When I wrote a little yesterday about the Bridegroom services of Orthodox Holy Week, I touched on the theme of watchfulness which comes from Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13. The above illustration is from the 6th century Rossano Gospels. It is, of course, a parable about keeping watch, being alert, ‘for you know neither the day nor the hour.’ Conventionally, we may imagine this exhortation to refer to a specific future event but I think that the earlier Christian insights into watchfulness are nearer the mark, as they see watchfulness as a state of being which relates to all of life rather than a single eschatological moment.
You see this theme most strongly in the desert tradition, with an entire section of the thematic collection of the Sayings focusing on ‘being ever watchful’. One of the most vivid and pithy of these sayings was from Abba Bessarion:
The monk ought to be all eyes, like the cherubim and seraphim.
Several phrases and metaphors give a flavour of what the desert mothers and fathers meant by ‘watchfulness’: keeping guard over the heart, the remembrance of God, being sober, being mindful, avoiding distraction, stillness, avoiding contempt for others or pride of self. Indeed, this whole body of monastic literature is often described as ‘niptic’, referring to the notion of sober watchfulness.
For these monastic writers, the main things of which one ought to be aware are the thoughts [logismoi] of our minds/hearts. These can be good, bad or neutral. What matters is to keep watch over them so that the bad ones don’t take root and so that their multitude does not distract. Abba Macarius offers a lovely image of the soul being like a mother gathering her wandering and boisterous children together into the house so that she may instruct them. The soul should;
gather up her logismoi constantly (to the best of her ability) and to await the Lord in firm faith so that, when he comes to her, he may teach her true, undistracted prayer.
Watchfulness is, then, the opposite of distraction, the opposite of dissipation or ‘being all over the place.’
What deep wisdom this is! Prayer is simply a matter of being ‘gathered’ rather than ‘scattered’. I say ‘simply’, but it is a difficult art which requires practice and care. One way to practice is through ‘monologistic’ prayer – the prayer of a single word repeated with full attention repeatedly and gently, though the wisdom of the desert shows that all of life is an opportunity to practice watchfulness.
The days of Holy Week are an invitation to practice that watchfulness as, indeed, are these days of isolation. So I hope Abba Macarius’ words about being gathered into the house ring true for you today!
Quotations are from The Book of the Elders, translated by John Wortley; Cistercian Publications 2012