Some years ago a close family friend passed away in a nursing home. She spent the last months of her life in what appeared to be a state of semi-consciousness, rocking back and forth in her chair and muttering to herself, “Waiting, waiting…”. We never did learn just what she was waiting for, other than death. She was, though, a fervent and faithful Christian, and her “waiting” seemed very much akin to “watching.”
Her Protestant background gave her little in the way of initiation into “spiritual warfare.” Yet instinctively – by grace – she understood what that struggle was about. She had seldom read writings of the Church Fathers, so she had little in the way of a vocabulary to express the inner meaning of “waiting.” Nevertheless, she seemed fully aware that the word does not imply what we usually think it does: an inactive state of expectation for something to come, something that is not yet present or available. It describes, rather, a pathway that leads toward fulfillment of that expectation. Insofar as it is grounded in “watchfulness,” the act of “waiting” is an inner dynamic of the heart or soul, which offers us immediate experience of what we most deeply desire. This our friend understood. And it seemed to transform her days and months of waiting into a true pilgrimage.
As it is used in patristic tradition, “watchfulness” implies an inner attentiveness or vigilance. It requires wariness in the face of attacks from both within and without, from our worst inner impulses and from the onslaught of demonic temptations. Accordingly, watchfulness is a key element in spiritual warfare.
The eighth century ascetic writer Hesychios of Sinai composed a remarkable treatise on “watchfulness and holiness,” included in the Philokalia. He begins with this description: “Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It enables us to fulfil every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart…”.1
This is an extraordinary statement that at first reading seems highly improbable. According to Hesychios, watchfulness or spiritual attentiveness can liberate us from destructive thoughts, words and deeds; it makes it possible for us actually to know the unknowable God and the “mysteries” of the spiritual world; it equips us to respond with perfect obedience to all of the biblical commandments; and it conveys to us – in the here and now – “every blessing of the age to come.”
If the personal experience of this holy monk enabled him to make such a remarkable affirmation, it is only by virtue of the key phrase, the key reality: “with God’s help.” If watchfulness, termed also “noetic stillness” or “guarding of the heart,” can lead in this life to such a state of beatitude, it is only because God wages spiritual warfare on our behalf. The rewards of that struggle – freedom from destructive passions, knowledge of God, and every eternal blessing – are not our doing. They are not the result of our own initiative or spiritual power. They are a gift, wholly gratuitous and unmerited. They require on our part only an attitude of repentance, an inner openness to grace, and the desire to share, now and forever, in God’s own holiness.
For most of us, whether we are conscious of it or not, life consists essentially in “waiting.” The hyper-activism that characterizes American life, and the life of most Western societies today, distracts us enough from what is essential, that we have lost touch with the real meaning and value of being alive. We are “waiting for Godot” rather than for “the one thing needful.” To acquire that “one thing,” however, we need to shift our focus, reacquire a sense of genuine value (and civility), reorganize our priorities, and reject the artificial virtues society inculcates in us: a passion for aggressive competition, a relentless drive toward perfectionism, and an endless quest for status and material gain. We need to discover once again the truth that the wealthiest among us is the monk who has renounced every possession and obtained the “glorious liberty of the children of God.” We need to find peace and happiness not in the marketplace or in accumulating “stuff,” but in assuming the inner struggle of attentiveness, of watchfulness, which alone leads to “every blessing of the age to come.”
Some day we may well find ourselves sitting in a nursing home or some equivalent, rocking back and forth, and waiting. For many people of any age, that is a description of their daily existence, whether at the office, or at home, on the playing field or in the trenches. Their waiting can be filled with boredom or anxiety, or with a gnawing conviction that their personal ambitions are meaningless and their hopes empty and vain. To people like this (and it may be a temptation for all of us) waiting can easily lead to despair.
Waiting with watchfulness, though, can become a pilgrimage. It can take us on an inner journey that leads us through the rough places of passions and temptations and on to every blessing of the world to come. All it requires is an attitude of repentance, an unquenchable thirst for those blessings – and an abundance of help from God.
- “On Watchfulness and Holiness,” Philokalia, vol. 1 (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1979), 163. [↩]