Titus 3:8-15; Luke 8:5-15
We live in an age of distraction with instant access to whatever entertainment we prefer. Our attention spans have become short because we are used to quick and superficial encounters with sources of information and with other people. We often use technology in a way that is simply a waste of our time, energy, and attention. Our habits are very different from those of people in agricultural societies who had to focus on what they were doing over lengthy periods of time in order to have any hope of harvesting a good crop. If they were not both careful and patient, their seeds would not mature to the point of bearing fruit. Farmers must remain vigilant against threats of all kinds as they prepare the soil, plant the seeds, provide them water and fertilizer, and protect them from weeds, pests, and bad weather. The same is truly spiritually for those who want to flourish in Christ.
As the Lord taught in the Parable of the Sower, growing to fruitful maturity in the Christian life is not automatic. The healing of our souls will not happen by accident when we are mindlessly distracted by our smart phones or by anything else, but requires constant watchfulness against temptations of all kinds, especially those associated with “the cares and riches and pleasures of life.” Ever since our first parents chose to gratify their own desires over obeying God, we have found it so easy to let just about anything distract us from finding fulfillment in the One Who created us in the divine image and likeness. That is precisely why so many fall away and never reach maturity in Christ. Regardless of our upbringing or initial enthusiasm, we must be constantly vigilant against the temptation to become so distracted that we wither and die spiritually.
Mindfulness is simply staying focused so that we see clearly what we are thinking, desiring, saying, and doing. It is entirely possible to live in the world with all our daily cares, but still to see the truth about our thoughts as we turn our attention away from those that would direct us away from sharing more fully in the life of Christ. The same challenge exists with what we say and do, but our thoughts should be our most fundamental concern for they lead to our words and deeds. For example, when we recognize pride, anger, or lust at work in what we think or want, we should immediately pray to the Lord in humility for strength in rejecting the temptation. Instead of fixating with hurt pride on what our thoughts and desires reveal about us, we should simply refocus on Christ with a true acknowledgement of our weakness. The words of the Jesus Prayer are often very helpful in this regard.
If we do not struggle constantly to grow in mindfulness, unholy thoughts and desires will likely grow like weeds in our hearts. They can easily choke the spiritual life out of us as they lead to deeds and words that will make it very hard for us to become more beautiful icons of Christ. Those deeds and words will wound other people and likely tempt them to sin also. If our eyes are not open to the truth about what we say and do, it will be easy to make a mess of our own lives and to bring those around us down also. Far better than trying to mend such brokenness afterwards is to nip it in the bud. As with a garden, it is much better to keep the weeds from becoming a serious threat in the first place than to wait until they have taken over and wreaked havoc with the plants you are trying to grow.
Our most important tool for acquiring mindfulness is focused prayer from the heart, for it is by being fully present before the Lord that we gain the spiritual vision to see the truth about ourselves. We must turn off our media, ignore our thoughts, shut our mouths, and stand before Him without distraction on a daily basis. We must turn away from our usual addiction to wasting time by offering ourselves to God through prayer each day. It may be for only a few minutes, but such a rule of prayer must become part of our daily schedule. That is the first step in gaining the spiritual clarity to become “those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.” When our minds wander and we find ourselves distracted in prayer, we must simply turn our attention back to Christ in humility. Focusing on the words of the Jesus Prayer will help us do so.
There is a strong temptation, however, to think that the challenges of life in our world are simply too severe for us to be so closely united with Christ that we will bear good fruit for His Kingdom. Perhaps we think that prayer and mindfulness are fine for monks, nuns, and others without our daily problems and distractions, but that there is no way to live in “the real world” in such a spiritual fashion. To accept that conclusion, however, is to reject the truth of the Incarnation of the Son of God, Who united humanity and divinity in Himself as He was born, lived, died, and arose from the grave for our salvation as whole persons. The Savior did not live an easy life that was somehow protected from the problems and pains that we know all too well. He put Himself in the center of great political and religious conflicts and bore the consequences of all human corruption to the point of death on the Cross. He was tempted from the beginning to the end of His earthly ministry to become a nationalistic military leader who would deliver Israel from Roman occupation. By consistently rejecting those temptations, He made a pathway for us to enter into eternal joy as whole, embodied persons through His glorious resurrection.
Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which met in Nicaea in 787. The Council affirmed the truth of the Incarnation by defending the practice of venerating icons. Apart from the mystery of the Word made flesh, there would be no icons. For the Son of God had to become a human person with a body like ours in order to save those who are flesh and blood. By becoming one of us, He has sanctified every aspect of the human person and enabled us to share in His fulfillment of our fundamental calling to become like God in holiness. The God-Man has made it possible for every dimension of our life in this world to become a point of entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. Now nothing, other than our own stubborn refusal, has the power to keep us from mindfully embracing His healing of our souls so that we may grow to maturity and bear good fruit.
Christ’s Incarnation reminds us that true spirituality is not disembodied or otherwise remote from the broken realities and grave temptations of living in our world of corruption. By remaining focused on the Savior, we will gain the spiritual clarity to see ourselves and all the things of this world as they truly are in relation to Him. Instead of falling prey to distractions, we will “learn to apply [our]selves to good deeds, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not to be unfruitful.” By turning away from pointless controversies and worries that serve only to inflame our passions, we will grow in our ability to become wide awake spiritually. We will gain the presence of mind to keep a close watch on the soil of our souls, to cut off the weeds as soon as we see them begin to grow in our minds, and to care for the tender plants of our hearts so that they will mature to bear good fruit. There is no way to do that without conscientiously uniting ourselves to the Lord in prayer and keeping a close watch on our thoughts each day of our lives. There is no other way to grow to maturity in Christ.