Desert Wisdom: Conquering Evil Thoughts

In the fourth and fifth centuries the deserts of Egypt and Palestine saw the development of a very particular monastic tradition.  Thousands of men and women wandered far into the wilderness, dedicating themselves to a life of hardship and prayer in an effort to make their spirit “perfect as the Father in Heaven is perfect.” Living in caves or stone cells, in absolute poverty and usually in isolation, they worked and prayed and fasted, endeavouring to make a reality of their faith.  

Although the extreme asceticism of this method might be incomprehensible to the modern spiritual seeker, their insight into human psychology is as relevant today as it ever was.  

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The abbot Pastor teaches that evil thoughts are not to be avoided, but overcome.

A certain brother came to the abbot Pastor, and said, “Many evil thoughts come into my mind, and I am in danger through them.” The old man led him out into the air, and said to him, “Stretch yourself out, and stop the wind from blowing.” The brother, wondering at his words, replied, “I cannot do that.” Then the old man said to him, “If you cannot stop the wind from blowing, neither can you prevent evil thoughts from entering your mind. That is beyond your power; but one thing you can do — conquer them.”

Advice for the conquering of evil thoughts.

A certain brother once asked one of the elders, “How shall I overcome the evil thoughts which ceaselessly trouble me?” The elder said to him, “Do not attempt to strive with all of them. Strive only against one. All evil thoughts have a single head and source. —In one man it is this, in another that. It is necessary, first of all, to find out each man for himself what is the origin of his evil thoughts. Then let him bend his energies to the conquest of that one thing, and all other evil thoughts will give way before him.”

That evil thoughts are evil deeds.

“Brethren,” said a certain elder, “you are striving to commit no evil deed. I beseech you strive, at the same time, to think no evil thought.”

Of our strife against evil thoughts.

A certain elder said, If we have no evil thoughts we are no better than the beasts. The enemy does what is in his power when he suggests them to us. Let us also do the duty which lies within our power. Be instant in prayer, and the enemy will flee. Find time for meditation on divine things, and you will conquer. Persevere, and the good in you will win. Strive hard, and you will be crowned.

from The Wisdom of the Desert
James O. Hannay

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