Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose

I received some positive responses from friends of this blog for my last essay on paradox.

The key line was that humble people do not merely think badly of themselves, but don’t much think of themselves much at all. And then perhaps better said, this is not to say they are not aware of themselves, but the watchfulness they exercise over their minds keeps focused on the heart which is the faculty of man to apprehend God.

A good friend, the one in fact to whom this essay was written, fairly challenged this as kicking the can down the road. After all, there was no real disagreement with the premise, but neither was their insight into how this is done and why it is effectual.

This is a mystery, one I have not achieved, but the light I intended to shine from my own experience I will endeavor to make clear.

In psychology I have always favored the behaviorists. Despite their excesses, their calculated consideration of man as a physical being tends to mute my tendency to speak exclusively about the transcendent nature of man. The best work in this field is in the matter of habituated stimulus and response. If you do something in the immediate presence of a strong stimulus you will tend to reinforce that behavior over time. This is a mechanism for addiction (using a substance or activity in the presence of stress) but it will also assist you in getting a good night’s sleep (preparing for sleep with a regular pattern behavior started at the same time every night).

Christ tells us:

Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.

So then the person watching over their hearts is like a sentry aware of each strong stimuli, holding the gate against disruptive stimuli certainly, but more importantly monitoring the response of the heart and training it with an active conscience to send out only that which is undefiled. We watch, when our spouse fails to clean up the kitchen, and guide the heart to the task of completing the chore in good cheer. The more we are watchful screening influences and tempering responses the more automatic those habits become. Indeed, the more humble we become, the less self-centered and the less thought of self and the wrongs done us.

Some have said that certain exercises of the Zen Buddhists are compatible with a Christian discipline in this area because of their focus on being fully present in the present. Here too is the value of ritual to call our mind into focus and into ever deeper layers of experience as we make each level of habitual experience automatic it frees us to a richer contemplation of the moment.

But perhaps you are no fan of behaviorists and consider Zen Buddhism a worldly wisdom best left out of consideration. We could reflect on a more Freudian interpretation of events.

Of the Theotokos the scripture tells us:

Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.

Our Most Blessed Lady was doing more than keeping quiet here. She was reflecting in her (to quote the Psalmist) inward parts where we know and are known by God on the news of the glad tidings of the heavenly hosts. For us such contemplation is not nearly as sublime, as I am referring to the contemplation of our sins.

The therapeutic method is one of guided reflection. We can see how such reflection can be helpful when we go to confess our sins. Without a watchful mind, we will have nothing but a list of the most surface outbursts of evil acts. This is not to say that “I lost my temper twice with my wife and kicked the cat” is not a valid confession or a trivial matter. But rather, if we do not watch our hearts we can never uproot the experiences and delusions which result in our sinful outbursts.

In this way we seek out the afflictions that give rise internally to our sinful patterns. We consider how our lives are or are not in balance, keeping with the teachings of the Church and with the advantageous research of modern science. Whereas the behavioral approach outlined above might be good for noticing when we walk past a certain BBQ stand on a fast day we are inclined to fall to temptation, the therapeutic eye might assist us more in why we do not properly feast when the feast has come. We might seek through self-inventory what has robbed us of the joy when it comes in the fullness of it’s time.

These are both helpful considerations (though considerable simplifications) from a religiously unaffected analysis.

What then is the word from the Church on these matters of the soul? What do they say about our need for watchfulness and how that watchfulness can disarm pride and root out vainglory leading us into humility and ultimately a life through Christ, in Christ, as Christ?

Here I must be a Goose and ask for your pardon another day. Hopefully this is a good enough down-payment on an answer.

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4 thoughts on “Duck, Duck, Duck, Goose

  1. Very good thoughts here.

    I don’t have any answers either, but the mandate to be vigilant over the inward states of the soul that lead to our outward actions is clear. Thank you for calling attention to that.

    (I can’t recall how I found your blog, but I look forward to reading more as you update.)

  2. Thank you for stopping by. I have not written many of the more usual essays found on most blogs. I hope to keep a nice mix from now on of prose and poetry.

  3. Agree: Good thinking. Wonder whether part of the humility of humble people isn’t distinguished not just by their not thinking much OF themselves, but not thinking ON themselves as well. In fact the latter may precede the former. The first is very hard if we remain pre-occuppied with “me me me”. The second has to be distinguished from thinking of other things to add to “me me me” to just thinking of other things on their own… as God’s gifts for his creatures – distinctly plural – and perhaps we have care of them, but no more? Or simply thinking of God… as in the Jesus Prayer? And now you force me to admit to not having developed my thoughts more than this, and yet given that you’ve prompted my noggin for something new… I’ll say thank you + adieu!

  4. I’ve got some more to say as well, I just couldn’t pack it all in and once and my schedule has been cramped. More soon, I hope. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog James. My brain has a note in it that says, “You know that thickheaded fellow, you’ve liked his comments around the Ortho-sphere thingy.” When my brain tells me stuff like that, I listen.

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