Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Thought Goats
This gorgeous goat is courtesy of Roland Tanglao (Creative Commons)
Growing up, a favourite stop on family road trips was a little town named Coombs, located on Vancouver Island. Packed into our Lilliputian red Subaru four-door, and generally afflicted by a combination of road trip agonies (including the middle-seat engine hump, the gradual shellac of gum wrappers to knee and a variety of cries ranging from “You’re my faaaaavourite sister!” to “Coleslaw’s a fascist regime!”), all discord in the back seat was immediately forgotten as we pulled off the Highway 4A and a great cry arose:

            “Goats! I see the goats!” 
             “Goats on a roof, goats on a roof, goats on a roof!”

Yes, there are goats on the roof of the Old Country Market. When Kristian and Solveig Graaten built the market in the 1950s, they decided to include a sod roof—an energy efficient method of construction common (at the time) near Kristian’s original home of Lillehammer, Norway. Once the grass started getting too long, someone had the bright idea of “borrowing” some goats to keep it mowed—and they’ve been there every spring and summer since. They wander around on the roof, munching grass and generally being inordinately fascinating (I lost more than one ice cream cone in my life to being distracted by those goats).
These goats wandered back into my mind recently while studying Evagrius Ponticus’s topic of logismoi. Greek for the word “thoughts”, over the centuries the word has come to mean thoughts and mental distractions that come to lead us away from Christ—quite often at the point where one is trying the hardest to pray! In his Praktikos & Chapters on Prayer, Evagrius divides them into eight general categories of gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, acedia, vainglory and pride, and says that every distracting and disquieting thought can find its roots in one of these categories. Left unchecked, these thoughts wander all over in our mind, chew up the energy we need for prayer and good works and generally distract us from our destination—that is, God.
Thus, I’ve unofficially dubbed the logismoi “the thought goats.” Don’t get me wrong, I love those goats on a roof. But what if, on those childhood goat-and-ice-cream stops, my entire family was so fascinated by those goats that we forgot our destination (Tofino, beaches, camping, the ultimate goodness of S’mores), the basic necessities required to get us there (gas, food, water, bathrooms, sunscreen, endless games of “I’m thinking of an animal”) and perhaps even tried to climb onto the roof to get a closer look at the goats’ wanderings? Consequences could have ranged from annoyance and delay to actual danger and the end of our trip together.
So, too, with the logismoi and trying to follow Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).  The point of this is not to try to stop thinking entirely—that would be absurd. But, as Ecclesiastes says, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”—and the monastic schedule makes some of those times really clear! Figuring out ways to use spruce tips in cooking, or pondering a metaphor for a poem, or wondering if it would be better to plant carrots or bok choy in the garden are all valuable uses of the discursive reason—but if I’m munching on them in the middle of Adoration, it’s a pretty good sign that I’m following a thought goat.
So, what to do? In the Praktikos, Evagrius says that “it is not in our power to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” If each distracting thought, good or bad, is a goat, then if I pay attention, it’s like I’m offering the goat grass and inviting it to climb into the car with me and make a nice goat bed and maybe come camping with me too. I’ve never tried to roust a goat from a Subaru four-door, but I imagine that it’s pretty difficult!
I have tried (am trying) to roust out logismoi—and from what I can see from the lives of the Desert Ammas and Abbas, it’s a long fight in which victory consists not in banishing all the logismoi, but in not being disturbed and distracted when they do pop up. Various writers have called this state apatheia, purity of heart, recollection, interior silence or unceasing prayer, and descriptions of how to reach this state are pretty much unlimited.
But for me, I’ve discovered a simple and effective slogan to help me remember what I’m supposed to do: Don’t feed the thought goats!