Father Gabriel (Bunge) begins the fourth section on wakefulness of this second chapter of Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition by noting that contemporary people see the night mainly as a time for rest, and that staying awake is usually done for the sake of work or of feasting. By contrast, Scripture and the Fathers saw the night as the preferred time for prayer as we also see in Jesus’ own practice. For the Apostle Paul, keeping watch was “not the least important thing that distinguishes the Christian from the drowsy children of this world.” (80)

Watching and waiting belong to the oldest customs of the Church and this eschatological note of waiting for the return of the Lord was passed on to the early monks who organised the entire course of their day with this goal in mind. The practice of rising at night to pray required a certain willpower, but should not be seen as merely “an ascetical test of strength aimed at ‘conquering nature’. ‘Nature’ mistreated in such a way would sooner or later settle accounts on its own.” (83)

Rather,

Biblical man and the Fathers held watching and praying in high esteem for various reasons. The eschatological “waiting for the Lord”, which really ought to characterize every Christian, has already been mentioned. It imparts an entirely new quality to time, in that it sets a fixed goal for its endless streaming and thus impresses its own stamp on the whole of life, which strives toward this goal. “Living for today” is something quite different from realizing the uncertainty of the “day of the Lord” and therefore wisely “making the most of the time.”

Watching and waking brings about in the praying Christian that “sobriety” which guards him against being overcome with sleep and against the intoxication of the children of darkness. In turn, sobriety of the mind, which (in contrast to the “coarsening” effect of sleep) “refines” the mind, makes the one who keeps watch receptive to the contemplation of the divine mysteries.

Sleep flees from the one who, like Jacob, watches his flocks at night, and if it still takes hold of him, then this sleep is for him like waking is for someone else. The fire with which his heart burns simply does not allow him to be submerged in sleep. Indeed, he sings psalms with David: “Lighten my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death.”

The one who has arrived at this degree and has tasted its sweetness understands what has been said. For such a one has not become drunk with material sleep, but only makes use of natural sleep. [Barsanuphios and John] (83-84)

Father Gabriel acknowledges that the rhythms of modern life make it more difficult to keep vigil.

“Lately, in these times” even the majority of monks have to be content with less … Christ’s example and the rule stated in the letter of the recluse John of Gaza (cited above) make clear, nevertheless, what is at stake and how one can still “watch and pray” even today. For even Christ would hardly have spent every night in prayer. Evidently, though, he was accustomed to withdraw to pray alone in the late evening, after sunset, or else “in the early morning, a great while before daylight”, as any devout soul who prayed the psalms would do. These are precisely the times that the Fathers, too, generally reserved for prayer. The individual will have to determine the quantity on the basis of his own experience, together with the advice of his spiritual father, who will take into account age, health, and spiritual maturity. One thing is certain, in any case: Without the effort of watching and waking, no one attains that spiritual “sobriety” that the monk Hesychios from Mount Sinai so extravagantly praises.

How lovely and delightful, luminous and pleasing, extraordinary, radiant, and beautiful a virtue is sobriety, when with thee, Christ our God, and accompanied by the great humility of the watchful human intellect!

For indeed, it sends out “to the sea and its depths” its branches of contemplation, and “to the river its shoots” of delightful, divine mysteries. Sobriety is like Jacob’s ladder, upon which God rests and the angels ascend. (86-87)

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