SLEEPING CHRISTIANS?

by Fr. Jonathan Hemmings

 

"Keep awake and pray that you may not enter into temptation." (Matt 26:41) These words of our Lord to His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane are no less an alarm warning for our time and generation. This state of wakefulness and preparedness is achieved through prayer. Now, at the eleventh hour, at our crucial moment we must be aware of the unseen warfare that demands of us a state of constant vigilance.

"Take heed, watch and pray. "The Greek for "take heed" is literally "look out"! The fathers rightfully name this watchfulness as the "eye of the soul."

The sleep of ignorance and indifference as much as the turmoil of business and pride is a real danger for "modern" Christians who may sleep through their Gethsemane and time of trial before Christ comes in glory. Our Holy Liturgy takes place between the two great Icons of the Incarnation and the Judgement of Christ, as does our life. In our worship and prayer life we must be still in order to hear Christ speak to us.

Yet this stillness is not at all the same thing as sleep. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. Stillness comes as a result of watchfulness and prayer and a purifying of the passions generated by the heart. The heart is a silent generator and can be the catalyst of demonic destruction or Divine redemption. That is why we stand in the Liturgy-ready, prepared, waiting on God.

"What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart and defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man." Mt. 15:18-20. The prayer of the heart on the other hand warms our intellect with the virtues of mercy and compassion and refreshes the dry rationalism with the well of living waters that springs up from our spirit-endowed soul. The prayer of the mind descending to the heart energises our faith. St.Dionysios the Areopagite calls the return of our intellect to itself and subsequently to the heart, cyclical.

There is a temptation born of pride to think of our social activity is somehow proof of our Christian belief. Whilst we must be doers of the word we must first be hearers. Christ teaches this dynamic which originates in a focussed stillness of the listening heart in his conversation with Martha:

"Martha, Martha you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her." Luke 10:41-42.

Martha was distracted through "much serving." Her hospitality, business and fussing had blinded her eyes and deafened her ears to Christ. He had become the object of her duties rather than the subject of her joy. The "eye of her soul" was not fixed upon Jesus, the "author and finisher of faith." Heb. 12:2. Before our hands can do God's work on earth our ears and eyes must be set on heaven.

"Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving." (Colossians 4:2)

St. John of Kronstadt writes on this passage; "for it is not by variety that the soul is strengthened, but by their (the prayers) constant repetition, and so by their being brought into our heart, into our will and into our whole life."

From the Desert Fathers: There were three friends … and the first chose to reconcile those who were fighting against each other, as it is said, "Blessed are the peacemakers. "The second chose to visit the sick. The third went to live in prayer and stillness in the desert.

Now, in spite of all his labours, the first could not make peace in all men's quarels, and in sorrow he went to the one who was serving the sick and found him also disheartened.

So they went to see the one who was living in stillness and prayer and told him their difficulties. After a short silence he poured water into a bowl and said to them "Look at the water," and it was disturbed. After a while he said: "Look again" and they could see their faces reflected in the still water.

Then he said: "It is the same for those who live among men, disturbance prevents them from seeing their faults; but when a man is still, then he sees his failings."

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