In the Byzantine tradition, the first three nights of Holy Week serve as reminders for us to be watchful over our hearts. These are called the Bridegroom services and they are based upon Jesus own words in his parable of the virgins and the bridegroom. The virgins were not expecting the bridegroom to arrive at the wedding feast at such a late hour. Some were prepared, having cautiously guarded their oil, whilst others had let their lamps burn through all their oil during the night. Only those who had oil were allowed to attend the wedding feast (See Matthew 25:5-13). Jesus makes it clear, He is the bridegroom, as the troparion (hymn) for the feast says:
Behold, the Bridegroom is coming in the middle of the night: blessed is the servant He shall find awake. But the one He shall find neglectful will not be worthy of Him. Beware, there-fore, O my soul! Do not fall into deep slumber, lest you be delivered to death and the door of the kingdom be closed on you. Watch instead, and cry out: "Holy, Holy, Holy are You, O God! Through the prayers of the angels, have mercy on us."
We anticipate his return without knowing the hour of his entry. At this hour, we will have to give an account for every action, word and thought upon our meeting. This is why we must always be repentant for our sinfulness, humbling ourselves before his ineffable love.
We will look at what Saint Hesychios the Presbyter has to say about watchfulness. A man of great asceticism, Saint Hesychios was a monk and priest from the Monastery of the Burning Bush in Sinai. He lived during the 8th century, stressing the guarding of one’s heart as deliverance from the passions, and the invocation of the name of Christ as a defense against temptation.
Saint Hesychios tells us why we should be watchful:
"Watchfulness if practiced over a long period, completely frees us with God's help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions."
Watchfulness is guarding of one’s heart, the filtering of one’s mind, and controlling of one’s flesh. By these means, a person’s personal passions and temptations (insomuch as we can control them) are tempered or hacked away completely. Saint Hesychios explains the nature of watchfulness:
"Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way, predatory and murderous thoughts are chopped down as they approach and what they say to us duly noted. By this, we can see just how delusive and insidious the demons are in trying to deceive our minds."
Saint Hesychios recommends to us his four methods of watchfulness. His first recommendation is that we diligently scrutinize the nature of our thoughts. Are they good? Are they innocent? Or will they lead us into a path of thought toward temptation? :
"One type of watchfulness consists in closely scrutinizing every mental image or provocation; for only by means of a mental image can Satan fabricate an evil thought and insinuate this into the intellect in order to lead it astray. "
His second instruction is to keep our heart at peace. What does this mean though? We should first strive to not allow our heart to be invested in bad persons, or projects or commitments. Are you in an abusive relationship because of fear? Are you addicted to gambling because of the rush it brings? These are yearnings or “desires” that are associated by many of the fathers with the heart. By being still or at peace, we open our heart up to God and his calling:
"A second type of watchfulness consists in freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still. "
Hesychios says we should always seek help from God. Paramount to this, is the acquisition of humility. By God all things are possible says Saint Paul. Humility is the cornerstone of all virtues. Without it, anything we do is empty.
The other half of this coin is love. We call on God who loves us. It is by our renewal and our continual desire to deepen our relationship with Him, that we will grow into the persons we should be, and were created to be. We come to understand ourselves better once we have seen what God sees in us. Certainly what Saint John Chrysostom says can apply to many aspects of our lives, not just our relationship with the Holy Trinity: “When we begin to form good resolutions, God gives us every opportunity of carrying them out”
"A third type consists in continually and humbly calling upon the Lord Jesus Christ for help."
This last one may sound a bit macabre in our death fearing American culture. The thought of Death should not be one empty of God. That leads to depression and despair. But fear of death, as pertains to our judgement and knowing we must give account to Christ for everything. This last point goes back to the original image of the bridegroom. We must always be prepared. And what better way, than continually remembering our meeting with the Bridegroom? By being aware we could die at anytime, we are kept humble, charitable and repentant. All which help to keep us from sin and purify our passions.
"A fourth type is always to have the thought of death in one’s mind."
We've only a few days of lent to go, so, keep watch over your mind and your heart. If you have gotten lazy about fasting, start fasting. If you have forgotten to read through scripture, do it! If you have not prayed much, begin now! If you haven't been to liturgy, then go! It's not too late! The Great feast is coming! Remember the wise thief, who at his last hour, asked for mercy. And our lord showed it. Remember the prodigal son. It is never too late!
Saint Hesychios Pray for us!
Have a Belgian wheat ale today. Hesychios would want you to.
Have a Blessed Holy Week!