We know that the Fathers consider thoughts the source of all passions. St. Maximos gives us a detailed example here:
…as the body fornicates with the body of a woman, so the intellect, forming a picture of its own body, fornicates with the conceptual image of a woman. For in the mind it sees the form of its own body having intercourse with the form of a woman.
But surely most of us think that some situations naturally deserve to occupy our thoughts: a heinous act committed by a criminal, for example; a neighbor’s outrageous behavior; our outrage at ISIS…
St. Maximos makes no exception and warns us of the danger of becoming overtaken by passionate thoughts. First of all, our own thoughts—noble or vile, justifiable or unjustifiable—hold an appeal for us. Let’s face it, it is intoxicating to indulge in our own fantasies, ruminations, memories or fears and speculations. St. Maximos compares our relationship to our own thoughts to that between parents and children:
… Just as parents have a special affection for the children who are the fruit of their own bodies, so the intellect naturally clings to its own thoughts. And just as to passionately fond parents their own children seem the most capable and most beautiful of all – though they may be quite the most ridiculous in every way – so to a foolish intellect its own thoughts appear the most intelligent of all, though they may be utterly degraded.
Secondly, just like addiction becomes central to our lives, stripping away all things that truly matter and the person we once were, so does indulgence in our thoughts replace alertness, inner stillness and contemplation of God with fantasy:
He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins, which are truly heavier than a great lump of lead; nor does he know why a man becomes heavy-hearted when he loves vanity and chases after falsehood.
These passions, then, tie the intellect to material things and drag it down to earth, pressing on it like a massive stone, although by nature it is lighter and swifter than fire.
St. Maximos has practical advice for avoiding attachment to our own thoughts:
It is precisely when he feels convinced that they [thoughts] are true and good that he most distrusts his own judgment. He makes other wise men the judges of his thoughts and arguments – lest he should run, or may have run, in vain (cf. Gal. 2:2) – and from them receives assurance.
St. Maximos does not stop with this advice. This is where these pages get deeper and more complex.
“Passion-free knowledge of divine things,” he admits, “does not persuade the intellect to scorn material things completely; it is like the passion-free thought of a sensible thing. It is therefore possible to find many men who have much knowledge and yet wallow in the passions of the flesh like pigs in the mire.”
St. Maximos goes beyond theory and analysis of the thought process to delve into the dynamics of human motivation and peel back the many layers of truth and faith.
Through diligent work, he says, people “temporarily cleanse themselves and attain knowledge, but then they grow negligent.” It is not logical persuasion but the fullness of love that will give us the focus, motivation and consistency of passion-free knowledge and understanding:
For in this world truth exists in shadows and conjectures. That is why there is need for the blessed passion of holy love, which binds the intellect to spiritual contemplation and persuades it to prefer what is immaterial to what is material, and what is intelligible and divine to what is apprehended by the senses.