A technique from the Desert Fathers to control our negative thoughts


Their technique of guarding the heart bears some similarities with today’s use of meditation.

The Desert Fathers, Christians who took shelter in the deserts of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, and Palestine between the III and VII century, lived as hermits in huts, caves, in trees, or even on top of a stone pillar. They searched for a life of solitude, manual labor, contemplation, and silence, with the goal of growing spiritually. Convinced of the intimate union between the body, soul, and spirit, the Desert Fathers—who we could also say were the first therapists—developed recommendations to heal the “sicknesses of the soul.” Among these recommendations was that of controlling our thoughts, achieved thanks to one method in particular: guarding the heart. Jean-Guilhem Xerri, a psychoanalyst and medical biologist, has developed this practice, showing just how relevant it is in today’s society.

Why should we control our thoughts?

According to the Desert Fathers, uncontrolled thoughts are the origins of some of the sicknesses of the soul. They identified eight non-psychological sicknesses of a spiritual origin, classified by the monk Evagrius as: greed of any sort, a pathological relationship to sex, a pathological relationship to money, sadness, aggressiveness, acedia (an illness of the soul expressed by listlessness, boredom, laziness – a precursor to slothfulness) vanity, and pride. These eight generic diseases have a pathological source: narcissism, which the Fathers called   philautia, excessive self-love.

One of the causes for these thoughts, which were considered as troubling, was the imagination. If an imagination is left uncontrolled it elicits visions which sometimes crowd our minds to the point of taking over. With worst-case scenarios stemming from pornographic images, undeserved accolades… “The imagination leads us to make up stories in our heads that are not always correct or pacifying,” sums up Xerri. Where it is in our power to control them: “Whether the thoughts trouble us or not is something beyond our doing. But whether they dwell within us or not, that they stir up passions or not, is something which is within our power,” wrote one of the Desert Fathers, John Damascene, in his A Speech Useful for the Soul. We will always be a theater of sensations and thoughts: the question is, what do we do with it? “Faced with such a thought,” Xerri reminds us, “man has various possibilities: to acquiesce or not, to feed it or resist it.”

For these ancient monks the objective of gaining control of their thoughts was to reach Hesychasm; a state characterized by peace, calm, rest, silence, and deep inner solitude; necessary for the spiritual contemplation of things and beings, and the understanding of God.  The Desert Fathers prescribed many methods to achieve this: “guarding the heart”, sobriety, hospitality and practicing meditation.

What is “Guarding the Heart”?

Guarding the heart, in Greek nepsis (vigilance), is being attentive to everything that happens in our heart. It is a spiritual method which aims to free man of bad or passionate thoughts. It invites us to observe the thoughts which penetrate our soul, and to discern between the good and the bad. Evagrius said: “Take care of yourself, be the gatekeeper to your heart and don’t let any thought enter without questioning it.” As Xerri points out: “The elders noticed that holy thoughts led to a peaceful state, the others to a troubled state.”

The indispensable means of guarding the heart is paying close attention to thoughts and discerning between those which are good and healing, and those which are a source of distraction or obsession. The aim is to gain freedom, and to reach indifference, the ability to not be dominated by our thoughts.

Was guarding the heart the ancestor of mediation?

Today cognitive sciences are in agreement with the diagnosis established by the Desert Fathers concerning the illnesses of the soul, which are growing rapidly today, along with the therapies which they had already recommended nearly 2000 years ago. It is recognized that today we are all suffering from countless and continuous demands no our attention, and that this trend disturbs our interiority. Xerri lists a variety of areas in which we are over-stimulated, thanks especially to digital media: food, material goods, sex, leisure, self-image, superficiality, criticism…

Permanently in demand and needing to be available immediately, we have on average between three or four decisions to take each second, according to Xerri. Therefore, it is fanciful to expect to be able to voluntary control our decisions in all consciousness, it’s simply impossible. “We are victims of a real hold-up of our attentional abilities,” laments Xerri, “Yet our attention determines our relationship with the world.”

The patristic tradition and the neurosciences agree: taking back control of our attention is a fundamental challenge for our mental health. The Desert Fathers recommended guarding the heart; the fashion today is mindful meditation. Both these therapies practice the observation of what is going on in and around us. Meditation, in the contemporary and non-religious sense, means opening oneself to present experience, with attention given to what we are going through. Like guarding the heart, it invites us to change our way of being in the world, and to make it a habit to pay attention to our thoughts which infiltrate our soul.

A little prayer to help guard your heart

In their bid to find Hesychasm, the Desert Fathers would often empty their minds and recite the very simple Prayer of the Heart, or Jesus Prayer. So if you want a little help from our Orthodox forefathers in being able to control the thoughts that cross our minds, try and find time in the morning to say this prayer before the demands of the day really kick in: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Although “a sinner” was added over the years.)

Translated from French by Cerith Gardiner.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. camroyer says:

    What a helpful post.

    Thank you, Your Excellency.

  2. gellerman55 says:

    Excellent comments! Thank you for sharing.

    Re: “It is recognized that today we are all suffering from countless and continuous demands no our attention, and that this trend disturbs our interiority. Xerri lists a variety of areas in which we are over-stimulated, thanks especially to digital media: food, material goods, sex, leisure, self-image, superficiality, criticism…” This reminds me of a book I read in high school: Alvin Toffler’s ‘Future Shock’. He postulated that we would ultimately be bombarded by more bits of information on a daily basis faster than our brains could evolve to process them and that this would result in stress. The stress would lead to illness. We are there.

    A very wise modern-day doctor, Andrew Weil, agrees with this and suggests we periodically go media-free…a week of no TV, cell phones, iPads, etc, to give our minds and bodies a vacation. You know, I tried this and could not do it. My e-connections were as addictive as any psychoactive substance a junkie took daily. Sad. I settled for twice-daily meditation and prayers, as suggested by the other commenters and this has helped.

  3. Mary Deliduka says:

    This prayer JESUS, MARY I LOVE YOU, SAVE SOULS is one that I say often during the day because Our Lord told Sr. Consolata ,that each time it is said, that one soul would be released from Purgatory. The Jesus Prayer is so wonderful because the Lord stoops down to us as we ask for Mercy. He inspires us to say, from the heart, Jesus I trust in You!!

  4. Byron Bullock says:

    Dear Bishop Gracida

    Praise be Jesus Christ

    Like the Jesus prayer of the Eastern Church – obviously inspired by the Holy Ghost, Our Lord came to the Latin Church and gives this short continual prayer: “Jesus, Mary, I Love You, Save Souls”

    This little prayer is perfect for the busy work person, especially too tired to say longer prayers – perfect for long commutes between job and work – perfect when feeling despondent or having negative feelings like this article below speaks of, which by the way is a very good article. We all have negative prone people in our lives, either family or work.


    Monastery of Sacred Heart – Sister Consolata Betrone http://www.consolatabetrone-monasterosacrocuore.it Jesus, Mary i love you, save souls . The importance of this invocation, short but very powerful, can be understood from the words that Jesus inspired to Sister M. Consolata Betrone and that we read in her journal:

    Jesus, Mary i love you, save souls

    The importance of this invocation, short but very powerful, can be understood from the words that Jesus inspired to Sister M. Consolata Betrone and that we read in her journal:

    «I’m not asking for anything but this: a continuous act of love , Jesus, Mary I love you, save souls.

    Tell me, Consolata, what better prayer can you raise? Jesus, Mary I love you, save souls: love and souls! What’s better than this?

    I’m thirsty of your act of love! Love me much, Consolata, just love me and love me always! I’m thirsty of love, but of thorough love, the love of undivided hearts. Love me for all and every human heart that exists. I’m so thirsty of love. Quench my thirst. You can. You want to! Cheer up and forward!

    Do you know why I don’t allow you many vocal prayers? Because the act of love is more fruitful. A “Jesus I love you” hails for a thousand curses. Remember that a perfect act of love involves the eternal salvation of a soul. So, regret loosing a single JESUS, MARY I LOVE YOU, SAVE SOULS».

    Wonderful are the words of Jesus that express His joy for this invocation and even more for the souls that through it can reach eternal salvation…. This consoling promise is repeated many times in the writings of sister Consolata, invited by Jesus to intensify and offer her love:

    «Don’t waste the time: every act of love is a soul! Of all the gifts, the best gift you can offer me is a day full of love.

    I desire an uninterrupted JESUS, MARY I LOVE YOU, SAVE SOULS from when you get up in the morning till when you go to bed at night».

    Jesus cannot be more explicit and Consolata writes:

    «As soon as I get up in the morning, I shall immediately begin the act of love, and, through will-power, I shall never interrupt it till I’ll be asleep at night. I shall pray my Guardian Angel to pray for me while I sleep . Keep this purpose constantly, renewing it in the morning and at night.

    Living well my day . always in Jesus with the act of love; He will transfuse in me His patience, strength and generosity».

    The act of love that Jesus wants ceaseless doesn’t depend on the words pronounced with the mouth, but it is an inside act of the mind that concentrates on loving, of the will that wants to love and of the heart that loves. The formula JESUS, MARY I LOVE YOU, SAVE SOULS wants simply to be a help.

    «If a creature of good-will wants to love me and makes of her life a sole act of love from when she gets up in the morning till when she goes to bed at night (with the heart, of course!), I shall do incredible things for this soul. I’m thirsty of love, I’m thirsty of being loved by my creatures. The souls think that it is necessary an austere, penitent life in order to reach me. Can you see how they misunderstand me? They picture me awe-inspiring, while I’m only good! How they forget the precept I gave you: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, etc.” Today, like yesterday and tomorrow, I will ask my creatures only and always love».


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