Monday, December 15, 2014

Becoming Watchful

Do you experience distractions when you try to pray? Do you ever wonder what is the cause of those actions you take that you wish you had not taken? Whether we are in prayer or involved in our daily activities we are misled by thoughts. To counteract this we need to learn the practice of Watchfulness.

What is watchfulness in our Orthodox tradition? It involves a continual guarding or the heart, the center of our soul, from all thoughts that lead us away from God. These thoughts are called "logismoi" in Greek. These are thoughts that mislead us or distract us in prayer. They are not like we normally think of thoughts, but are those that seem to come from nowhere. They are temptations intended to lead us astray. They are not the result of our rational process but come from outside us sent by the devil to lead us away from God.  They are not "our" thoughts. They are directed at "our" weaknesses, our passions, which lead us to sinful activity, away from God. When we sit down for prayer we intend to focus our full attention on God. But against our intention we are bombarded by thoughts that take us away from our prayer and concentration on God. They are coming from without with the intention of disrupting our prayer to keep us separated from God.

The Church Fathers describe differing ways how these work but in general they describe them beginning with an assault, a sneak attack. It may be a thought to get up and do something during prayer. It may be a thought to lash out in anger or to condemn another person. It may be a thought of envy or a desire to possess something that is not ours or we cannot afford. It could be any  number of things depending our our weaknesses.

After this initial assault then if we are not watchful we enter into a dialogue with this thought. We begin to consider how to respond as a result of this thought. This then is followed by a consent, we own the thought as our own and become prepared to act on it. This is when the sin is committed and we become a captive of the thought. 

After we respond to the thought, the next time a similar thought is encountered we are more likely to accept it as our own and respond. The temptation becomes stronger. We become a captive of the logismoi leading us to a bad habit that we call a passion.

If we are watchful what are we to do with these thoughts? IGNORE them! The church fathers tell us to simply ignore them. They are like flies that fly around and bother us. We need to brush them away. Watch them come and go without disturbing the mind. They will quickly disappear. We need to think of them as an unwanted salesman who knocks at our door. We do not let him in and do not have a dialogue with him. The same with these thoughts. Do not let them enter into your heart.

Since God demands our whole heart, mind and soul we need to be ever watchful of these temptation that come in the form of thoughts. They are not ours but sent to us to lead us away from God. So just like we are not obligated to let any stranger into our house, similarly we do not have to accept theses thoughts and let them into our minds or enter our heart. To become watchful we must seek God's help to develop this attentiveness and resistance. This is why it is so important for us to stand before God every morning and focus our full being towards Him and engage our mind in prayer focused on God alone.

In prayer we need to practice rejecting all thoughts and develop this mental discipline. To pray we must not be distracted by any worldly thoughts otherwise it is not prayer. To dialogue with God requires our full attention to Him alone.  One of the most powerful prayers is the Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." This is a complete prayer. The first part is a confession of faith in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Trinity. The second is a supplication acknowledging our fallen nature, our weakness, our sinfulness and our need to God's mercy.

By repeating this prayer over and over as part of our prayer rule, we learn to concentrate only on the words. In doing this, the prayer becomes a habit and will be with us at all times. It will be there when we receive the tempting thoughts and will help us immediately drive them away. This is a prayer that with practice will be with you the entire day, even while you are working. It will lead you to a life where you act as of God's children. It will enable you to become watchful.

Remember what our purpose is in this life. We are preparing for our Heavenly life to come. We should always be looking forward to the end of our earthly life and think of ourselves as training for this future, our life with God in Heaven. The Jesus prayer is not like yoga or Transcendental Meditation. It is based of the reality of a living relationship with God, the God who revealed Himself to us in His Incarnation, the God who humbled Himself to take on human flesh, to become fully man while yet remaining fully God. He Showed us the Way to become united with Him. He was Crucified, arose to sit at the right hand of the Father in Heaven and opened the gates of Paradise for those who choose to follow Him. This is quite different from Eastern ascetic practices that are centered on oneself and seek a stillness that is identified with an impersonal absolute. As Christians, God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. We strive to become like Him and out of our love for Him enter into a ongoing dialog with Him. This leads us to a mind that is ever focused not on stillness or emptiness, but on actions that carry out His will, actions that are without sin actions based on love. We are created in His likeness and image and out of his love for us and our love for Him we are destined to be united with Him in eternal life. Watchfulness is key to us realizing our potential. The Jesus Prayer coupled with a life of repentance and participation in the sacramental life of the Church helps us gain the grace of God that enables us to become like Him.

For more on the Jesus prayer go to the website 

Reference: The Hidden Man of the Heart, Archimandrite Zacharias


  1. Thank you very much for your posts. I find them to be very helpful, especially as one who struggles with distracting thoughts. I was also wondering if the following phrase in this post: 'to become fully God while yet remaining fully God" should be "to become fully Man while yet remaining fully God"?



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