Love is Attentive and Watchful: Guarding the Heart and Taking Every Thought Captive for Christ
The full title of the compilation of writings of the Desert Fathers is ‘The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Father, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect.’ Thus, the full title of the book refers to the original authors as the ‘Neptic Saints’, emphasizing one of their common practices of nepsis or ‘watchfulness’. It refers to much more than general spiritual alertness and vigilance and is the practice of watching all of one's thoughts and fantasies, thus keeping guard over the heart and mind.
Anthony Coniaris, in his work ‘Philokalia: the Bible of Orthodox Spirituality’, states: “Nepsis means to be completely present to where we are just as a mother has an attentive ear to the least sound of her baby in the crib even as she talks on the phone or vacuums the rug. Love is attentive and watchful. Bishop Kallistos Ware tells us that ‘watchfulness means, among other things, to be present where we are - at this specific point in space, at this particular moment in time. All too often we are scattered and dispersed, we are living, not with alertness in the present, but with nostalgia in the past, or with misgiving and wishful thinking in the future. . . The neptic man, then, is gathered into the here and now. He is the one who seizes ‘kairos’, the decisive moment of opportunity.”
This may seem to be a rather broad definition, but its broadness captures the all-encompassing nature and importance of nepsis for the spiritual life. Coniaris reminds us: “There is in the mind a deep center where the whole person converges. This center is to be completely tuned in to God. To be completely present to God is the beginning of prayer. The essential part of prayer is this inner attention to God . . .” Thus, nepsis is intimately tied to what was addressed in the previous post - the intellect (nous). “The intellect (nous) is like a bridegroom. St. Ilias the Presbyter said, ‘The intellect that encloses itself within the mind during prayer is like a bridegroom conversing with the bride inside the bridal chamber.’”
Philokalic spirituality presupposes above all that the deep center where the whole person converges should be healed. When the nous (intellect) is darkened through sin, the whole soul is darkened and defiled.
Hierotheos Vlachos in his work ‘Orthodox Psychotherapy’ speaks of this healing in terms of two kinds of watchfulness: the guarding of the nous and the guarding of the thoughts. He writes: “The guarding of the nous is a ‘watchtower commanding a view over our whole spiritual life.’ The guarding of the nous has been called ‘light-producing and lightning-producing and light-giving and fire-bearing’ and it surpasses many virtues. The guarding of the nous is that which by Christ’s power can change men from being sinful, indecent, profane, ignorant, uncomprehending and unjust to being just, responsive, pure, holy and wise.”
“Watchfulness is also called the guarding of thoughts. St. John of the Ladder teaches that it is one thing to guard thoughts and another to watch over the nous. Watching over the nous is higher than guarding the thoughts. This is true in the sense that we defined earlier, that the nous is the eye of the soul, the heart, while a thought is what functions in a man’s mind. It is one thing to try to keep the mind pure and another to try to keep the nous, that is the heart, pure. Nevertheless, purity of thoughts is needed, because it is impossible to keep one’s inner self free from sin if one has evil thoughts. The patristic commandment is to concentrate our nous (the soul’s energy and essence), to be watchful of thoughts and to fight against impassioned thoughts. It is essential that we pay attention to our reflections, recollections and notions. Indeed in this struggle to keep the nous pure and have constant remembrance of God, we have to discard the good thoughts as well, because even with good thoughts the nous gradually forms the habit of withdrawing from God. The monk Silouan taught: ‘The saints learned how to do battle with the enemy. They knew that the enemy uses intrusive thoughts to deceive us, and so all though their lives they declined such thoughts. At first sight there seems to be nothing wrong about an intrusive thought but soon it begins to divert the nous from prayer, and then stirs up confusion. The rejection of all intrusive thoughts, however apparently good, is therefore essential, and equally essential is it to have a nous pure in God.’ We should protect the eye of the soul from every thought, as we do the eye of the body from every harmful object. When a person becomes accustomed to this holy struggle of laying aside all thoughts, then the nous tastes the goodness of the Lord and acquires purity so that it can distinguish thoughts and ‘store in the treasures of memory those thoughts which are good and have been sent by God, while casting out those which are evil and come from the devil.’”
Thus, the clarion call that comes to us from the Scriptures and the Fathers is “Watch and pray.” In the words of Philotheus, “At every hour and moment let us guard the heart with all diligence from thoughts that obscure the soul’s mirror, for in that mirror Jesus Christ, the wisdom and power of God the Father, is . . .luminously reflected.”