“Where did that thought come from?”
Have you ever experienced an intrusive thought, seemingly out of nowhere, and embarrassingly realized how evil it was? Or, after clenching your fists and grinding your teeth for five minutes, have you realized you had been internally contemplating a current event that caused you to lose your temper and unjustly lash out at someone? How do we combat these intrusive thoughts? How do we cultivate interior peace and guard our senses to quickly dismiss these thoughts when temptation arises? I would like to suggest that, in the face of evil thoughts and temptations, we should adopt a spirit of “watchfulness.” When accompanied by prayer, watchfulness is a spiritual practice that can lead us to one of the eight beatitudes, purity of heart (Matthew 5:8). This grace given by Christ frees us from impure thoughts, impassioned words, and evil actions. It strengthens our will to keep custody of our mind and guides us to a holy way of life. Watchfulness is the guard incessantly analyzing and halting thoughts at the entrance of our hearts. And this is of great importance since our Lord said that we would be judged not only by our deeds but by our thoughts: “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man” (Mark 7:21-23). Clearly, evil thoughts are dangerous when entertained and perversely cultivated.
Four Types of Watchfulness
St. Hesychios of Sinai is not a well-known saint, and nothing definite is known concerning his works, as only fragments remain. However, many ascetic monks commend his work on watchfulness, inner attentiveness, and the guarding of the heart. In his treatise On Watchfulness and Holiness, St. Hesychios instructs his readers to be aware of four types of watchfulness that can assist in purifying the heart and keeping the eyes fixed upon heaven.
- Closely scrutinize every mental image or provocation. We are bombarded with thousands of images every day. Corporations pay top dollar to fight for your attention and put their logo, branding, and message in front of you. What we consume affects our behavior and memory. If we intentionally fill our minds with things of truth, goodness, and beauty, our minds will, in turn, be drawn toward and recollect these transcendentals. On the other hand, if we fill our minds with the contrary, it will dominate our being, darkening our intellect by violently pushing us further from reality. The darkened intellect reaches devastating power when the imagination has built a world in its own image and likeness, surrounded by restlessness and the deafening noise of nothingness. However, guarding the purity of our imagination serves our intellect and ensures that we see the world as it really is—a world in which we are made in God’s image and likeness and meant to rest in Him. Let us be watchful of the images we consume.
- Free the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still in prayer. It is the contemplation of our Lord that bars entry to evil thoughts. Prayer quiets the mind, brings to light disordered attachments, draws the heart to higher goods, and reveals the need for reconciliation. In prayer, the soul can be still in the depths of simple and singular contemplations, quenching man’s profound thirst to rest in his Creator. St. Hesychios states, “When the heart has acquired stillness, it will perceive the heights and depths of knowledge; and the ear of the still intellect will be made to hear marvelous things from God.” With Christ’s help, this watchfulness keeps sins from entering our minds and cuts off sinful thoughts that previously assaulted us. While this silent prayer can initially be intimidating or awkward, offer that awkwardness to our Lord, praying that you desire comfort and rest. Ask Him to bring to light the times you have carelessly entertained impure or unholy thoughts and beg for the strength and courage to mindfully guard your intellect. Watchfulness and prayer reinforce one another. Watchfulness purifies our prayers by revealing our daily struggles and asking the Divine Physician to heal us. Likewise, prayer bolsters our desire to purify our thoughts and to remain vigilant to approach our Lord in prayer with a clean and pure heart. Through prayer, we can judge our thoughts quickly, clinging to all that is holy and discarding what is not. Let us be watchful in prayer.
- Continually and humbly call upon the Lord Jesus Christ for help. It is impossible to cleanse our hearts from impure thoughts without the constant invocation of Jesus Christ. Cleansing the soul of impassioned thoughts makes room for the salvific name of Jesus, bringing the soul joy and peace. But this does not happen accidentally; we must develop the virtuous habit of calling upon our Lord throughout the day. In her great wisdom, the Church has provided us with a blueprint through a compilation of prayers called the Liturgy of the Hours. While the laity is encouraged but not required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the routine of praying morning, evening, and night can help us form the habit of turning to our Lord throughout the day. By developing this habit, we can be equipped when temptation knocks on our door, instinctively invoking the Holy Spirit for guidance, for the Spirit mystically confirms Christ’s presence in us. If we fail to do so, succumbing to temptation and falling into sin, we build a city of vanity and pride populated with unholy thoughts. We must beg our Lord and His Mother for a pure and contrite heart, tearing down the prideful city through the sacrament of confession, and begin again to build upon the foundation of sanctifying grace. Let us be watchful through the day and never tire of calling upon our Lord Jesus Christ for mercy and guidance.
- Always have the thought of death in one’s mind. An overemphasis on worldly security is compensation for losing the sense of our eternal end. Recalling that we are not made for this world but for the next reminds us that the world cannot truly satisfy our desires. Bringing our death to the forefront of our consciousness can order our thoughts to our ultimate purpose, namely that we are children of God and can find hope for eternal salvation in Christ’s death and resurrection. “In all you do, remember the end of your life, and then you will never sin.” (Sirach 7:36) Let us be watchful and remember we, too, will die.
Sin creates a proclivity to sin; it engenders vice by repetitions of the same acts (CCC: 1865). One of the great benefits of watchfulness is seeing mental images of evil thoughts as soon as they are formed in the intellect, exposing these thoughts as evil, and quickly dismissing them. By scrutinizing our thoughts, developing a silent prayer life, forming a habit of daily calling upon our Lord, and remembering that this life is fleeting and that someday we will die, we will attune our intellects and wills to the promise that the pure of heart will see God face to face and be like Him. (CCC 2519)