by John S. Mogabgab
“Keep alert,” Paul counsels the Christian community (1 Cor. 16:13). Much in the church and the world seems to glorify God but does not. Often our immersion in Christian service is drowning us more than bringing life and hope to others. Tragically often, we have an experience of God’s company but miss the meaning. (1)
Scripture and tradition are therefore seasoned with admonitions to be vigilant. We are to be like a watchman on the ramparts of a city, scanning the dark sky for hints of dawn and the safety of morning’s light (Ps. 130.6); like wise servants prepared for the arrival of the householder (Luke 12:35-40); like those who know the hour has come to wake from sleep (Rom. 13:11). Through vigilant attention, says eighteenth-century priest Jean-Pierre de Caussade, we may discern the “profound mysteries” of God’s activity behind the veil of creaturely activity that conceals them.(2)
Vigilance is poised attentiveness to the spiritual environment, sensitive awareness of the presence and purpose of God in our midst, uninhibited responsiveness to the flow of Love’s energy at work in the world, constant resistance to temptations that deform that love. For Philotheos of Sinai, such alertness “cleanses the conscience and makes it lucid.”(3) Vigilance is the spiritual posture of Advent, when the soul is bent forward in anticipation of the One who is to come. And vigilance is also the spiritual perceptiveness of Christmas, when the soul recognizes the One who is to come in the Bethlehem newborn swaddled in ordinariness.
John the Solitary, writing his “Letter to Hesychius” during the first half of the fifth century, offers wisdom for our consideration when he counsels Hesychius to “choose vigilance, even in preference to fasting, for vigilance makes the understanding luminous, it keeps the intellect awake, it makes the body still, it is more beneficial than all other labours.”(4) May we come to discover these benefits in our own experience.
1T. S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets,” in Collected Poems 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970, 194: “We had the experience but missed the meaning. . . .”
2Jean-Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, trans. and intro. John Beevers (Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1975), 36.
3St. Philotheos of Sinai (9-10th century?), “Forty Texts on Watchfulness,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, vol. III, compiled St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (London: Faber & Faber, 1984), 25 (Saying #24).
4John the Solitary, “Letter to Hesychius,” in The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, trans. and intro. Sebastian Brock (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Pubns., 1987), 87 (para. #23).
Adapted from Editor’s Introduction in “Keep Alert,” Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, November/December 2007, vol. XXII, no. 6. (www.weavings.org)
John S. Mogabgab is the founding editor of Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, published by Upper Room Ministries in Nashville, Tennessee and is presently special projects editor for Upper Room Books. John is an Episcopal layperson with degrees in theology from Union Theological Seminary (New York) and Yale University. For five years (1975-1980) John served as Henri Nouwen’s teaching, research, and editorial assistant at Yale Divinity School. When not at his desk, John enjoys hiking, canoeing, and wading rivers with fly rod in hand.