In the Southern USA, we have a popular sport: NASCAR. In it, a bunch of cars race around an oblong track hundreds of times, often times traveling at least a few hundred miles. When a car is in the lead, he will usually work hard to block other cars from passing him and taking the lead.
It was not so different in ancient times. They had chariot races back then and the leader would also try to block others from passing him.
St. Macarius the Great wrote about these races and saw a spiritual parallel in them. He said, “For just as on a racetrack the chariot that takes the lead becomes an obstacle, pressing and checking and preventing the others from stretching out and reaching the goal first, so do the thoughts of the soul and of sin run the race in man. If the thought of sin gets the upper hand from the start, it becomes an obstacle, checking and hindering the soul from approaching God to carry off the victory against sin.” (1)
For this reason, the Fathers of the Church taught the importance of keeping our thoughts in check. If we allow the inner monologue free reign, it will dominate all other thoughts. We try to focus on prayer, on worship, or on reading, and we find that we cannot force the inner stream of thoughts to silence. Not even for a full minute or two. It takes practice, and much perseverance, before the good thoughts can even begin to catch up to the “race car of self” in the lead. It also takes the grace of God. We ask for His grace, but we must also exert our own effort to show that we are serious about this spiritual endeavor.
Most of us have developed the bad habit of letting the various thoughts take the lead. With the grace of God and much practice though, the godly thoughts can begin to “pass” the ungodly ones in the race. Keeping those thoughts ahead while living in the world is quite difficult, but we do what we can according to our situation in life.
The best way to begin the adventure of taking the lead with good thoughts is to recognize thoughts that are not beneficial, for whatever reason, and cut them off. After we learn to recognize what bad thoughts are, we then work on cutting them off as soon as they begin. With the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit and a spiritual father, there is hope for every one of us.
(1) The Fifty Spiritual Homilies of Macarius the Great. Homily 1, page 42. Translator George Maloney. The Classics of Western Spirituality, 1992.