ON WATCHFULNESS AND HOLINESS.
'Just as it is impossible to fight battles without weapons, or to swim a great sea with clothes on, or to live without breathing, so without humility and the constant prayer to Christ it is impossible to master the art of inward spiritual warfare or to set about it and pursue it skillfully.' - On Watchfulness and Holiness, 99.
St Hesychios' teachings, the heart of which are preserved in the Philokalia (see the English translation by Palmer, Sherrard & Ware, vol. i), centre upon just the above ideas: one must live humbly before God and man, and pray in truth at all times, with all his being. Anything else taught in the Christian Way with relation to personal holiness is but an extrapolation and explanation of these central ideas. One must humble the self and open the heart to union with God. One must bring himself down, that he may be brought up by the Lord.
'Indeed, our true task is always the same and is always accomplished in the same way: to call upon our Lord Jesus Christ with a burning heart so that His holy name intercedes for us.' -Watchfulness, 97.
This is our true aim, says Hesychios: to cry out to God with our whole being. It is He who must affect true change, it is our task to willingly assent to His transformation of our person. It is not ours to attempt to that change - such haughtiness is only presumption. We must realize our complete inability to restore our souls and bodies to life, for God alone can work such salvation. Thus do we turn inward to His presence in our hearts, and there cry out in divine love, 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'
'As you sail across the sea of the intellect, put your trust in Jesus, for secretly in your heart He says: "Fear not, my child Jacob, the least of Israel; fear not, you worm Israel, I will protect you." If God is for us, what evil one is against us? For He has blessed the pure of heart and given the commandments; and so Jesus, who alone is truly pure, in a divine way readily enters into hearts that are pure and dwells in them. Therefore, as Paul counsels, let us ceaselessly exercise our intellect in devotion. For devotion uproots the seeds sown by the devil, and is the path of the intellegence.' -Watchfulness, 150.
God is our guide, captain, and champion leader in the work of personal transformation. His promise is to lead us always, to ever be our guide and Father as One who loves mankind. And guide us He shall, change us He shall. Our task becomes that of attentive watchfulness to His action in our lives: we are called to still all in us that works against His redemption of soul and body, and watch that no new evil befouls us. The passions that thrive in the unrestrained soul tear us away from the work of Christ in our flesh; ill-ordered minds race without control from one thought to the next, rarely contemplating God, rarely pouring energy and zeal into the transformative workings of theosis. Such unbridled activity is personal war with God. We must strive to be silent, strive to be still, that all His workings may be embraced.
'If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare, let that little animal, the spider, always be your example for stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be as still in your intellect as you should be. The spider hunts small flies; but you will continually slay "the children of Babylon" if during your struggle you are as still in your soul as is the spider; and, in the course of this slaughter, you will be blessed by the Holy Spirit.' -Watchfulness, 27.
Our stillness, be it true stillness, will open our eyes not only to the weaknesses in our own person, but also to the activity of the Evil One and the demons who never cease in their attempts to drive us further from Christ. The more still our heart becomes, the more clearly we see the dread attacks of the devil. Yet even as the spider is at his most deadly when in motionless stillness at the centre of his web, so are we most potently able to resist and destroy all demonic attacks when our minds are stilled within our hearts, silent and calm, resonanting with the pure name of Jesus Christ. It is here that we find victory, and here that we find peace.
'Attentiveness is the heart's stillness, unbroken by any thought.' -Watchfulness, 5.
'The soul's true peace lies in the gentle name of Jesus and in its emptying itself of impassioned thoughts.' -Watchfulness, 122.
Thus Hesychios exhorts us to work ever toward this blessed stillness which brings such growth. We must work after our salvation in fear and trembling, ever aware of the gravity of our sin and the danger of demonic temptation, but ever confident in the promise, hope, and blessings of salvation in Christ God. Under the guidance of a worthy spiritual father, we must follow the example of Jesus Himself, the author and perfector of our faith, and the living model of a holy life:
'Through His incarnation God gave us the model for a holy life and recalled us from our ancient fall. In addition to many other things, He taught us, feeble as we are, that we should fight against the demons with humility, fasting, prayer and watchfulness.' -Watchfulness, 12.
'Prayer is a great blessing, and it embraces all blessings, for it purifies the heart, in which God is seen by the believer.' -Watchfulness, 62.
Humility, fasting, prayer, watchfulness. These are the tools which advance men and women toward holiness, and they are the fruits, too, of that advancement. Humility brings us to a more realistic and understanding view of ourselves, and thus of the grace of God. Fasting trains the body, so long left to unrestrained gluttony, and through its training brings clarity to the mind and soul. Prayer lifts our whole being into the embrace of God and propels us to divine union. Finally, watchfulness brings our whole mind and soul to rest in the heart, there to know the love and grace of God. It is the tool by which we are guided by Christ to know good from evil, to maintain the former in our person and repel the latter before it has the opportunity to work harm in our lives. The combined use of these tools brings us closer to Christ, who has promised that whoever knocks, to him the door shall be opened.
'Just as he who looks at the sun cannot but fill his eyes with light, so he who always gazes intently into his heart cannot fail to be illumined.' -Watchfulness, 108.
And though this promise is eternal, Hesychios knew well that its realization does not always come easily. Yet still we must knock, and knock still more. Our knocking is to be that very cry of the heart that he mentioned in the quotation above: the prayer of Christ imbued into our whole being. Through whatever droughts of faith, we must continue to call out to the Lord.
'The more the 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.' -Watchfulness, 41.
And then, when God's good providence sees us ready, the promised blessings will be received.
'When the heart has acquired stillness it will perceive the heights and depths of knowledge; and the ear of the still intellect will be made to hear marvellous things from God.' -Watchfulness, 132.
Let us thus engage fully upon this path of spiritual growth, that we, too, may be accounted worthy to taste of the good things of life in Christ Jesus and see the light of His glory for which our whole being longs. And may the prayers of St. Hesychios, rich in faith and standing ever in that light, aid us on that journey.
The above is excerpted from a short, informal talk on the teachings of St. Hesychios given by M.C. Steenberg in September, 2000. Quotations are from On Watchfulness and Holiness in the Philokalia, vol. i., pp. 162-198 (ed. GEH Palmer, Philip Sherrard & Kallistos Ware: Faber & Faber, 1979).