there is a difference between conversion and deliverance. It says in Colossians 1:13 that “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves”. Notice the word ‘and’. Through baptism, we have been rescued from the dominion of darkness, we have become a son or daughter of the Father. The gateway of salvation and conversion is laid open to us.

However, we were born into a fallen world – think back to our first list of all the things that affect our minds – the darkened intellect, psychological wounds, our root sin etc. – most of us come to Jesus with baggage. This is why we must also experience deliverance. Deliverance means freedom from our soul’s enemies, like habitual sin, obsessive tendencies, addictions etc. which keep slaves. And deliverance is a constant process: winning a battle is not winning a war. Spiritual combat only ends at death.

I do not want to give simplistic answers to the complex problems, but if I may say, I do think that one of the major reasons why cradle Catholics leave the Church, why those who become Catholics also later leave the Church, why the attendance at the Sacrament of Confession is low, is because we emphasise conversion but we don’t accompany people through deliverance. And that’s a major block to spiritual growth.

The second thing I want to say is that Jesus came to heal, to set us free and give us fullness of life. In Jesus’ name, we can take back the authority that sin steals from us first by becoming aware of our thoughts which perpetuate or justify our sinful behaviours.

Once we are aware, we need to address it.

Healing:

So, this is where our quest for healing comes in. I would like you to come on this journey and open your mind to the light of Christ and His healing touch. To start doing that, I just want to end by giving you some practical tools to start you off on this journey of transformation.

The most effective way we do can start to do this is by silent prayer – that is you and the Lord face to face, heart to heart. Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament is a particularly efficacious form of silent prayer.

A practice linked with silent prayer is mindfulness.  The word ‘mindfulness’ is a bit of a hot potato in some Catholic circles. Now, it is true that the modern use of the word tends to have connotations of Eastern or New Age spirituality which we must be cautious of. However, Dr Greg Bottaro is a Catholic clinical psychologist and founder of the Catholic Psych. Institute, and he has put together a theologically orthodox program of Catholic mindfulness which may be worth exploring.

 ‘Mindfulness’ is here defined as intentional awareness of the present moment, and conscious awareness of ourselves, and then bringing the experience of our whole selves lived in this moment into the presence of God.

Through practising the presence of self and the presence of God, we are able to become truly attentive and docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Mother Angelica said that the quickest way to become a saint was to follow the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. Well, to do that, we have to fine-tune ourselves to His movements, and we can only do that through cultivating deep attentiveness.

If we let God in, He will take the initiative in our lives, and He will bring issues to the surface of our consciousness so that we can cooperate with Him in healing these places he wishes to touch. Inner healing is about asking the Lord to release His love and freedom into an area of our lives which has been closed. What is important in this process is to be vigilant to our inner landscape but not force anything, and to keep our eyes on Jesus, not on ourselves. I want to stress this last point because it could be easy to see all of this as a task of self-absorption or self-improvement. But no, only God is our saviour, no-one or nothing else.

The other thing that is important for the transformation of the mind is commitment to increasing in knowledge of our faith – and not just knowing information but meditating and internalising it. This doesn’t have to mean the study of academic theology – there are many rich sources of spiritual reading available. The Scriptures are indispensable, we’ve looked already this evening at the Christological Hymn as one good example, reveals to us the mind of Christ; day by day, we can assimilate His way of thinking, feeling and acting.  

Finally, a daily examination of conscience is an excellent practice for growing in self-knowledge and keeping us focused on conversion and enabling us to run towards transformation, the promise Jesus has for us.

So, healing and transforming is a process, and we must be willing and patient in submitting to it. It’s a process which starts with our minds: “sow a thought, reap a deed, sow a deed, reap a habit, sow a habit, reap a character, sow a character, reap a destiny",  and ends in our total transformation in Christ.

 

[1] General Audience on June 27th 2012.

[2] Thoughts Matter

[3] Harmless, W.; Fitzgerald, R.R. (2001). "The Sapphire Light of the Mind: The Skemmata of Evagrius Ponticus". Theological Studies6 (3): 498–529. doi:10.1177/004056390106200303S2CID 170609824.

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