The Two-Fold Nature of Watchfulness
Cosmas Halekakis, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
The day of the Lord shall come upon us as a thief in the night, in a manner not foreseen by men, as a tap on the shoulder, as a snare upon all those who dwell on the face of the earth. We know neither the hour nor the day, but we are exhorted to take heed of ourselves, and not to let the cares of this world weigh down upon our hearts. Indeed, we are called by the Lord Himself to watch and pray always to be counted worthy to stand before the Son of man; before the awesome judgment seat of Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Scholars speak of a natural moral law. That individuals in all societies, in all cultures have some basic understanding of good and evil, even if it is for completely social or economic reasons. A natural moral law usually based on the ten commandments or other such fundamentally humanistic precepts. No matter what religion we are, whether Orthodox or atheist, we all have some system of moral behavior, and we know what it takes to be "good," or to achieve our goal, within our own religion or ideology.
Each belief system has the inherent notion of perfection with respect to its own moral imperatives as the ultimate goal. For example, we as Orthodox Christians know the "what" of our salvific existence. That is, we have our own basic notion of morality as revealed by scripture and the tradition of the Church, and we know the fulfillment of our moral system, deification. In other words, we not only know "what" we are suppose to do, but we also know "why." Each individual has his or her own concept of "what" they are suppose to do with respect to their own belief system, "why" they are suppose to do it, and even further, they also know "how. " As Orthodox Christians we all participate in the same faith community, but as we are all different, we all experience our faith in a different way. Nonetheless, each of us sees the vast tools that 18y before us with which we are able to achieve our goals. Each of us is able to receive the Eucharist, Confession, Holy Unction, to fast, to pray; in short, each of us as Orthodox Christians knows "how" to reach perfection within our religion. However, this poses a very difficult question. If we all know "what" we are suppose to do, "why" we are to do it, and "how" to go about doing it, then why are we unable to achieve perfection? Everything is Iying right before us, well within our grasp, and easily within the boundaries of our cognition. Why then are we unable to actualize our potentialities and be perfect?
Some may respond that it is because of temptation. That the demonic forces are constantly at work, trying to destroy our souls, and lead us as far away from the path of righteousness as possible. This is no doubt true, however, surely the demon can not force our hand to sin. If so then we would no longer possess free will, and they would be judged for our actions not us. But just as the demons lurk within the shadowy recesses of our minds and hearts, the ineffable grace of God pours out upon our souls as the uncreated light, whose radiance illuminates the most inner reaches of our being. The sly serpent is indeed at work, but so to is the omnipotent King of kings, and thus the original question remains, if we are responsible for our own salvation, then why are we unable to achieve perfection if we know all that is necessary for our undisputed victory?
One possible answer to this seemingly insoluble question is given to us in a variety of forms throughout the liturgical cycle of the year. Especially throughout the cycle of the lenten season, beginning with the first Saturday of the Souls and continuing into Holy Week itself. The Gospel reading for the first Saturday of the Souls is taken from the twenty-first chanter of Luke. and it speaks primarily of the second coming of the Lord. But, specifically in Luke 21:36 the Lord gives us an exhortation. He tells us to 'Watch, therefore, and pray always." In this statement lies a possible answer to our question. Temptation surrounds us on all sides, and we must proceed in a spirit of soberness, and alertness of mind and body. In short, we must constantly remain watchful, and it is our own lack of watchfulness and protection of the intellect which leads to our own inability to achieve perfection.
Similarly, within the Bridegroom services of Holy Week, we sing one of the most well-know and favorite hymns of the year, "Behold the Bridegroom comes. "We should note that the words of this hymn also echo the notion of watchfulness when it states, "...blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching" and again, "...unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless." Thus, we see this notion of spiritual watchfulness at the beginning and at the close of the lenten season, and if we look back to the Philokalia, we will see numerous texts by several ascetics devoted to watchfulness and the guarding of the intellect.
St. Philotheos of Sinai indicates the two-fold nature of watchfulness by stating that, "Watchfulness may fittingly be called a path leading both to the kingdom within us and to that which is to be." This statement indicates the two dimensions of watchfulness: the eschatological dimension, and the inner, spiritual dimension.
The eschatological dimension of watchfulness should not be confused with a "rapture" mentality, in which we are consumed by predicting the exact year that the Lord will return. Nor should this dimension be confused with living life to its fullest, and not worrying about tomorrow, in an attempt to demonstrate a kind of zeal for living. This dimension of watchfulness does not even really focus on the concept of death, rather, it is more concerned with the concept of judgment. The eschatological dimension of watchfulness indicates that we should live each day, each hour, each moment of our lives as if we could suddenly be called to give an account of our sins. We are to live each moment as if we could receive a tap on the shoulder, and be taken before the Judgment seat of the Lord most high. We do not necessarily have to believe that "fire and brimstone" shall rain down upon the earth, but we do have to believe that one day we will be asked to give an account of the gifts that we have been given, and how we have used these gifts for the glory of God. Christ knows that we will never be completely prepared for His return and subsequent judgment, but He still exhorts us to continual perseverance and spiritual askesis so that we may one day fulfill our potentialities and truly exist in His likeness.
This spiritual askesis composes the second dimension of watchfulness: the inner, spiritual dimension. We have spoken about the eschatological aspect of watchfulness, in which we are called to live each moment of life in preparation for the coming of the Lord. But the spiritual aspect of watchfulness involves the ascetic notion of guarding the intellect, and watching, so that the attacks and assaults of the demonic powers to not penetrate our heart and soul, and overcome our being with temptation and sin. St. Hesychios the priest, in the Philokalia, states that, ''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...Watchfulness is a way embracing every virtue, every commandment. It is the heart's stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect. Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way, predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach and what they say and do is noted; and we can see in what specious and delusive form the demons are trying to deceive the intellect." Thus, we see that watchfulness functions as a necessary facet of our salvific experience. Especially now, while we are in the midst of the lenten season, and perhaps weary from the fast. We must indeed remain watchful, both eschatologically and spiritually, so that on that dreaded day of the Lord, when we are called to stand and be judged before the throne of the most high, we may indeed be found worthy to approach, draw near, and minister to the King of Glory.
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