For the ancient fathers, a basic prerequisite for genuine growth in the spiritual life involves a constant attitude of nepsis or watchfulness. The word nepsis (νήψις) in antiquity literally meant to drink no wine, but by extension it also included the metaphorical sense of being sober-minded, sane, alert, and finally vigilant. If one desires to not be under the influence of the passions, if one wishes to not be drunk with anger, with envy, or with desire, one must spiritually speaking drink no wine. The ascetic fathers are also referred to as the neptic fathers. This watchfulness is paramount because as Saint Peter warns in his epistle, “Be sober (νήψατε), be vigilant (γρηγορήσατε meaning stay awake); because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” If you are drunk or asleep, you are obviously defenseless in the face of an attack.
In chapter eight of Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note that Saint Hesychios the Presbyter distinguishes between four types of watchfulness or of not drinking the fermented juices of the passions: (1) calling out to Christ for help, (2) remaining silent and still in prayer, (3) ruminating on the thought of death, and (4) scrutinizing the thoughts of fanciful notions.
Calling out to Christ for Help-the first duty of the Christian who senses the impending onslaught of bad thoughts is to invoke the help of the Savior through the recitation of the Jesus Prayer-“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This invocation of the Holy Name is effective and salutary, irrespective of whether the issue is cognitive, emotional or behavioral. St. Gregory Palamas affirms that prayer and the reading of Psalms not only weaken the intensity of bad thoughts, but also transform them and redirect them. In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I relate that “at the level of automatic thoughts, it weakens their intensity and metacognitively reframes them by placing them in the wider context of the spiritual life; at the schematic level, it transforms the passions by redirecting zeal and desire toward Christ, so that edifying thoughts blossom in their stead. The fifth prayer in preparation for Holy Communion concludes with a petition for just such a thorough cognitive transformation ‘unto the blotting out and utter destruction of bad thoughts, memories, predispositions, and dreams of the night.’”
Remaining Silent and Still in Prayer- as I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, silence and stillness prepares the nous for the awareness of the presence of God where no evil can abide. Since silence and stillness are antithetical to evil and bad thoughts, this disposition allows for God’s healing balm to calm and heal the troubled soul.
Ruminating on the Thought of Death-recollection of one’s own mortality puts thoughts and life in proper perspective. Such a reflection allows one to turn from the desire for immediate gratification to the potential and eternal consequences of indulging in such thoughts or behaviors. A useful practice in maintaining proper perspective may be found in the Midnight Hour prayed in the Orthodox Church which reads in part, “Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be borne down with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom. But rather rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O our God; through the Theotokos, have mercy on us. As thou bringest to mind the most fearful day, rouse thyself, O my soul, and be vigilant; enkindle thy darkened lamp and with oil make it radiant; for thou knowest not when thou wilt suddenly hear that voice that shall cry out: Behold thou, thy Bridegroom is come to thee. Mark, then, O my soul, lest like those five foolish virgins, thou sleep and remain without vainly knocking upon the door; but endure in all watchfulness, so that thou mightest meet Christ our God with rich oil, and that He might grant unto thee the fair divine bridal-chamber of His glory evermore.”
Scrutinizing the Thoughts of Fanciful Notions — in their wisdom, the ancient fathers recognize the potential danger in disputing bad thoughts, especially for those who are weak. I point this out in chapter eight when I write, “In the case of dubious thoughts, the ancient fathers advocate fleeing to God through prayer, fasting, tears and vigil, rather than risking ensnarement by sinfully taking pleasure in the thought under the pretext of examining it in order to determine whether it is good or bad. Saint Peter of Damascus proposed ‘saying to every thought that comes to us: I do not know who you are; God knows if you are good or not; for I have cast myself into his hands, as I shall continue to do so, and he looks after me.’”
Watchfulness, not drinking of the passions, is a powerful means to protect the soul and lead a God-pleasing life. The four methods of watchfulness that Saint Hesychios lays out are all incompatible with drinking in the foul waters of the passions. They all create a jarring cognitive dissonance, to use a term from contemporary psychology. To use biblical terms, they reflect the fact that no one can serve two masters. For that reason, let us choose to call on Christ’s name, to dwell in stillness, to think upon our end, and to scrutinize the thoughts, for in so doing, the enemy will not come upon us unawares, we will drink of no passion, and instead drink of the rivers of living waters flowing unto eternal life.
—Hieromonk Alexios of the Sacred Monastery of Karakallinos, Mount Athos