What to do with 50,000 Thoughts Per Day: Hesychios on Watchfulness and Holiness
As noted in my previous post, I have begun rereading the works of the Philokalia, starting with those suggested by the starets who directed the Russian Pilgrim in “The Way of Pilgrim” and more recently by Kallistos Ware. I have decided to start with Hesychios’ writing on “Watchfulness and Holiness” simply because it captures most directly the recent themes from the Philokalia that I have be considering. St. Nikodimos praises him for his teaching on watchfulness, inner attentiveness and guarding the heart. The translators of the Philokalia note that while initially it was thought that the author was Hesychios of Jerusalem who lived in the first half of the fifth century, it is now generally believed that he was Hesychios of Sinai who probably lived in the eighth or ninth century.
Hesychios emphasizes the pure, comprehensive, and ennobling character of this virtue, while also seeking to teach his readers how to acquire and perfect it. Watchfulness, as Heschyios defines it is “a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period of time, completely frees us with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It enables us to fulfill every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart, a state blessed by Christ when He says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ . . .” It . . . “is a way embracing every virtue, every commandment. It is the heart’s stillness. . . unbroken by any thought. In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and Himself God.”
This inner struggle, while hidden from others, is constant and includes “halting every thought at the entrance of the heart.” As St. Paul exhorts, we are to take every thought captive. We are to seek to put on the mind of Christ and have the mind of Christ but this comes only by grace and with great struggle to maintain such continuity in one’s attention. But the fruit of this conscientious practice is inner stability and this inner stability “produces a natural intensification of watchfulness; and this intensification gradually and in due measure gives contemplative insight into spiritual warfare.”
These are simply the rudimentary elements of watchfulness and Hesychios has much more to say about its practice, in particular the place and importance of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”). However, what struck me the most in the initial pages of Hesychios‘ treatise was his comment that the blessed state and fruit of the practice of watchfulness, purity of heart, is rare. He, of course, was speaking of its rarity among monks, but one, I fear, could perhaps speak of its near non-existence today among Christians.
The importance of what Hesychios speaks of in these pages of the Philokalia not only escapes many in our generation but the whole idea of controlling one’s thoughts, of scrutinizing one’s ideas is often dismissed in gross caricature as neurotic - a form of repression or simply a manifestation of scrupulosity. There are such things of course, yet in our day indiscriminate freedom of thoughts and ideas, regardless of their content, meaning or their moral value, is the norm embraced personally and socially. The truth of the power of our thoughts and their formative influence often evades us. One Christian blogger, by all standards very thoughtful and virtuous, with humorous honesty captures this while describing the purpose of his blog as follows: “so that no thought of mine, no matter how stupid, should ever go unpublished again!” Likewise, when asked why he posted some particular thought online, one man responded with similar honesty and good humor: “Just a random neuron firing.”
Yet, the author of the book of Proverbs tells us, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is,” and our Lord similarly reminds us, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks” and warns us, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Thoughts, ideas, images (however they might come to mind) are not to be made light of or believed to be inconsequential. We must not fail to recognize where, in the spiritual life, the battle is fought. Anthony Coniaris in his book “Confronting and Controlling Thoughts” stated that “research at the University of Minnesota has revealed that the average human being has about 4000 distinct thoughts in a sixteen hour day.” More recent studies may modify this number (I have seen estimates from anywhere between 12,000 and 50,000) but “this means that over a life span of seventy years a person has a total of about one hundred million thoughts” (36). We are thinking beings, but the Fathers remind us that perhaps the majority of these thoughts (often habitual) are negative due to our fallen state and that the mind is a battlefield. “All battles are lost or won first in the internal dialogue of the mind. As John Milton wrote: “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, and hell out of heaven.”
There is a great deal more to be said about this, for what is being discussed is not simply the power of positive thinking - a psychological method for successful living or for overcoming negative core thoughts and beliefs that lead to destructive behavior or to depression and anxiety. As we will see through the writings of Hesychios and others it is something that is only done with and through God and by His grace and involves an intense, concentrated and unremitting ascetic struggle to the end of one’s life. . . . Its goal is not self-mastery but the knowledge and apprehension of God that comes only through purity of heart.