To be watchful…

August 13, 2013

‘Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. ~~ Matthew 25:1-13.

Like all parables, the Parable of the Bridesmaids has many interpretations. When I read this passage, my focus is always on “what does Jesus really mean about being awake?” Jesus talks at times about watchfulness, and being awake – this is far from the only time that this comes up. St. Hesychios the Priest (from the Philokalia) has some interesting thoughts on watchfulness:

Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us: with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far 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’ (Matt. 5:8); … Because this is its nature, watchfulness is to be bought only at a great price. But once established in us, it guides us to a true and holy way of life.

So what does this mean in our lives? What does it mean to be watchful? What is this “method” St. Hesychios speaks of? Watchfulness isn’t staying awake all night, or isn’t really about making sure your lamps have oil (or your smartphone’s battery is charged, which is the modern equivalent, perhaps.) Watchfulness is cultivating that state of wakefulness and awareness. And that state of wakefulness is when your inner observer is awake, the one who can notice and be aware of your emotions, but not be attached or identified with them. It’s when you can act from compassion, or through the Spirit, instead of acting out of fear or greed. This is the state when we are most open to God’s wisdom, when we can see clearly, speak clearly, and act clearly.

I talk a lot about cultivation when I talk about practice, and here it is again. Watchfulness is cultivating our minds and hearts through practice, to prepare our own ground, so that God’s seeds of compassion and joy can grow and flower.


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