Attentiveness – The Key to Spiritual HealthFr. Barnabas Powell
St. John of Damaskos says: “Without attentiveness and watchfulness of the intellect we cannot be saved and rescued from the devil, who walks about ‘like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’.”
Sounds pretty serious. And yet, the virtue of attentiveness is so very difficult and elusive. I guess it’s so difficult because it is exhausting to think about having to stay attentive all the time. I get it. It’s discouraging. And yet, the Fathers often teach us that attentiveness and discernment are the greatest virtues to develop and have spiritual health. In fact, there seems to be no doubt reading the Scriptures and the Wisdom of the Church Fathers that learning the marathon path of attentiveness means “praying without ceasing” and bringing “every thought captive to Jesus Christ.” No wonder the Church gives us the spiritual discipline of confession to reset our attention and correct our thinking.
But how do you develop attentiveness? How can I increase my stamina to stay attentive, stay awake? After all, I remember what happened to the 5 foolish virgins when the Bridegroom arrived at night!
Look at our lesson today in Ephesians 5:8-19:
Brethren, walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.
What powerful words from St. Paul to the Church at Ephesus! He makes 3 basic contrasts that reveal the way to stay attentive and discerning so you’ll know where the right path for your life lies!
The first contrast is between Light and Dark. Attentiveness is possible when I choose to live with the Light on! This is such a clear and consistent metaphor. When the Light is on, I can see where I should go. I only stumble when it’s dark. But the Dark means more than the danger of stumbling. The Dark is where the deeds I know I shouldn’t be doing are hidden. The power of “shameful” behavior has always been when I prefer no one finds out what I’m doing. Now imagine a culture that has lost the ability to recognize when a behavior or a choice is wrong, and they don’t even try to hide it any longer. This is when the darkness has become so powerful that it pretends to be “freedom” or “living my truth.” Once the Darkness has become this strong and delusion has overwhelmed attentiveness, a society is ripe for failure. If I’m ever going to be attentive, I’m going to have to stay in the Light!
The second contrast is between Fruitful and Unfruitful. St. Paul calls the “works of darkness” unfruitful. The old saying is “the proof is in the pudding.” Attentiveness is gained when I am willing to admit this behavior creates freedom and peace, but this other behavior creates addictions and destruction. If I am attentive, I will be able to tell when my choices are producing positive change and when my choices are merely feeding my passions and leading me to addictions and spiritual slavery. And as I exercise my will, my ability to choose, to choose that which creates inner peace and mastery of my passions, my ability to recognize good fruit from bad fruit grows. But if I just feed my passions, I won’t even be able to tell when my life slips into the slavery of addiction and narcissism.
The final contrast is between Life and Death. Attentiveness preserves more than my physical life. It preserves my spiritual life as well. Inattentiveness feeds both spiritual and physical death. As a practical example, look at the benefits of watching your diet and getting some physical exercise. No doctor on earth would advise you to ignore what you eat and get some physical exercise now and again. If this is true of your physical body, it’s also true for your spiritual health. Watching what you consume with your eyes and ears, and mind, and then exercising your spiritual disciplines through regular prayer, fasting, and generosity create spiritual life and freedom from the slavery of the passions.
St. Nektarios is a perfect example to us of a life lived in attentiveness and watchfulness. This man, born in the later part of the 19th century in Thrace, worked diligently to put himself through school in Constantinople. He became a monk as a young man and, through the patronage of the Patriarch of Alexandria, Sophronios, he continued his theological education in Athens. He was known as a serious and pious monk who loved the beauty of God’s House. He kept a strict rule of prayer and fasting and readily helped the poor, even though he was a poor man himself. St. Nektarios rose quickly through the ranks of clergy, being made the Metropolitan of Pentapolis in eastern Libya which was under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Alexandria. His humility and childlike faithfulness were unaffected by his rapid rise in rank, but it did stir the jealousy of clergy who were lesser men threatened by the saint’s demeanor and spiritual health. These wicked men spread rumors about St. Nektarios that he was after the Patriarchal throne and Sophronios had Nektarios banished to Greece where those same men made sure rumors about this holy man made it impossible for him to find work as a bishop. Finally, he established a women’s monastery on the island of Aegina and eventually moved to the island to serve the faithful there. Een after all the years of slander and lies about this holy man, Nektarios forgave his accusers and refused to seek revenge against them.
St. Nektarios reposed in peace in 1920 on the island of Aegina where, even before he died, great miracles were occurring in his prayers. He still works miracles today and his memory is an encouragement of what a life lived focused on Christ can be. His attentiveness to what is eternal and forgiving and dismissing any attempts at revenge teach us all how best to deal with the distractions of the evil one in our lives.
Today, you and I are called to live attentive lives. It’s exhausting, I know. So, the Church gives us the gift of repentance and confession to exercise our spiritual growth and increase our attentiveness. It isn’t too late for you to turn and “wake up” to this free life of discipline and love for God. All you have to do is live a Normal Orthodox life!
P.S. O faithful, let us honor Nektarios, divine servant of Christ, offspring of Silivria, and guardian of Aegina, who in these latter years was manifested as the true friend of virtue. All manner of healing wells forth for those who in piety cry out, “Glory to Christ who glorified you; glory to Him who, through you, wrought wonders; glory to Him who, through you, works healing for all.”