My beloved children:
Today we will say a few things about the great virtue of watchfulness.
As you know, watchfulness is a patristic teaching, it is the experience of the great neptic fathers of the Church and of the desert. The word nepsis comes from nepho, which means to be sleepless, to guard, to inspect, examine, watch over, and keep under surveillance. All these things the fathers sum up in one continuous attention to the nous. Watchfulness is described as the axe which shatters the large trees, hitting their roots. And when the root is struck, it doesn’t spring up again. Thus also when the nous of the man, of the Christian, has heed for the soul, it keeps watch over the heart and the five senses of the soul, the bodily as well as the spiritual. When the nous is awake, when it is attentive, when it keeps watch over the speculations, the thoughts, when it controls the imagination, then the whole man, body and soul, is kept pure.And when the man is rendered pure through watchfulness and spiritual works, his prayers have boldness before God, they cross the sky, they go beyond the stars, they pass through the heavens and draw near to the Divine Throne of Grace, where the blessings of God are granted. And this being the case, the man at prayer is enriched by the grace of God.
The neptic fathers tell us that one of our thoughts may rise to heaven and another may descend to hell: By our thoughts we are improved or defiled. In other words, a thought which may inattentively attack us, may pollute us, may pleasure us, and is able to render us worthy of hell. A heavenly thought, a thought of self-denial, a brave thought, a thought of prayer and the vision of God, makes us worthy to draw near the Divine throne and to taste of heavenly things. By the thoughts either we will become unclean or we will become better. The beginning of sins starts with our thoughts.
The thoughts come from the five senses, the spiritual as well as the physical. When we allow the sense of sight to be uncontrolled and it carelessly sees anything, this carelessness will become no end of dirty and sinful images. Since these images are placed in the imagination, afterwards they drip the poison of sinful pleasure inside the heart of man. This pleasure is the poison, by which the heart is polluted and then becomes unclean and guilty before the un-sleeping eye of God.
Just like the sense of sight, so it is also of touch, and also of taste and hearing and of smell. And so the five senses create analogous sinful images, which render the man unclean before the face of God. Here rests the entire philosophy of the spirit.
All sermons are beneficial, exactly because when a tree which is diseased is pruned, it is cleansed, and thus the word of God helps in the reduction of a passion. However, the teaching of the Fathers concerning watchfulness radically effects the cleansing from the passions. When the axe strikes the root, the entire tree falls down, it withers and is finished. So also when watchfulness takes a place in the life of the Christian; a tree of passion falls, it withers and thus in time, the old man, the man of sin and of passion, the earthly Adam is freed and he becomes a new man. For this reason, neptic work frees us radically from evil. Here then we must give heed to our life. If we want to cleanse ourselves, we should make sure to enrich our nous by the application of watchfulness.
A part of watchfulness is also noetic prayer. The vision of God is another part of watchfulness. Spiritual warfare is also another part. All these parts, when they are united in an effort of man, in time bring about holiness.
Abba Paphnoutios, a great desert father, was going along one day on his way and there he saw two men committing some sin. The thought of his passion said: “Look what great evil they are doing!” The eye saw them and immediately the thought flared up, trying thereby to attack the purity of the Saint’s soul by judging the brother or also by his being tempted. Having watchfulness, however, he was being vigilant, immediately his mind was enlightened and he said to his thought, “They are sinning today, I will sin tomorrow. They will repent, but I know myself to be a hard man, unrepentant, egotistical, and thus, I won’t repent. I will be punished since I am worse than these two. And what do I have to do about these careless sinners, since I am a much greater sinner and more passionate?” And speaking in this manner and putting a lock on the provocation of sin, he was saved and didn’t judge the brothers who were sinning.
He didn’t go very far and an Angel of God appeared before him having a double-edged cutless dripping blood; in other words, a knife which had cut him from both sides, and he says to him:
—Paphnoutios, you see this knife? Do you see that it is dripping blood?
—I see it, Angel of God.
—With this knife I kill by taking the heads of the ones who judge their neighbors. And since you didn’t judge, you didn’t condemn those who were in fact sinning—not imagining or guessing that they were sinners, but seeing them sin with your own eyes—but you condemned yourself more, for this reason your name has been written in the book of eternal life.
Success. His name is written in eternal life, because he didn’t judge the sinners, he didn’t condemn the sin of his brother. He would have judged if he hadn’t had watchfulness, if he
hadn’t been noetically vigilant in guarding his soul. Do you see what his good attentiveness produced? And do you see what harm he would have suffered, if he had been inatten-tive to the thought and allowed it to work within him? His thought “informed” him that they were in fact sinning; he even saw them commit the sin. In spite of his observations, however, even though the thought had “spoken” to him, the correct thought triumphed and thereby he escaped the shipwreck of his soul.
All of the passions have their own images, their own fantasies and their own pleasures. Murder has one image and another pleasure, gluttony has another and so many other sinful passions have others. All of the pleasures are otherwise poisons which bring about the death of the soul. We must take as our view that, if we want to clean the “inside of the cup,” the interior of the soul, our heart, this center of man, we must strive to keep watchful. We should take care to become better; that is, we should be vigilant to always have our hand on the trigger. With the first appearance of the enemy, we should shoot. As soon as an evil thought comes to us, immediately knock it down. A dirty image comes, immediately spoil it. We shouldn’t allow it to become more vivid in colors and in appearance, because it will lead us to immediate difficulty.
When evil is struck at its root, it is impossible for it to sprout and increase. When such spiritual struggle comes about with diligence, we will cleanse our soul and thereby we will be found clean and with boldness before God.
A pagan priest asked some monks:
—Does your God appear to you? Do you see Him? Does He speak to you?
The fathers said:
The pagan says:
—If He doesn’t speak to you and doesn’t appear to you, this means that you don’t have pure thoughts. When I pray, my God answers me.
Naturally, God didn’t answer the pagan, the demons answered him, but nevertheless the fathers took it as an occasion of benefit and said:
—Indeed, the impure thoughts prevent us sinful men from communicating with God.
Watchfulness does nothing less than cleanses the nous and the heart from every impurity. For this reason, with a little ascetical toil, watchfulness brings about the greatest spiritual results. When we strive ascetically and aren’t mindful of our thoughts, we accomplish nothing.
The Sacred Chrysostom wrote many chapters about prayer and about wakefulness. And in the midst of them he says something very beautiful: Prayer, he says, is enlightenment of the soul, true consciousness of God, a mediator between God and man, a physician of the passions, an antidote against diseases, medicine against every illness, tranquility of the soul, a guide which carries us to heaven, which doesn’t revolve around the earth, which marches towards the apse of heaven. It passes over the buildings, it passes mentally through the air, it walks above the air, it passes over the whole of the stars, it opens the gates of heaven, it surpasses the angels, it transcends the Thrones and Principalities, it passes over the Cherubim and when it has passed through all of the foundation of nature, it comes near to the unapproachable Trinity. There it worships the Divinity. There it is made worthy to become an interlocutor in the Heavenly Kingdom. Through this (prayer), the soul, which is lifted up in the air to the heavens, embraces the Lord in an inexpressible manner, exactly as the baby embraces its mother and with tears cries loudly, desiring the enjoyment of divine milk. But it seeks the things which are necessary and receives a gift superior to all visible nature.
Prayer is our venerable representative. It gladdens the heart. It gives rest to the soul. It creates within us the fear of the punishment of hell, the desire for the Kingdom of Heaven. It teaches humility, it grants awareness of sin and in general it adorns man with every good thing, like a robe adorned with all the virtues which enfolds the soul. It brought a gift to Anna, Samuel, and it made known that Prophet of the Lord. This prayer also made Elias a zealot of the Lord.
And it became a guide for the descent of the heavenly fire for the sacrifice. For while the priest of Baal was calling all day long to the idol, he, after he lifted up his voice which came from his pure heart and cried out through his mouth and his soul, the fire came down from heaven as a sign of the righteousness of his prayer. Since he was standing like an eagle over the altar with his fierce nature, he offered everything as a sacrifice. But the great servant of God, the zealot Elias, did this, as all that happened then, teaching us by the spirit, that we also crying loudly from the depths of our soul to God, should move the ineffable fire of the
Holy Spirit to come down to the altar of our heart and to offer ourselves fully as a sacrifice to God.
All of the great fathers of the Church, especially the desert fathers, succeeded in becoming worthy of great gifts exclusively
through watchfulness and vision of God theoria. Keeping vigil all night and coming to the vision of the Light of God.
We have St. Gregory Palamas, the instructor of the desert, the instructor of neptic activity, the teacher of noetic prayer. This saint would remain enclosed in his cell for the entire week. He didn’t go outside at all. There, on his knees and with hands upraised, he was vigilant about his nous and his heart and he received heavenly theology [literally “theology from above”—trans.] by the Holy Spirit. This is the theology which made known to him the Uncreated Light of the Divine Glory, of the Divine Nature.
The Uncreated Light is the glory of the Divine Nature. There was the goal and the conclusion of asceticism and of prayer. When the saints received this Light, they became all Light. And since the light floods the nous and the heart, how could they know less than the mysteries of the secrets which are known only to the angels? Through watchfulness the fathers attained to the pinnacle of the virtues and of the graces. And we, if we are watchful, if we pray, even if we are in the world, and even if we don’t attain to similar states, no matter what, we will attain to a condition of purity. When we succeed by watchfulness in not judging our brother, this is no small achievement. We put into practice the commandment of our Christ, which is as follows: Judge not, that ye be not judged.
For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Mt 7:1-2).
This is the commandment of Christ. It is not the commandment of some saint. It is God’s. And therefore, by not judging, we put into practice a Divine commandment. When we do not judge, we will not be judged. Judge, and we will be judged. Sin is widespread. Wherever we turn our eyes and our imagination, we recognize the errors of men. Therefore, if we are inattentive, without watchfulness, we will always be found in the error of violation of this evangelical commandment of not judging our neighbor.
There was a monk in a monastery. The tempter had conquered him in negligence. He didn’t do his canon, he didn’t go to church, he didn’t do his rule of prayer, and thus the fathers, not knowing much about him other than what they observed, regarded him negligent. The hour of death came and the fathers drew near him to see something, which per-haps God would show, in order that they may be benefited. Drawing near to the dying negligent monk, the fathers saw that he was very joyful. They were perplexed and they said in their thoughts:
—Look, why is he peaceful? The negligence which he had in his life doesn’t worry him? What happened to the debts which have been gathered because of sloth? Does his con-science not rebel? Does it not make him worry? Why is it that he doesn’t despair?
He continued to be joyful. They compelled him to answer their question:
—Forgive us, brother, we see you doing so-so. We know and you know that you lived in negligence and sloth in monastic duties. Now you are heading to the judgment of Christ, and you should be somewhat sorry, worried, etc. But we see you otherwise, joyful, peaceful, with hope and we question: What is it that supports this state of yours?
He answered them and said:
—You are right, my fathers, that’s how it is. I was negligent and didn’t do what you did, but one thing I guarded in my life: Not to judge my brother. I read in the Holy Gospel, where the Lord says that the one who does not judge, will not be judged. Thus I tried, at least, not to judge. And I hope in the mercy of God that I will not be judged. For this reason I am departing with faith that God will apply His word to me, in spite of my negligence and slothfulness.
The fathers looked at each other, thought about what they heard and concluded that in fact, this brother was very intelligent and that he masterfully gained his salvation.
If we are watchful, we will not criticize. For without falling into the offense of judging, immediately watchfulness will set up a barrier and the thought of judgment will be prevented from continuing.
Then we will experience what Abba Paphnutios experienced. And so we will escape from the sin of judging and of criticism of the tongue and our names will be written in eternal life. A man who keeps his tongue pure, both inner and outer, that is to say, the inner thought and the tongue, and does this in the knowledge of God, this becomes his guarantee that he is saved. This spiritual attentiveness becomes light and as light, illumines our path towards salvation.
Another illumined path of watchfulness is also our path to sacred confession. The attention illumines it, which urges the man to settle his account with God. And he is guided by the light of watchfulness to this great mystery and there he deposits his entire debt, all the uncleanness of sins. He enters into this mysterious bath and comes out entirely clean. And I say that we must have much joy in our souls when we are accounted worthy to come into this bath. We must celebrate and thank the Lord who allowed this bath on earth, who allowed this authority of binding and loosening.
Whatever things your spiritual father loosens, God also loosens. Whatever the representative of God forgives, the Lord also forgives. And when the man has been judged here below, he is not judged above in the great and fear-some judgment.
It is a great occasion when one arrives at this bath of holy confession. For this reason, all those who have been accounted worthy of this sacrament and continuously cleanse every soiling of the soul with this spiritual holy mystery of God, should have very great joy; the door of Paradise will always be open for them. And even if death follows, there is no anxiety. He is prepared and not disturbed. When the man is prepared, he is not disturbed at the approach of death. He knows that it is not possible for the word of God, which gave this authority, to be wrong. We experience it as a mystery of the Church and we see it in action and in application. When the man makes sacred confession with ardent desire, with humility, and with awareness, he feels the happiness within his soul, the lightness and the elation. A vivid proof that his sins have been forgiven. And when sins are forgiven, then every anxious and uncertain fear about the next life is removed.
Our thanks to God must be unceasing. Our thanksgiving must never stop, because we are made worthy every time we want to receive this cleansing, and every time we feel a sin, immediately turn the mind to God. I have sinned Lord, forgive me. With this I have sinned Lord, forgive me, God answers: My child, you are forgiven; the power of the law is remitted. Proceed to the application of the law. And the application is beneath the petraheli (stole). There, all the sinfulness of man is ended. Forgiveness is so easy!
It is very wrong for any man, when such a forgiveness is so easy and so free, and his egotism prohibits him from receiving it; his actions are those of a man who does not to want to open the doors of Paradise and walk eternally in the glory of God!
Many men say: ‘Man should call upon God because of one sin? But this thing is wrong. Where is the love of God? Isn’t God a Father? “Yes, He is a Father, but when this opportunity comes for Him to forgive you, why do you turn your back? Why do you not receive His mercy? Why do you refuse His embrace and go far away? Why do you accept the embrace of the devil and not of God? Perhaps your god seeks money or possessions or favors and you don’t have all these things and for this reason you don’t come to let go of your debt? But this is certainly not so; it is a deception!
God is very rich, as we see also in the parable of the prodigal. The prodigal wanted to depart far away. He demanded that he assume part of the possessions which belonged to him.
And God gave him what he was owed as physical gifts. He didn’t deprive him of them. However, he squandered these gifts, the spiritual possessions, living prodigally. And when he arrived at the wretched end, he came to his senses; he came to himself; for he was not himself when all the prodigality reigned. And when he came to himself he said: How many serve my father and they enjoy the good things of
His possessions, and I His child, par excellence His child, am in such misery that I graze pigs and am allotted husks! I will return; He is a Father, He will receive me. I will ask forgiveness and will say to him, do not receive me as Your child, neither restore me to the first adoption, but I will ask Him to become one of His servants. And this will be a great thing.
Once he thought these things and took on the journey of return, the Father had already come outside of His house and waited with open arms. He accepted him with all His heart and all His soul. He embraced him, He kissed him, He wept from joy, because he was dead and he was restored to life, he was lost and was found. He made him His child again with all of the original wealth. He forgave everything. He cleansed him of every sin. He clothed him in the original garments. In the end, he gave him everything…
Our Heavenly Father does exactly the same things to anyone of us, who as sinners return to Him. He cleanses us, washes us, gives us the original garments of baptism, gives us son-ship and makes us worthy of His Kingdom. Everything is free. When the prodigal returned, He didn’t seek an account, neither did He rebuke him nor did He seek to blame him. He begins at the point of the prodigal son’s return; this was sufficient for the Father. Only to say “sinner,” to leave his sins with humility, to understand his mistakes and from then on everything is loosened. But the sinful man doesn’t do this. He doesn’t return, he isn’t humbled. He holds on to his egotism. The most important step is the one that guides man to the confessional! And from then on the sinful ways of past life are finished. However, the tears of egotism hold back the sinful man. And when this comes to his hour of death and the reality of it hits him, then he will repent and he will be remorseful, but he may be too late. In this, God maintains little tolerance and has no respect for the person who refuses to humble his spirit.
As for Lucifer, this great battalion commander, who was once in the first place among all angelic hosts, what was the cause of his fall? What was the cause of the collapse, of the transformation from angels to demons? It was pride and egotism. The error came from these two passions. And as with the angels, so was also with our forbearers. The fall of our forbearers came about from pride and egotism. Because,
before God accomplished the verdict of guilt, he approached the man, Adam, and said to him: Adam, why did you do this? Adam didn’t seek forgiveness, he didn’t say: Godforbid this, I was wrong. If he had done this, he wouldn’t have been evicted out of Paradise and neither would we have all this banishment and suffering today. By not saying God forbid this, I was wrong all this plethora of evil came about. And thus now man doesn’t say God forbid this—I was wrong and remains in his evil. But all this same has to do is to just say it: Godforbid this—I was wrong! And God will stretch out His arms of forgiveness, and He takes him back in Paradise.
We, as Orthodox Christians, have been made worthy to know this great mystery of sacred confession. We should thus have very great joy; because whenever we fall down upon a sin, into something evil, we can run immediately to correct it and to preserve the health of our souls. And when death comes, we will go to meet the Lord, cleansed, repentant, and returned as prodigal sons. And our Heavenly Father will accept us and will place us within Paradise, the place of eternal bliss, where there is no end to Divine joy and sees no conclusion to that spiritual bliss, which cannot be compared to anything earthly.
And even the holy Apostle Paul, he that went up to the third heaven and saw the eternal good things, in spite of his apostolic and graceful tongue, he remained unable to express with human words the things of Paradise and the life above! Indeed, such is the inexpressible gift of happiness that is attained through sacred confession.
Therefore, my brethren, with much yearning, love, and awareness we must all run to be cleansed, to be made ready and when death follows, to depart in peace. Amen.
Orthodox Heritage-Vol. 12, Issue 03-04