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Take thought of your thoughts

Warning: this is a religious post. You Have Been Warned.

For some of us, we are deep into Lent. Orthobros, you’ve not even started.

Lent, or the Great Fast, is a time to get rid of what you don’t really need, to turn towards God, to cleanse your pantry and your heart. I do it every year even though I keep not doing it right. Today I came across a bit from St. Theophan the Recluse:

“Pride goes before destruction, and folly before a fall.” Therefore, do not allow evil thoughts to come in, and there will be no falls. And yet, what are people most careless about? About their thoughts. They allow them to seethe as much and however they like, not even thinking to subdue them or to direct them to rational pursuits.

It’s your thoughts that are the problem. There is a meme on X about people not having internal monologues. Perhaps there are such people. Dear reader, I bet you do have such a monologue, a running series of thoughts that go this way and that, and often lead you into resentment, spite, lust, or other sins. Maybe you aren’t ready to think in terms of sin. Ok, but your thoughts still lead you into trouble. What do?

The fathers of the Christian Church came up with a way to deal with this, building on St. Paul’s advice to pray without ceasing. You take your inner monologue and make it be prayerful, a continual conversation with God. There is a tradition of monologic prayer which involves finding a phrase and, whenever you think of it, praying that phrase. It can be even timed with one’s breathing, so that rather than running around thinking about how dumb the president is, or how beautiful that girl is and wouldn’t you really like a piece, or how you can’t stand those people at work and someday you’d really like to get even, you just think “Lord Jesus” or even the fuller form “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner!” Rinse, repeat.

The immediate point of this sort of prayer is a custodial practice on the soul, on the nous, so that it doesn’t go off into random or bad directions. Think about it: your mind is the source of your actions for good or for ill. Shouldn’t you take care what your mind does?

There’s a classic of the Russian spiritual tradition called The Way of the Pilgrim which gives an introduction, should you want to read more.

Vergil/Virgil and Augustus

I’ve been reading Vergil (Virgil) recently.

Fun fact: Virgil’s name is actually Vergil, but everyone misspelled it.

Vergil is famous for the Aeneid, the continuation of the Iliad with a focus on Aeneas, the mythical Roman ancestor. It’s possible that this story isn’t merely legend. The DNA of Tuscany and that of NW Turkey are similar. The legendary migration may have happened. You probably have heard something of this poem, about “Arms and a man,” the tale of the Trojan Horse, and the adventures that follow. It’s very good. Better in Latin, but a masterpiece that extols the glories of Augustus’ Rome.

I have used to think that Vergil must have been executing a commission, that he couldn’t have been that much on board with Augustus, that there was some esoteric meaning in the text. Perhaps Aeneas is an unreliable narrator when he tells his own story, perhaps the fact that we are all usually sympathetic with Dido and not Aeneas, leaving the underworld through the gate of false dreams–all of this could mean that the discerning reader is supposed to detect the note of irony behind the story.

But then I read Eclogue I, a pastoral poem, one of the poems that made Vegil’s reputation and got him the gig with Augustus. It’s a dialogue of two shepherds, bemoaning the fact that the land is disturbed, that there is turmoil, that the goat is bearing her kids on the futile rocky land. One of the shepherds says the following:

 O Meliboee, _deus nobis haec otia fecit_.
 namque erit ille mihi semper deus, illius aram
 saepe tener nostris ab ouilibus imbuet agnus.
 ille meas errare boues, ut cernis, et ipsum
 ludere quae uellem calamo permisit agresti.


O Meliboeus, a god has given us this leisure.
For he will always be a god to me, whose altar
will often be adorned with a tender lamb from my flock.
He it is who allows my cattle to wander, as you see, 
and he permits me to play what I like on my country flute. 

The god is, of course, Augustus. Imagine that your country had been beset with civil war for a hundred years. The fields lay barren, soldiers tear everything up, no plans can be made for the future, and your life is constant striving just to survive. Then someone comes who defeats all the others and establishes order, so that you can have peace, tend your fields, or even indulge in some genuine leisure. Note that this isn’t the leisure of current times, vegetating in front of a screen, but the leisure necessary for high culture. Vergil has the shepherd say that he can play what he likes, that he can write poetry, which isn’t nearly as possible when the countryside is subject to war.

So, maybe I was wrong, and Vergil isn’t being ironic in the Aeneid. Or maybe he’s only a little ironic, as if he’s saying “Look, you and I, we know that Augustus isn’t really a god, but he is certainly godlike in the peace that he has brought. Let the little people worship him. It’s ok.”