The Afflictive Thoughts and the Spiritual Life: An Introduction

The spiritual life – whether we live in a monastery, in a community, in a relationship or alone – is governed by a central desire, which might be expressed in the question, ‘What do you seek?’  The psalmist, in Psalm 26, expresses his innermost desire in a few, deeply expressive words:

O Lord, hear my voice when I call; have mercy and answer me.

Of you my heart has spoken, ‘Seek his face’.

Psalm 26

This seeking is given greater expression by the mystical Cistercian William of St Thierry in the 12th century when he writes in his Meditations:

And now, Desire of my soul, my soul desires to wait on you a little space, and to taste and see how gracious you are, O Lord.  She implores your tender mercy to give me peace and silence from all things, whether outward or inward. Give me, O Lord, the comfort of my wilderness – a solitary heart and frequent communing with you.

And the great monastic writer and communicator, John Cassian, who preserved for us much of the central teaching of the wise men and women of early Egyptian monasticism, recognised that the goals of the spiritual life, dictating the work that we as serious seekers had to undertake here and now, were twofold – purity of heart (our work to be done now), and the kingdom of God (the thing that we ultimately wish to achieve).  To do this, Cassian taught that we had to undertake a number of renunciations in our discipleship, the gradual setting aside of things and attitudes and practices which prevent us from growing in our journey into deep relationship with God.  For the monastic the first great renunciation was one’s former way of life – what and who I had been before I came to live the real life of the monastic way. The second renunciation was the renunciation of eight afflictive thoughts or vices, eight tendencies which, if left unchecked, erode and destroy my God-centredness and draw me into complete self-centredness.  It’s interesting to note that these eight afflictive thoughts gradually faded from view as morality became more and more concerned with teaching on the seven deadly sins, first outlined by Pope St Gregory the Great.  In doing so, we lost a vast and rich body of teaching and practice which many today in the monastic life are trying to reclaim and re-teach.  

Over the next number of weeks we will share with you teaching on these eight afflictive thoughts, known widely in ancient monasticism – from Evagrius of Pontus to John Cassian, to Benedict of Nursia (who knew the writings of Cassian which contain this teaching) to our own Cistercian fathers Bernard of Clairvaux, Aelred of Rievaulx, Isaac of Stella, and many others.

Essentially, the eight afflictive thoughts are divided into 3 groups, which cluster around the 3 constituent parts of our personhood:

  • Afflictive thoughts of the body: food, sex, and things
  • Afflictive thoughts of the mind: anger and dejection
  • Afflictive thoughts of the soul: acedia, vainglory, and pride

For now, it’s enough to recognise that these eight afflictive thoughts aren’t simply the concern of monks!  We all of us, in some ways, fall prey to one or some or all of them. They are present in our behaviour and in our hearts and minds.  It’s good to note that, in line with the ancient understanding of thought and action, our exterior actions generally mirror our interior will.  In the Egyptian desert a young disciple questioned the great Abba Arsenius once, asking for a word of wisdom, and the old man said: “Strive with all your might to bring your interior activity into accord with God, and you will overcome exterior passions”.  Arsenius wants the young disciple to bring his interior and exterior ways of being into harmony, reflecting the God-thoughts and not the self-thoughts.

To give way to the afflictive thoughts, to allow them to go unchecked, is to allow ourselves to be robbed of peace, and above all we want to live out of that peace which Christ himself gives.  The Orthodox monk and teacher Seraphim of Sarov reminds us: Acquire inner peace and thousands around you will find their salvation.  And closer to our own times, the founder of the ecumenical community at Taizé, Br Roger Schutz, wrote: The peace of my heart makes beautiful the lives of those around me.

Thoughts rise and they pass; they come and they go.  But all, at some level, invite us to conversation, then to consent, then to action.  An important part of the spiritual life is knowing what thoughts to embrace and live out, and what thoughts to move aside and replace.  For the moment, be conscious of your thoughts as they rise, and recognise which thoughts seem to fall into the categories above, and so need to be moved aside if they are moving you in a direction you know is not toward God.
Next week we begin with the afflictive thought of food.

-Part of our series on the Afflictive Thoughts-

Other posts…

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