Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them. (Matt. 13:14-15)
“Why didn’t I see that?” The question comes often enough. It is the experience that tells us that experience itself is flawed. It can be deeply upsetting, as when we look up and realize the car in front of us has suddenly applied its brakes. It can be numbing and frustrating, as when something that should have been noticed or understood has failed to register. It is a commonplace experience in our lives, and has a spiritual counterpart. The fathers describe our failure to see and hear as dullness, sleep, drunkenness. It is a condition of the heart. Its cure is the state of watchfulness, of being awake: nepsis.
Christ speaks of this state of the heart in the context of His coming:
Watch therefore, for you do not know what hour your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect (Mat 24:42-44).
Those who apply this verse simply to the moment of the Second Coming, fail to heed its warning. They look to world politics and attempt to match Bible and the news cycle. But the Son of Man comes repeatedly to them unobserved and unheeded. They fall asleep under the heavy weight and dullness of false teaching. I saw an interview on Youtube recently with one of the contemporary great Elders of Orthodoxy. In the conversation the Elder repeatedly directed his attention to the state of the heart. The young man conducting the interview kept asking questions about world events. He wanted a sensational prophecy. It was the spiritual opportunity of a lifetime, squandered.
The dullness of the heart is perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of our brokenness. As noted above (Matt. 13), it is the condition that stands in the way of our healing and salvation.
So what is the nature of watchfulness (nepsis)?
In one of the great revolutions in human consciousness, the Enlightenment championed the use of rational observation. The scientific method, using experimentation and observation, became the most powerful technological tool in the history of the world. To be objective about whatever is seen became synonymous with truth and understanding. The disinterested observer, the individual who suspended his own commitments and judgments was the most reliable witness. Reality should speak for itself.
A common assumption of this objective world-view is that the observer has no relationship with what is observed: he is independent of the world around him. Quantum physics has removed this assumption at a certain level, but the habits of centuries remain. The world as machine and man as mechanic are images that seem to abide.
But watchfulness is not the view held by the mechanic. The mechanic ultimately seeks to manage and to control. It is the use of each element of reality that draws his attention. The feats of technology are a testament to the power of the human mind and the predictability of creation. Applying the methods of the mechanic, humanity has worked virtual miracles in the course of a few short centuries. But though the mechanic has transformed his world, he has failed to transform himself.
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?
The nature of watchfulness is not marked by the observation of the world and its control, but the awareness of the true self and the transformation into the image of Christ. The soul of the watchful man is not unaware of the world around him, but its control and management are not its primary concern. The created world is given as a means of communion. The watchful soul eats to live; the soul of the mechanic lives to eat.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate (Gen 3:6).
The curse that flows from the sin in the Garden thrives in the midst of technology.
Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:17-19 NKJ)
The mechanic labors to reduce his toil. The thorns and thistles of the ground are suppressed with poisonous technology, which infects the very bread the mechanic eats. The sweat of his face is transformed into fear and anxiety, the inevitable price of control.
The goal of watchfulness, at every moment, is union with God and with God through all creation. The feast that is Paradise was given for the purpose of communion – we eat to live. We do not say that the fruit is good for food: we say that it is good because through it we can know God. It is only in perceiving all things in communion with God that we see the truth of all things. This is wakefulness, nepsis.
Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me (Rev 3:20).
Father, do you mind posting that YouTube video you reference in the comments?
Good words, Fr. Stephen, as usual. I just finished your book. Excellent, by the way, many good quotes and ideas. In light of this, the modern man is too busy managing things on the first story. He has to because he’s alone; God is off doing holy things on the second story. Union with God is just another thing on the man’s to do list – and frankly, he’s rather busy with managing his own life – let alone the planet. If God wants to be friends, why doesn’t he jolly well come down and show Himself? The man’s way too busy sorting out the mess down here to be playing hide-n-seek!
(grin) Back to your beginning scripture reference. “….their eyes [and ears] they have closed, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.”
This reminds me of Anthony De Mello’s book on Awareness.
What an excellent article!
The solution to most of man’s, even the most (seemingly) unrelated, questions is served here on a plate…
Watchfulness truly leads us to freedom, and our freedom is only maintained through it…
The state of freedom/dispassion (ἀπάθεια) -sometimes considered as the height of the spiritual ladder, although, in the actual experience of hesychasm, it is actually just one of the ‘first’ steps onto true Spiritual life, which goes far deeper than we suspect – a life of an ever deepening knowledge of God- is nothing but nepsis.
Just as passions are second nature to me, just as there is not even a single second between the temptation and the sinful reaction in the enslaved; so too, nepsis is the constant light, the ‘automatic reaction’, the very air that those Saints that walk in the land of dispassion breath.
there are certainly meetings of minds that I often notice too, however, “awareness” as seen in other ‘areas’, e.g.: cognitive psychology or in spiritual counselling outside of the Orthodox hesychastic tradition, is somewhat ‘different’. It still retains a most formidable valuable though! No question… However, in the hesychastic tradition of Orthodoxy – as seen in the Philokalia, for instance – man lives, prays, exists notoutside, butinside the heart, because that is where he encounters, embraces and is transformed by Christ! This is obviously a key difference.
Love the photo of the child! Reminds me of our daughter about that age. The pictures we took of her early Christmas mornings made her look like a young drunk! So we moved present openings to Christmas Eve with much better pics.
Thanks so much for your website and podcasts on Ancient F. R.
And for your book which I am now reading. They’ve all blessed me tremendously.
Ok, I have not yet read the article, but have to say that picture is priceless! 🙂
I can’t seem to pull up the comment its in. Which article?
Wake up and watch out reminds me that every day I have to watch out for my destructive thoughts and passions that lead me away from Christ.
Father Stephen, forgive me – the way I said my request was very confusing. Do you mind posting the youtube interview between the Elder and the Young Man that you referenced in this post? It sounds very interesting.
… posting it in the comments? Communication apparently isn’t my thing today 🙂 Been a long week.
Very true. So many Christians today are concerned with connecting world events to End Time Prophecy. They cannot see the deeper meaning of our union with our God. Thank you so much Father Steven for your podcasts and your book.
Beautiful words, Fr. Stephen! Sadly also, many Orthodox have bought into this.
Sorry, I meant Father StePHen and speaking of podcasts, are you working on any? They are very thought provoking as I have been an Evangelical Protestant my whole life but The Lord has opened my eyes greatly this past year. Glory to God.
Elder Porphyrios, arguably the most ‘clairvoyant and prophetic’ of the contemporary Elders once had a visit by Fr Athanasius (from Simonopetra). The Elder was not pleased with this obsession around sensational prophecies on world events that has seeped everywhere (including the counsels of many respected Elders at that time). He raised his voice in questioning Fr Athanasius: “What does your Elder say to all this???!” [he meant the then abbot of Simonopetra, Elder Aimilianos]
– “He says we should pay no heed. We must only pay heed to Christ -fixated on Him alone”
– “Yes, yes yes!!!”, he answered excitedly.
“these people will end up having the Antichrist in their minds rather than Christ in their hearts…”
Thank you Father, for an excellent article. Also, for articulating what I have always felt in my heart, and one of the reasons I was attracted to Orthodoxy in the first place: that reason and rationality are highly inadequate methods for comprehending God. Sadly. for many mired in the western tradition, it is the only way they know.
Indeed! they are the methods that turn sons of God into sons of clay in an instant…
Podcasts will return soon.
This is true only insofar as there is no memory of God. To illustrate this, I offer the example of the “Jesus prayer” which is not a carol but a profound meditation on the uncreated light of Pascha.
It is He Who reveals to man the true state of his being (“hypostasis”). Life is not a pantomime (with “actors” and an “audience”) but a shared existence with the august light of God shining everywhere and always.
I read this post mostly because I was drawn to the picture of the boy, whom I will bet is your grandson. His sleepy eyes and bed hair remind me of myself. It is hard to wake up, physically and spiritually.
Thank you for your faithfulness in writing this blog. It helps me.
With love in Christ,