thought, word or deed

(Fr. Cyprian)

In the school of Yoga that I studied, which is called ashtanga yoga–or “eight limbed yoga,” the first limb is the moral restraints (the yamas), and the first of those moral restraints is called ahimsa–non-violence. This is from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the classic text of ashtanga yoga: When we become steadfast in our abstention from harming others, / then all living creatures will cease to feel enmity in our presence.” It is sometimes said that all the other moral restraints are just a variation on this one; this is the basic restraint, and the basis for all yoga. It is even this that is partially the basis for vegetarianism, by the way. By non-violence, of course, we mean a refusal to commit violence in thought, word or deed. I remember the first day I heard that––all violence whether in thought, word or deed, I thought that it was one of the most profound things I had ever heard: “Wow, so not only my actions and not only my words; but I should strive to be non-violent even in my thoughts.” And I kept thinking to myself, “Where have I heard that before?” And then it occurred to me, “Ah yes: the Confiteor! ‘…I have sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do.’” And the other place I had heard it was this very gospel passage (Mt 5:20-26)—not only not to kill, not to call anyone a fool, but don’t even be angry! It somehow sounded more brilliant coming from another tradition, but it was right there in my own backyard.

I already preached on the first part of this gospel a few weeks back, suggesting that Jesus was not necessarily putting the Pharisees down here; that they themselves might have actually been holy, and Jesus was calling us to that and more. And here is the more. I was taught to always list things from the gross to the subtle, so I would turn this list around: deeds or actions, words, and then thoughts. We are striving for non-violence in our actions first; but then in our words, as well. And finally we are striving for non-violence in our thoughts, too: Whoever is even angry will be liable to judgment. That goes up there with committing lust in the heart. It gets more and more subtle.

I almost feel like we don’t have to deal with the actions: those are obvious, self-evident. The Ten Commandments lay it out, and Jesus’ articulation of the Golden Rule, which we heard yesterday––a version of which is found in most of the major religions of the world––sums it up: Do unto others as you would have them do to you or, conversely, do to no one would you would not want done to yourself.

But the violence of words is a little harder, at least for me. The French thinker Rene Girard and his disciples such as Gil Bailey and James Alison woke me up to this, how often we exclude somebody else in our language, and exclusion too is a kind of violence. It’s all based on the theory that human society is built on having a scapegoat, of casting somebody out. Girard ruined me on this, when he suggested that even if we don’t always do it actively, we are constantly doing it in our language, which may not be overtly violent or gossipy or character-destroying language, but is still language that makes someone else wrong and me right (especially if they are not there to defend themselves), make someone else out and us in, or that makes me better than them by pointing out their flaws, ever so gently and subtly. Even often I found that the rhetoric of the so-called peace movement was very abusive language. This too is violence, the violence of exclusion. How can we speak in such a way as to include everyone, even someone we don’t agree with? This was the genius of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

And then finally thoughts… This is the Big League. I suppose sometimes it may not be the thoughts themselves––they are merely, as the Buddhists would teach us, clouds passing in the sky. The problem is we cling to those clouds, seed those clouds, and make new ones. The problem may not even be in the thoughts themselves but in our savoring them, sucking on our resentments them like a bone to get the last it of marrow out of them. But, you know, Jesus suggests that sometimes it is the thoughts themselves. What would it take for us actually never to have a violent thought? Not only not to act violently against my brother or sister, not only not to call him a fool––but not even to be angry with her! That is really where Jesus is calling us to, that kind of compassion. And that is what Psalm 51, which we chant every Friday and use often during Lent, is praying for: Create a clean heart in me, O God. I have this image of trying to wring every the last drop of every evil intention out of my heart. Because it is not what goes into us that makes us unclean; as Jesus reminds us in Matthew 15, ‘… what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. If that’s true then Create a clean heart in me, O God! And that is the monastic scopos—goal as laid out by the desert fathers, purity of heart. This kind of purity of heart I think can only come from fasting and prayer.

This is from Philotheus of Sinai:

Where there is humility, remembrance of God with sobriety and attention, and frequent prayer… there is the place of God, [there is] the heaven of the heart where the hosts of demons fear to enter, since it is the dwelling place of God.

To make of our heart a dwelling place for God so that evil intentions get chased away by the remembrance of God, a heart so full of the name of Jesus that the demons fear to enter—that is what we are longing for this season and in our spiritual lives.

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