Sleep specialists recommend that short naps of no more than 15 minutes can have a beneficial effect on our energy levels and alertness. Any longer than that sees us getting into a deeper level of sleep which makes it harder to wake up without feeling drowsy.

But I would like to propose a different, or perhaps complementary practice. Why not spend 15 minutes each day being awake? I mean really awake. The practice of zazen, of seated meditation, is not an exercise in relaxation as such, and is certainly not some kind of dream-like state. It is simply the practice of being awake, of being alert to the world around us, of being receptive to everything without devouring it, of open-eyed stillness in the face of whatever is around us. It is not the shutting-off of thoughts and not a retreat from the world but a simple exercise of attention. As such, it is, at the very least, a way of expressing our capacity for wakefulness and a way of strengthening that capacity.

The term wakefulness has synonyms in the religious vocabulary of Christianity and Buddhism, and probably others too. In Christianity, the desert tradition gave us nepsis – watchfulness or sobriety – and in Buddhism, the experience of enlightenment is an experience of awakening. In fact, in the latter, I think that Soto Zen would prefer to speak of being-awake so as not to suggest a movement from one state to another – enlightenment is not a goal to attain but a present reality to express. In Christian experience, watchfulness is also a constant invitation – ‘today, if only you would hear his voice…’ – and the vivid words of Compline come to mind:

Be sober, be vigilant, for your adversary the devil as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: whom resist, steadfast in the faith.

We needn’t get too into the question of ‘external’ diabolical threats to see the wisdom of these words. The fact is that we are vulnerable when we are not awake and our lack of watchfulness closes us off from others.

So don’t give up the siestas, but do think about having a time to be fully awake each day!

Christian Mindfulness

Love of wisdom means always to be watchfully attentive in small, even the smallest actions. Such a person gains the treasure of great peace; he is unsleeping so that nothing adverse may befall him, and cuts off its causes beforehand; he suffers a little in small things, thus averting great suffering.

Dobrotolubiye page

These words, quoted from St Isaac, are in the edited Russian version of the Philokalia, the Dobrotolubiye. It was compiled in the 18th century by St Paissy Velichkovsky and translated into Russian by St Theophan the Recluse in the 19th. These words occur in a section of the ‘Directions to Hesychasts’ by the monks Callistus and Ignatius, from 14th century Constantinople, just after the Hesychast cause was so powerfully championed by St Gregory Palamas. I give these bits of background simply to make the point that this rich tradition of spirituality has a long pedigree, even if it was little known in the West until the 20th century. Indeed, the English translation from which I’ve quoted by Kadloubovsky and Palmer from 1951 did much to bring this fine tradition to the attention of the English speaking world. But to the substance!

Full of Grace and Truth: St. Paisius Velichkovsky the Righteous

Hesychasm, of course, means stillness and stillness means an inner as well as an outer disposition. Attentiveness, watchfulness, wakefulness, sobriety are all synonyms for what we now know as ‘mindfulness’ and it’s important for Christians to know that we have our own deep sources for this practice. The acquisition of inner peace is a wonderful thing in itself and needs no justification, but it is also both a sign of the indwelling Spirit of God and a preparation for a fuller apprehension of divine beauty: ‘What is more joyful than the thought of the splendour of God?’ ask Callistus and Ignatius.

Attention to small things allows for a fuller awareness of the arising of thoughts in our minds so that they may be ‘cut off’ as they arise. This is core teaching in the desert tradition of Christian monasticism and has very close similarities with some Buddhist teachings. These ‘thoughts’ – logismoi – are the first stirrings that lead to anger, anxiety, distraction or greed, all the poisons that threaten our inner peace. That inner peace does not need to be created – it is our natural state – but it can easily be disturbed by these thoughts when they spiral out of control. But how do we first spot their arising and how do we then cut them off?

The practice of giving our full attention to small things is cultivated through patient effort in concentrating on the thing we are doing and by setting aside times of quiet prayer or meditation where we focus on a single point – usually a word or short phrase and/or our breathing. In hesychast prayer, this is not simply a mind-body exercise (though it is also that) but a loving attention towards the God who is the source of all life. In this way, our attention is not on our own immediate concerns but on that which is ultimate, and yet is also more intimate than we could imagine. This cultivation of attentiveness allows us to be more alert to the arising thoughts. Cutting them off simply means refusing to entertain them or allow them to develop. It may also mean replacing those thoughts with an appropriate word or phrase to counter its intent – ‘peace’, ‘love’, ‘mercy’. Evagrius of Pontus developed a whole range of such counter-words in his AntirrhetikosBut the main tool in this practice is ‘attention’ itself, something like a spiritual muscle that we can train through repeated and simple actions. For many, the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer is the greatest tool we have in this journey towards a restoration of the inner peace that is our divinely created nature.

Merton on St. Columba

Old Saint Paul's Church, Edinburgh - Tripadvisor

It may surprise you to learn that Thomas Merton had a bit of an interest in St Columba, though anyone who reads Merton will not be surprised that he might have picked up a copy of Adomnan’s Life of the saint (in Latin, of course) and will be even less surprised that he committed his thoughts to paper. Here’s the entry in his journal in full. It’s from the 12th of July 1964 (Dancing in the Water of Life p. 126):

Deeply moved by Adamnan’s life of St. Columba. A poetic work, full of powerful symbols, indescribably rich. Through the Latin (which is deceptive – and strange too) appears a completely non-Latin genius, and the prophecies and miracles are not signs of authority but signs of life, i.e., not signs of power conferred on a designated representative (juridically) – a “delegated” power from outside nature, but a sacramental power of a man of God who sees the divine in God’s creation. Then the miracles etc. are words of life spoken in the midst of life, not words breaking into life and silencing it, making it irrelevant, by the decree of absolute authority (replacing the authority of life which life has from its Creator).

Merton offers a really interesting take on sacramentality here, not as something external to creation but intrinsic to it, brought to light by those who have the purity of heart to see it. The miracles in the Life are truly fascinating and many are are deeply practical – a misplaced staff finds its way to its owner, the wind helpfully blows in two different directions to speed two monks on their separate ways, inedible fruit made sweet, protection from plague in places where his monasteries were founded. His intimate relationship with the creation was not all peaceful – he was happy for a charging wild boar to be struck dead, killed ‘by the power of his terrible word’ – but on the whole, the miracles associated with the saint are harmonious. I particularly like the story of a knife blessed by the saint which could do no harm to human or beast.

The other feature of Adomnan’s Life that particularly catches my attention is that holiness is indicated by luminosity, with light shining from the saint as a child, later as a priest ‘consecrating the holy oblation’ at the altar and shortly before his death. In this respect, as in many others in this account, we are reminded of the closeness of Columba’s mystical experiences with those of the desert monastics in Egypt (Admonan’s Life has a few deliberate echoes of Evagrius’ Latin version of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony).

Without trying to say too much about a supposed ‘Celtic’ nature-mysticism, and certainly avoiding any Celtic exceptionalism, I think Merton is right in identifying a more integrated view of how human beings are located in God’s creation than we often assume to be present in Christian theology. Holy lives are marked by the radiant transfiguration that is God’s telos for all creation, not by ‘dominion’ over that creation.

Desert as Icon

Explore the clifftop monasteries of Meteora, Greece

Early on in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis pays tribute to the ecological spirituality and leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. Francis refers to the spiritual roots of environmental problems as identified by Bartholomew, who invites us ‘to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which “entails learning to give, and not simply give up.”‘ Bartholomew urges us;

to accept the world as a sacrament of communion, as a way of sharing with God and our neighbours on a global scale. It is our humble conviction that the divine and the human meet in the slightest detail in the seamless garment of God’s creation, in the last speck of dust of our planet.

My reflections on Laudato Si’ have been focused on the dimension of spirituality, on the primary motivation for our renewed – converted – relationship with the earth because it strikes me that the tasks in hand are not contentious; carbon reduction, renewable energy, reduced consumption. What is much harder is discovering the motivation to do this. Both Francis and Bartholomew offer much wisdom in this regard.

An Orthodox approach to ecological spirituality is beautifully presented in John Chryssavgis’ book, Creation as Sacrament. Having previously written (equally beautifully) on the Desert tradition, it is not surprising that he returns there to affirm a spirituality which is both ascetical and mystical. It is ascetical in demonstrating a pattern of life that seeks not dominance over creation but respectful, affirming submission to it. In the desert, one must travel light and learn the fundamental disposition of letting go ‘which is necessary to a proper relationship with God, world, and oneself.’ One faces ‘the pain and passion of life in all its intensity’, far from any distraction, pride or pretence.

The desert instills a spirituality that is mystical in that those who enter it do so out of a love for the place and who discover there an icon of Divine Beauty, and I use that word in its specific, theological sense. Icons are kissed, venerated as true, sacramental portals to the reality they present. They are honoured as windows to the divine, but not worshipped as God. This leads us to another vital understanding in an Orthodox approach to the nature of God in the world. God is not absent or distant from the world, but intimately present through his energies. The whole world is energised by divine presence such that it is possible to affirm that the world is part of God but not the whole of God. It is important to affirm that God is both near and far, present both in and beyond what we can see and, therefore, able to sustain and transform the world, including ourselves as part of it.

With these two insights held side-by-side, we both assume full responsibility for our place in the world, and delight in the One whose ‘power sustains’ and whose ‘love restores’ it (Eucharistic Prayer IV, Scottish Liturgy).

Revisiting the Desert

In Lent this year, it seemed more appropriate than ever to explore the rich traditions of spirituality associated with the early desert monastic life, not least because the pioneers of that way of life had a lot of interesting things to say about isolation and patience, about simplicity of life and prayer stripped down to its essentials. I have just read an excellent summary of the insights of the desert tradition in fewer than 8 pages. The Dominican Simon Tugwell’s book, Ways of Imperfection, is a survey of Christian spirituality from its earliest decades with a focus on the many ways in which these traditions steer us away from spiritual elitism towards a more ‘ordinary’ or ‘unspectacular’ way of seeing things which takes account of our human realities.

Ways of Imperfection An exploration of Christian spirituality ...

It is beautifully written – clear, concise and with some nice turns of phrase – and it draws on a careful and broad reading of traditional texts (and not always the best known ones). It was published in 1984 and I’ve only just got round to reading it now.

Here are one or two of his nuggets about the Desert tradition:

The most important way to show fraternal charity was to refrain from interfering with other people, and especially to refrain from criticising them.

It was, however, ’eminently proper to allow other people to interfere with you’. By this, he means that we should gently find ways to give way to the other. There was also a proper ignorance before the truth:

If someone asks you what a verse of scripture means, the proper answer is ‘I don’t know’. If someone says something you do not agree with, you should not argue with him but simply say, ‘You know best’.

The Apophthegmata Patrum is full of such wisdom, which seems to run counter to a culture which gives absolute primacy to one’s own opinion and is intolerant of agnosticism.

That is our business, then. Higher things can look after themselves; we must try to cope with all the disorder there is in our own souls.

The whole teaching of the desert might be summarised in the phrase: ‘pay attention to yourself’. This is not solipsism, but a recognition that there is one part of this vast universe for which we have a particular responsibility; this walking, breathing, opining, observing, interacting piece of squishy matter that is our own body.

‘If you have a heart,’ said Abba Pambo, ‘you can be saved.’ This is the essential thing. It does not matter so much what we do; what matters is that there should be a real human being there to do it. Salvation is offered to real people, not to fictitious saints.

Watchfulness – Mindfulness

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

On Experts

During Morning Prayer in Lent, Old St Paul’s has a tradition of an additional reading from the early Mothers and Fathers of the Church. This morning, I used one from an excellent compendium of readings from the patristic period by the late Cardinal Tomas Spidlik, who knew a thing or two about this era and about Eastern Christian spirituality. The book is called ‘Drinking from the Hidden Fountain‘ and today’s reading was from the 6th century monk and teacher, Dorotheos of Gaza.

It comes from his discourse on ‘consultation’ where he meditates on Proverbs 11:14 – ‘Those who have no guidance fall like leaves but there is safety in much counsel.’ He is confident that all who seek God will find guidance and urges that we seek wise counsel in every area of our lives. For Dorotheos, speaking out of the heart of monastic experience, this is above all an exercise of humility:

Learn then, brothers and sisters, to enquire; be convinced that not to set one’s own path is a great thing. This is humility, this is peace of soul, this is joy!

We should not undertake the path towards God alone. There is wisdom to draw on from those who have walked the path before us, or for a longer time, or with such wholehearted intent and luminous insight that we can trust their guidance.

In a different realm, it is interesting that many have highlighted the need to hear trusted voices in the midst of a pandemic when, until very recently, such expert voices have been called into question by some with a political agenda. Perhaps this is also a time to seek out the wise counsel of those who can speak reliably to us about the spiritual life. Words of encouragement, support and insight are always welcome. Right now, they are essential.

I have told you all this so that you may know how much rest and tranquility we may have  – and that will all security – by not settling anything by ourselves, but by casting everything that concerns ourselves upon God and on those who, after God, have the power to guide us.


quotations are taken from Dorotheos of Gaza; Discourses and Sayings Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1977, translated and introduced by Eric P. Wheeler