The word of the day is “watch.” In times of peace and security, there is no need for a sentinel to be on guard. However, all the moral chaos and faithlessness surrounding us should remind us that “the Kingdom of God suffers violence” in this world (Matthew 11:12). Moreover, the conflict that we are waging in our own souls also shows us that, as Paul wrote, we have not finished the fight (1 Cor. 9:26-27).
Thus, Paul’s closing words in our reading of 1 Corinthians 16:13-24 apply to us as well as Paul’s flock: “Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love” (vs. 13). Today we learn how critical it is for us to post a guard in our hearts against all the evils that assault us from without and tempt us from within.
St. John Chrysostom comments that in this reading, Paul is referring to his opponents in Corinth, the deceivers, the conspirators, and the dividers and detractors who had taken over the congregation (NPFP1:12, 265). But for us, the dangers from those who oppose the Gospel may not be so clear. Yet the broadest application of Paul’s teaching is that we should beware of anything within our hearts or outside of ourselves that is against the love of God or neighbor (v. 14).
To Watch Is to Stay Alert Like a Sentinel
The term watch in Greek means to be alert and to keep awake. This word reminds us of a sentinel who must be ever vigilant against the danger of an enemy attack. To extend the comparison, we can say that we need to set a watch over our hearts against the enemy, the devil.
What is that sentinel in our inner selves? It is our conscience. In the Philokalia, St. Isaac the Solitary teaches that we should train our conscience so that it is prepared to warn us against everything that opposes the will and ways of God (Isaac-the-Solitary 2016, 22 Kindle Loc 588).
Training the Conscience To Stand Guard Like a Soldier
Isaac writes: “Let us stand firm in the fear of God, rigorously practicing the virtues and not giving our conscience cause to stumble.” He teaches that we should fix our attention within ourselves and pay attention to our conscience. Then as we give heed to our conscience, it becomes our “guardian, showing us each thing that we must uproot.” However, if we do not attend to our conscience, “it will abandon us, and we shall fall into the hands of our enemies” (Isaac-the-Solitary 2016, 22, Kindle Loc 588).
The Desert Father Poeman said, “The beginning of evil is heedlessness” (Benedicta Ward 1974, 173). On the other hand, the beginning of moral virtue is attentiveness to the conscience. Yet, it is only the start. We have found that we must cultivate this watchfulness. The sentinel of our soul must be as well trained as a soldier is ready to guard against the threats of the enemy.
Benedicta Ward, trans. 1974. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection Translated by Benedicta Ward. Revised ed. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.
Isaac-the-Solitary. 2016. “On Guarding the Intellect” In Philokalia: 27 Texts