Sin begins with the mind. So does virtue. The Baltimore Catechism with which I was trained typically brought out such points. Over time, however, I began to see that these points had more meaning for me than I first realized. As a child what I learned had to do more with sin than virtue, to be honest with you. If I had thought that was sinful, and I didn’t “give in to it,” then my behavior was salutary. If I gave in to it, but resisted it and eventually changed my thinking to something else, I could say that my sin here was venial, which is to say a lesser sin. And Finally, if I did not get rid of it at all, entertaining it even, then my sin was mortal. I would have to confess this one for sure, and until then, I could not receive communion. To many people, this seems unfair in a way. After all, a mortal sin means hell! Besides, how can anyone control his mind in a way that sounds robotic? Is it even possible to control one’s mind so strictly? Wouldn’t it make a person who does this neurotic? What a choice! Hell or neurotic behavior!
Well, let’s look at this theme more closely. First, it can be helpful for us to know that the concept of behavior originating out of what one chooses to think is a concept found in many religions beside Christianity. In other words, the insight that one ought to watch one’s mind “or else” is the result of human experience. People learned that surrendering to whatever would come into their minds made them ultimately feel bad, thus in the end giving them the feeling of what seemed like hell. Such spiritual knowledge compelled Christ to talk about someone failing in the spiritual life because they committed adultery in their “heart.” What our Lord was saying, along with the founders of the other world religions, was that our spiritual growth is gauged by what we think, and that as our thoughts are seeds of our future behavior, what we think is what we become, as the old saying goes. And the result can be delightful or hellish. Our Lord isn’t trying to be brutal with us; rather, He is inviting us to experience an insight into ourselves, seeing how we “tick,” so to speak. The insight is that it all begins with the mind.
Meditation schools typically invite people to first watch their minds, juast to see the kind of thoughts that normally come, however pleasing or shocking. Second, people eventually realize in such systems that their ability to control their thoughts is initially minimal, if it is even possible at all, a realization that in turn calls for patience and gentleness with oneself. A strong mind is indeed possible. But to be so successful, discouragement must not be the dominant thought. One must be gentle with oneself, actually, allowing oneself to bring one’s mind slowly back to God whenever one notices that one’s mind is straying from what one wants to think.
What is core for us as Christians is to immerse our minds in thoughts higher than what we think – today. Starting with today is good enough. So, by thinking and practicing love (e.g. virtue), instead of thinking and practicing negativity (e.g. sin), we grow. We all grow the more we can move away from the original “fight or flight” behavior of our ancestors. It’s too fearful. Such behavior, by definition, renders us unable to bond with all of humanity. Fearful people just do not seem to bond well, as a rule. This fearful or “hard” behavior gives way through spiritual practice to a softer, more loving behavior. We become more open to selfless acts to the extent that we are successful in identifying with all of humanity. But to do this, we need strong mind’s that simply do not give in to negativity and fear. We must immerse our minds in the ways of God instead. Our minds are quite capable of surrendering to this more advanced ideal through gentle but firm repetitive practice. To our surprise, we arrive, realizing that God was always with us, waiting as a patient parent for us to get rid of our small minded toys, so that we could receive instead the whole universe. And it begins with the mind.
Blessings, Fr. Walter