So equip yourself in time
And shun all sin
Living in righteousness
That is true watchfulness
Whereby one can attain
to eternal blessedness.
~16th Century Anabaptist Hymn1~
We’ve reached the end of our little series about doing everything through love. The first post was a simple reminder that all things find their worth through love. The second post explained just what exactly love means from a Christian perspective. Outwardly it will form as seeking the best interests of those around you. It is utter selflessness with a result of serving others. Inwardly, it’s a complete devotion to God. Love is the natural outflowing when the correct conditions are met, that is, when we abide in Christ in the same way that he is abiding in the Father.
This last post will be more practical in nature. How do we cultivate that love? How do we abide in Christ? Before we begin, I want to be very clear that this will not be a step by step guide to becoming holy (or loving or godly or whatever else you’re looking to be). If you are looking to be one of those things, then you will never reach it. How can one become selfless with a motivation to be great? Let us start with the hymn in Philippians 2 to remind us of the person in whom we are to find our being, our love. If we have any holiness, it is only because we have forsaken our dreams of becoming so and have instead fully dedicated ourselves to following Him in the way He laid out for us.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
What we will be talking about in this article is called different things by different traditions and different people. To my knowledge, Eastern Orthodoxy has the most established tradition of this and it is most often called watchfulness in that tradition, so that is what I will call it here.
Watchfulness is the guarding of the heart from evil thoughts. If you recall from the last post, usually what we call sinful actions are the result of little seeds which have grown to fruition. The seeds of sin are most often planted as small thoughts. They float through the air and land in the soil of our hearts. Here, if we are not careful, they will take root. Watchfulness is simply staying alert and keeping the seeds from ever landing. We, like Habukkuk, we must stand at the gates of our hearts and keep watch, never allowing the enemy to enter yet always prepared to receive our Lord (Hab 2:1).
Throughout the day we are tempted with seemingly innocent thoughts. Pleasurable to our minds and emotions, these persistent thoughts are what most often cause us to fall. St. Francis de Sales reminds us that “although the greater temptations exceed in power, there are so infinitely more in number of little temptations, that a victory over them is fully as important as over the greater but rarer ones.”2 In fact, St. Mark the Ascetic said, “When you sin, blame your thought and not your action. For had your intellect not run ahead, your body would not have followed.”3 These small, enjoyable thoughts fill us with pride or grow into great monuments of lust. Surely a person has never lost their temper who didn’t harbor thoughts of anger, pride or contempt. These small and natural thoughts stay and rot our hearts until an opportune time to strike. Of course we may always repent and ask forgiveness, but we should be always striving to rid ourselves of such damaging actions. To do so, we need to keep as far away as possible from the seeds of sin. “Let us flee from it in our thoughts so that we may have nothing in common with the enemy of God.”4
We cannot control when a thought enters our mind, but we can decide how to deal with it. Often there is not a moment of our waking hours that a thought is not floating through our minds. While that in and of itself is not bad, we must not allow these thoughts to take root.
The first step we must take is to be aware. 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us to “be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a lion, seeking someone to devour.” Jesus and the New Testament authors all gave several warnings to be prepared, alert, ready, watchful and awake lest we be taken by surprise.5 Several psalms and proverbs remind us to keep careful watch over our hearts as well.6
When a thought floats into our minds, we must be aware that it has done so, but we must also not give it attention. When we try to attack it head on we in fact give it strength. We cannot fight these thoughts off ourselves, so we must turn to Christ. He is our savior, our victorious King. In his death and resurrection he has defeated evil.7 In him they are powerless, so to him we must turn. As St. Hesychius said, “Rebuttal bridles evil thoughts, but the invocation of Jesus Christ drives them from the heart”8. This ‘invocation of Jesus Christ’ can take many forms. St Hesychius was most likely referencing the Jesus Prayer9, a traditional Orthodox prayer taken from Jesus himself, but it need not be. I personally like to recite scripture which directly contrasts the thoughts which are tempting me. When I feel irritation slipping in for example, I do not focus on the irritation, but instead focus on the words of Paul when he said, “Love is patient and kind… It is not irritable or resentful.” When I pray these verses with my heart in Christ, the weeds of irritability never take root, never even germinate. Instead, the seeds of patience begin to grow.
This is not always immediate and sometimes the thoughts keep raging. It is important to recognize that if we “try to overcome temptations without prayer and patient endurance, [we] will become more entangled in them instead of driving them away.”10 Recognizing that these evil thoughts and temptations cannot actually harm us unless we give them the power to do so, St. Francis de Sales tells us to “despise all these trivial onslaughts, and do not even deign to think about them; but let them buzz about your ears as much as they please.. do no more than simply remove them, not fighting with them, or arguing, but simply doing that which is precisely contrary to their suggestions, and specially making acts of the Love of God.. Simply turn with your whole heart towards Jesus Christ Crucified, and lovingly kiss His Sacred Feet.”11
Morning and Evening Prayers
Watchfulness is sitting at the feet of our Master and listening to His voice and His alone. We ignore the distractions in the background that bring our attention away from Him and focus all the more intently on his voice. This is not only done as the distractors come, but should be done in deliberate times when we are free from distractions. I find that set prayer times are the most effective way for me to ensure I have regular time alone with my Master. Through this practice, I am much more prepared when the little seeds of distraction do come. We must always be on guard lest we are unknowingly carried away from abiding in Christ and the effectiveness of preparing both before the day begins and after it ends can hardly be overstated. Especially for those areas in which we are particularly weak, we need to work on fully turning them over to Jesus during times when we are not being bombarded by temptations. “In a word, let your time of peace,—that is to say, the time when you are not beset by temptations to sin,—be used in cultivating the graces most opposed to your natural difficulties, and if opportunities for their exercise do not arise, go out of your way to seek them, and by so doing you will strengthen your heart against future temptations.”12
To begin a day devoted to God, it is best to begin with time set apart for prayer. Do your best to start this sacred time with God before any thoughts can enter your mind. Avoid texts, social media, television, other people even, until your devotions are finished. This can be difficult, and I understand even impossible for some people at times, but it is most helpful so I encourage you to do the best that you can.
Praying first thing in the morning, before even looking at your phone or eating breakfast, sets the tone for the entire day. By putting aside your hunger and praying, you are making a conscious effort to follow God even over your own desires. “Devote the first-fruits of your day to the Lord, because the whole day will belong to whoever gets the first start.”13 It releases the floodgates to allow Father’s love to pour into and through us thus squashing many thoughts and keeping our focus on him. At some point I would like to discuss more about morning prayers, but for now I’ll leave it at that.
There is no perfect way to pray, but surely there are more effective methods than others. I have found St. Francis de Sales’ method for morning prayers to be indispensable.14 He suggests we start with thanksgiving, as all prayers should. A rejoicing to the Lord of All that we have made it through the night and into the next day that He has made. Then we should go through the day we have ahead of us in our minds. Of course we cannot completely predict what will happen, but we know many of the trials in which we’ll face. Pray now for those specific things, to remain strong in Him and that His love, faithfulness, peace and kindness will flow out of you rather than the frustration and anger which normally does. End your prayer recognizing that without His Spirit, you could never live as you should. You have an uncountable list of failures as evidence.
This structure is only a suggestion though I do highly recommend something similar. As you change and the situations surrounding your life change, what is most effective will change as well. We must always be willing to adapt our lives to follow the Spirit. Similarly, if you have a morning prayer routine different than what I have described and it works well for you, don’t abandon it for this one!
Just as we begin the day with prayer, so should we end with it. Mornings tend to invoke ideas of life and beginnings whereas night is often most conducive for dwelling on death and sin. Each night as the sun sets we need to remember that our lives will set someday as well. It is most helpful to go through our day reviewing those situations in which we recognize the Spirit of Christ working through us as well as those when we let wickedness rule. We must offer thankfulness for our successes and ask for forgiveness for our failures15.
In addition to evening prayers, it is best to have our last thoughts as we doze off be those of prayer. I personally, taking note from Clement of Alexandria, like to recite Psalms until I fall asleep.16In doing this, we can ensure that both our first and last thoughts of the day will be of and devoted to God.
Of course, we should not be legalistic about such prayers. We are not dependent on morning and evening prayers, but on Christ himself. And we should never feel satisfied at simply completing our two daily prayers, but should always take advantage of a time when it arises. “At the times when you remember God, increase your prayers, so that when you forget Him, the Lord may remind you.”17
When You Fall
Note that I said when you fall not if you fall. On the one hand I don’t want us going into this with a losing attitude. On the other, it is important to recognize that we are weak and will eventually stumble. I find the words of Brother Lawrence most helpful in this regard. In his short book Practice of the Presence of God, Lawrence describes his simple life of devotion. He said we should live in “one hearty renunciation of everything which we are sensible does not lead to God” (Fourth conversation). Brother Lawrence had, since becoming a monk, always desired to live for nothing and no one other than God. Yet for ten years he lived in guilt and misery over how much he continually failed in that endeavor. Eventually he stopped living in shame and instead turned even his failures over to God. When he stumbled, he simply confessed his fault and said, “God, I shall never do otherwise, if you leave me to myself; it is you who must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.” After this, he felt no further uneasiness about it but simply continued in his constant walk with God.
To give in to guilt and shame is to give into the very powers in which we are struggling against. We have our worth through Jesus. When we sin, we must not turn to shame or guilt, but turn immediately to him. When we do this we learn humility which is to take the failure and convert it into victory. “I will merely say that for all the passion mentioned above, the remedy is humility. Those who have obtained that virtue have won the whole fight.”18
I’ll end with the words of St. Hesychios, “We are not mightier than Samson, wiser than Solomon, more knowledgeable about God than David, and we do not love God better than did Peter, prince of the apostles. So let us not have confidence in ourselves; for he who has confidence in himself will fall headlong.
Let us learn humility from Christ, humiliation from David, and from Peter to shed tears over what has happened; but let us also learn to avoid the despair of Samson, Judas, and that wisest of men, Solomon.
The devil, with all his powers, ‘walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour; (1 Pet 5:8). So must you never relax your attentiveness of heart, your watchfulness, your power of rebuttal or your prayer to Jesus Christ our God. You will not find a greater help than Jesus in all your life, for He alone, as God, knows the deceitful ways of the demons, their subtlety and their guile.
Let your soul, then, trust in Christ, let it call on Him and never fear; for it fights, not alone, but with the aid of a mighty King, Jesus Christ, Creator of all that is, both bodiless and embodied, visible and invisible.
The more rain falls on the earth, the softer it makes it; similarly, Christ’s holy name gladdens the earth of our heart the more we call upon it.”
Just as the Word is spread to but does not take root in all soil (Matt. 13:1-23), so let us strive to be inhospitable soils for the seeds of sins. If sin is refused germination, it will never bloom. The soil which is ripe for the Word, is death for sin. A soul which is rich for the Word, is arid for sin. Humility, faith, gentleness, patience, self-control, love and kindness will choke out the weeds of sin before they can even begin to take root. But the Word flourishes in such conditions and surely we may reap 100 fold in crop.
“Let this be your rule and practice, to ask yourself: Am I really doing this in accordance with God’s will?”19
There are many resources for watchfulness in the Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox traditions. Here are a several works about watchfulness or with parts pertaining to it.
The Philokalia The Philokalia is a five volume collection of writings from monastic Christians between the 4th and 15th centuries, although only four are available in English (only 99¢ for a digital copy of all four volumes!) The topics of the writings vary but are primarily related to quiet prayer within the heart. It is very highly regarded in Eastern Orthodoxy. Some of the writings which have helped me the most in regards to watchfulness are St. Isaiah the Solitary’s On Guarding the Intellect, St. Mark the Ascetic’s On the Spiritual Law, St. Hesychios the Priest and Nikiphoros the Monk.
The Ladder of Divine Ascent Another book valued in Orthodoxy is this one by John Climacus. This book describes the virtues a Christian should strive to encompass and is very practical in nature. Chapters 26 and 27 are the most relevant for our topic.
Prima the First Things… Written by Puritan mystic Isaac Ambrose, this book is wonderfully practical and enlightening. The most relevant chapter starts on page 28.
Practice of the Presence of God This incredibly simple book by Brother Lawrence gives you a peek into the life of a man who is living exactly as I have suggested we should strive to live. He devoted all thoughts and actions to God and saw no difference between times of prayer and times of work.
Introduction to the Devout Life Written by St. Francis de Sales, this book is odd for the time in that is was written specifically for lay people, not other monks. As such, it makes it very accessible to all of us lay people! The chapters are short, simple and powerful.
The Spiritual Watch This short book written by a moderate puritan Thomas Gataker can be difficult to read because of the spelling and language, but offers a deep insight into keeping a spiritual watch.
- If Now We Must Part: A Parting Hymn
- although greater temptations exceed in power… St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV, Chapter 8
- When you sin, blame your thought and not your action… St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law #119. Philokalia Vol. 1
- May we have nothing in common with the enemy of God… Nikiphoros the Monk, On Watchfulness and the Guarding of the Heart. The Philokalia, vol. 4
- New Testament warnings to stay watch… Luke 12:35-39, 12:15, 21:34; Matthew 25:1-13; Mark 13:34-37, 14:38; 2 Peter 1:19; 1 Corinthians 16:13; Colossians 4:2-3; 1 Thessalonians 5:4-8; Hebrews 2:1
- Psalms and Proverbs related to watchfulness… Proverbs 4:23, 8:33-34; Psalms 39:1, 141:3, 123:1-2;
- In his death and resurrection he has defeated death… Col 2:5, Heb 2:14-15, 1 Jn 3:8, Jn 12:31, Acts 2:32-36
- Rebuttal bridles evil thoughts, but the invocation of Jesus Christ drives them from the heart… St. Hesychius the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness #143. Philokalia Vol. 1
- Jesus prayer
- try to overcome temptations without prayer and patient endurance… St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law #189. Philokalia Vol. 1
- Simply turn with your whole heart towards Jesus Christ Crucified, and lovingly kiss His Sacred Feet… Introduction to the Devout Life, Part IV Chapter 9
- let your time of peace be used in cultivating the graces most opposed to your natural difficulties ibid.
- Devote the first-fruits of your day to the Lord… St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, p. 99
- St. Francis de Sales’ method for morning prayers… Introduction to the Devout Life, Part II Chapter 10
- This is a type of Prayer Examen. For more information about this, here is one set of steps and here is another.
- “Finally, before partaking of sleep, it is a sacred duty to give thanks to God, having enjoyed His grace and love, and so go straight to sleep. And confess to Him in songs of the lips because in His command all His good pleasure is done, and there is no deficiency in His salvation.“ Instructor Book II, Chapter 4
- At the times when you remember God, increase your prayers… St. Mark the Ascetic, #25. Philokalia Vol. 1
- The remedy is humility Ladder, p. 94
- Ladder, p. 98