“Just as it is impossible to stop a watermill from turning, although the miller has power to choose between grinding either wheat or tares, so it is impossible to stop our mind, which is ever-moving, from having thoughts, although it is within our power to feed it either with spiritual meditation or with worldly concerns.” – Abba Moses in St. John Cassian’s “On the Holy Fathers of Sketis” (page 98 of The Philokalia) –
For years, listening to the Marketplace Morning Report had been part of my early-morning routine of opening at the 61C Cafe. I loved the way that the writers of Marketplace make complex economic realities understandable to ordinary people like me. And I felt motivated by hearing business news right at the start of my business day – though one can hardly compare selling coffee and muffins to Marketplace’s reporting on the stock market or the latest trends in technology.
But several weeks ago, I noticed a disturbing effect of this morning ritual. In retrospect the pattern is perfectly clear, even quite predictable, but it had escaped my notice. The pattern went like this: Begin work at the cafe. Listen to Marketplace as I prepare the pastries. Begin thinking about my retirement account. Realize that I’m working at a cafe, which does not produce much extra income to save for retirement. Begin worrying. Observe tip jar carefully throughout the rest of my shift. Become dejected as I remember that we’re barely making ends meet now. Begin worrying about the future. Dream of a higher paying job. Sink further into dejection because I tell myself that God doesn’t want me to have a higher paying job. Become angry at God.
It was a simple choice with disastrous consequences. Choosing to begin my day by feeding my mind with worldly concerns put me on a path that ended in near blasphemy. But as Cassian says, “the miller has the power to choose between grinding wheat or tares.” I thought I had been choosing wheat, simply because I began each day at home by reading scripture. But as soon as I arrived at work, I would allow a patch of thorns to grow up and choke the seeds of the Word. As Jesus says, “the worries of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word and it becomes unfruitful” (Mark 4:19).
The virtue I lacked when I fell into that mess, and a virtue I still greatly need, was a developed sense of discrimination: It’s the spiritual gift which allows one to accurately recognize the source and kind of thoughts entering one’s mind and to respond appropriately. St. John Cassian devotes two-thirds of his account of his visit to Sketis to retelling what Abba Moses taught concerning the virtue of discrimination. Early in that section, Abba Moses recalls St. Antony of Egypt exalting discrimination as the virtue which “teaches a man to walk along the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity.”
Neither to the left, as I had through lack of consideration for what I listened to, nor to the right, through “immoderate self-control.” This latter concern is a caution for those of us who think we’re spiritual, who think we’re making progress in holiness. Abba Moses reminds those tempted to stray in that direction that “It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of scripture, when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men.” The goal is the love of God. That’s quite different from the resentment produced by the tares my mill was grinding each day. But how does one find the sort of wheat that produces the love of God? What exactly is the “spiritual meditation” which Abba Moses says we can choose over worldly concerns?
Put simply, the wheat of spiritual meditation is deliberate reflection on the goodness and beauty of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Abba Moses provides an eloquent example:
God is not only to be known in His blessed and incomprehensible being, for this is something which is reserved for His saints in the age to come. He is also to be known from the grandeur and beauty of His creatures, from His providence which governs the world day by day, from His righteousness and from the wonders which He shows to His saints in each generation. When we reflect upon the measurelessness of His power and His unsleeping eye which looks upon the hidden things of the heart and which nothing can escape, we are filled with the deepest awe, marveling at Him and adoring Him. When we consider that He numbers the raindrops, the sand of the sea and the stars of heaven, we are amazed at the grandeur of His nature and His wisdom. When we think of His ineffable and inexplicable wisdom, His love for mankind, and His limitless long-suffering at man’s innumerable sins, we glorify him. When we consider His great love for us, in that though we had done nothing good He, being God, deigned to become man in order to save us from delusion, we are roused to longing for Him. When we reflect that He Himself has vanquished in us our adversary, the devil, and that He has given us eternal life if only we would choose and turn toward His goodness, then we venerate Him (pp. 96-97).
To “choose and turn toward His goodness” means to deliberately dwell in such thoughts. These thoughts lead to love of God inspired by a recognition of His goodness and beauty. Such contemplation is a repeated theme throughout The Philokalia – a book whose title means “Love of the Good” or “Love of the Beautiful.” Mark the Monk provides a similar extended meditation on the goodness of God in his “Letter to Nicholas the Solitary,” there focusing on the humility of the Incarnation of Christ. To fight against the tares of anger and bitterness, Mark calls us to choose wheat and “Call to mind who He is, and what He became for our sakes.”
Such meditation on the Incarnation is a frequent theme in The Apostle Paul’s letters, and it clearly bore fruit in his own life. As Philippians 2 says, Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” Because he meditates on this self-emptying of Christ, Paul can say later in Philippians that “in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (4:12). In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul wrote that “though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” Because Paul knew the depth of this truth, he could say genuinely that “the love of Christ controls us” (5:14).
I want such contentment in any circumstance and such deep love of God. So I’m trying to choose wheat. Back at the cafe, I’ve replaced Marketplace on most mornings with silence or holy music. I’m learning to look at the tip jar with gratitude rather than anxiety, to pray for my daily bread rather than to worry. I’m discovering the joy of getting my economic news less from Marketplace and more from the Sermon on the Mount. It is impossible to stop the mind from having thoughts, but God’s showing me that “the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). And I pray for the Lord’s mercy, so that one day the mill of my mind will continually choose the wheat and dwell in praise of the One who, though He was rich, became poor for our sake.