St. John of Damaskos says: “Without attentiveness and watchfulness of the intellect we cannot be saved and rescued from the devil, who walks about ‘like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’”
Sounds pretty serious. And yet, the virtue of attentiveness is so very difficult and elusive. I guess it’s so difficult because it is exhausting to think about having to stay attentive all the time. I get it. It’s discouraging. And yet, the Fathers often teach us that attentiveness and discernment are the greatest virtues to develop. But how do you do that? How can I increase my stamina to stay attentive, stay awake? After all, I remember what happened to the 5 foolish virgins when the Bridegroom arrived at night!
Look at our lesson today in Ephesians 5:8-19:
Brethren, walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.
What powerful words from St. Paul to the Church at Ephesus! He makes 3 basic contrasts that reveal the way to stay attentive and discerning so you’ll know where the right path for your life lies!
The first contrast is between Light and Dark. Attentiveness is possible when I choose to live with the Light on! This is such a clear and consistent metaphor. When the Light is on, I can see where I should go. I only stumble when it’s dark. But the Dark actually means more than the danger of stumbling. The Dark is where the deeds I know I shouldn’t be doing are hidden. The power of “shameful” behavior has always been when I prefer no one finds out what I’m doing. Now imagine a culture that has lost the ability to recognize when a behavior or a choice is wrong, and they don’t even try to hide it any longer. This is when the darkness has become so powerful that it pretends to be “freedom” or “living my truth.” Once the Darkness has become this strong and delusion has overwhelmed attentiveness, a society is ripe for failure. If I’m ever going to be attentive, I’m going to have to stay in the Light!
The second contrast is between Fruitful and Unfruitful. St. Paul calls the “works of darkness” unfruitful. The old saying is “the proof is in the pudding.” Attentiveness is gained when I am willing to admit this behavior creates freedom and peace, but this other behavior creates addictions and destruction. If I am attentive, I will be able to tell when my choices are producing positive change and when my choices are merely feeding my passions and leading me to addictions and spiritual slavery. And as I exercise my will, my ability to choose, to choose that which creates inner peace and mastery of my passions, my ability to recognize good fruit from bad fruit grows. But if I just feed my passions, I won’t even be able to tell when my life slips into the slavery of addiction and narcissism.
The final contrast is between Life and Death. Attentiveness preserves more than my physical life. It preserves my spiritual life as well. Inattentiveness feeds both spiritual and physical death. As a practical example, look at the benefits of watching your diet and getting some physical exercise. There is no doctor on earth that won’t advise you to watch what you eat and get some physical exercise now and again. If this is true of your physical body, it’s also true for your spiritual health. Watching what you consume with your eyes and ears, and mind, and then exercising your spiritual disciplines through regular prayer, fasting, and generosity create spiritual life and freedom from the slavery of the passions.
Today, you and I are called to live attentive lives. It’s exhausting, I know. So, the Church gives us the gift of repentance and confession to exercise our spiritual growth and increase our attentiveness. It isn’t too late for you to turn and “wake up” to this free life of disciple and love for God. All you have to do is be Orthodox on Purpose!
P.S. Dear Lord, I struggle with staying attentive to my spiritual life. I will do it for a while and then I get tired or distracted or even rebellious and then I stumble. Please forgive me and give me the strength to grow every day so I can live awake instead of stumbling in the darkness. Amen