During Lent, Fr Daniel Greeson inaugurated a series on this blog exploring the challenges of technology. So far, he has written a short piece that touches on the concept of technological skepticism and a more expansive essay on the New Media Epidemic. For my contribution to the ongoing discussion of the deleterious impact of constant digital media engagement, I will attempt to ground the framework of “digital minimalism” in the Orthodox ascetical practice of nepsis (νῆψις)—that is, sobriety and watchfulness, sometimes called “the guarding of our hearts.” The concept of nepsis was introduced to readers at least as recently as the end of the aforementioned piece on the New Media Epidemic; in my first piece I will further explore the idea of nepsis in the Orthodox ascetical tradition and conclude with a short discourse on technology in general. In follow-up pieces, I will present the basic framework and practices of digital minimalism with an eye toward overlap with Orthodox ascetical literature and practice.
Many Orthodox people are unfamiliar with the word nepsis, though all of us who have labored through Holy Week toward the joy of the Paschal resurrection know the concept. Nepsis—watchfulness, vigilance, sobriety—is a central theme in our Bridegroom Matins services: “Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest you be weighed down with sleep and be shut out from the kingdom!” This sobriety is also at the heart of the highly lauded Philokalia; in fact, the full Greek title is best translated as The Philokalia of the “Neptic” Saints. Compiled in Greek by the saints Nikodemos and Makarios—later spread to Romanian and Slavic lands by the labors of Sts Paisie of Neamț, Ignatius Brianchaninov, Theophan the Recluse, Dumitru Stăniloaie, and others, and recently brought to the Anglophone consciousness by Metropolitan Kallistos, G.E.H. Palmer, and Phillip Sherrard)—the Philokalia brought about an ongoing great spiritual revival in the Orthodox world, encouraging serious engagement with the ascetical practices of the Byzantine tradition enshrined in various spiritual writings of great monastic saints. These writings point to nepsis (sobriety of heart) as a necessary precondition for salvation, without which we are unable to purify our hearts, to progress from purification to contemplation of divine mysteries, and to cooperate with God’s saving grace in the process of theosis.
It’s no surprise, then, that St Hesychios the Priest opens his treatise on Watchfulness and Holiness:
“Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practised over a long period, completely frees us with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words, and evil actions. It leads, insofar 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.'”
This injunction to nepsis doesn’t begin in monastic spirituality: St John the Theologian tells us, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). St Peter writes, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). St Paul implores the Corinthians to wake themselves into righteousness rather than remaining in sin (using the imperative of nepsis, ἐκνήψατε). All of this may bring to mind Christ’s injunction to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16).
Furthermore, this same call to watchfulness is present in the life of Biblical Israel. We find it in the exhortation to faithfulness given in the “Two Ways” introduced by Moses in Deuteronomy:
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curses. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them” (Dt 30:19-20).
Thus, Israel is called to be vigilant in keeping the divine commandment of love and, by so doing, to enter into the promises of the Lord. The Psalmist likewise sings of vigilance and faithfulness in the form of meditating on and keeping God’s commandments: “Blessed is the man [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1). Elsewhere, he writes, “My eyes are awake before the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promise” (Psalm 118/119). It should be no surprise that this lengthy psalm on meditating on and keeping God’s statutes is appointed for the midnight office, when the troparia of the Bridegroom are found even outside of Holy Week.
As we see above, the virtue of sobriety has been prized from early on in the life of the people of God; indeed, we have been called from the beginning to be mindful of our actions, our consumption, our engagement in the world, and our worship. Underlying this is the reality that some things lead us to death. This includes technological innovations—in particular, the misuse of technology. Genesis 4:17-23 traces out how Cain and his sons bring “civilization” into the world on the heels of Cain murdering his brother: cities, musical instruments, and implements of bronze and iron. In the midst of this, we find Lamech, of the line of Cain, continuing the murderous tendencies of his lineage. Looking at this phenomenon from a different perspective, “the Book of the Watchers” in 1 Enoch shows technology spreading to humanity through the intervention of rebellious angelic powers who want to lead humanity to perdition; thus, “much ungodliness and prostitution happened, and they were led astray and ruined in all their ways” through instruction in weaponry, jewelry, the making of potions, astrology, and more, culminating in an “utterly destroyed people” crying out to heaven (1 Enoch 8:1-4, Lexham English Septuagint).
Am I writing this to condemn all technology? Am I calling you back to the land outside of the city? Is this an exhortation to smash your smartphone, skip the AC, and never again pick up a tool or a guitar? Hardly (though I am often tempted to leave the God-preserved city of Green Bay, WI for a small farmstead). The same innovations that are specifically called out in 1 Enoch as coming from fallen angels are elsewhere in Scripture put to proper use. The priestly garments are adorned with jewelry. The Tabernacle (and later, the Temple) is richly appointed with fine metalwork and decorations. Musical instruments are, likewise, not inherently nefarious: in Psalm 150, the Psalmist gives a list of musical instruments, commanding God to be praised with them, concluding “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” These instruments can become doxological when not being used to sing brutal songs of war, or ribaldry, or in the service of pagan worship. Further, even weaponry may find a right purpose when not used for wars of aggression and expansion—the defense of the innocent, the overthrow of the oppressor—until the fullness of time when such implements will become entirely unnecessary (compare Joel 3.12 to Isaiah 2.4: plowshares to swords and then swords to plowshares).
Seeing how we have to be vigilant in technology as seemingly mundane as jewelry, why do we then give a pass to “new media”? Why do we allow digital media to rope us in, to take over our attention, and to snare us away from our real priorities? I don’t have an answer to those questions, but I believe that the Orthodox Church gives us the right tools to wrest back our time, attention, and (dare I say) personhood from digital media. Further, I believe that the tools the Church has maintained and cultivated from antiquity can serve as the foundation upon which modern practices for addressing the New Media Epidemic can rest. To that end, in my next installment, I will review the book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport and situate the practices therein in the context of nepsis.