“For if with God’s help we make progress daily by means of our watchfulness, we should not behave indiscriminately and damage ourselves through a host of random meetings and conversations. On the contrary, we should scorn all vanities for the sake of the beauty and blessings of holiness.” – St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness, no. 125 / p. 184
During Lent, many Eastern Christian churches pray a particular prayer by St. Ephrem the Syrian. One line of that prayer says “give me not a spirit of sloth, vain curiosity, lust for power, and idle talk . . .” The words idle talk are particularly striking to me. Today idle talk could refer to far more than just casual conversations. In our information-saturated culture, we are inundated daily with words that lack genuine value and substance. Think of the media: television, newspapers, magazines, radio, email, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, movies. Then there’s the advertising: commercials, billboards, brand logos, product placement, other subliminal forms of marketing. And these are just the forms of idle talk which we tend to absorb passively. Some of this communication certainly has value, but it must be sifted carefully to find what is worthwhile. Compared to the depth of truth found in the Scriptures, so much of the communication we receive and participate in today is hollow, shallow, ultimately meaningless.
This is dangerous, because all this vain communication destroys our ability to listen. Dizzied by a barrage of information, we lose the ability to discern what is true and what is not. Accustomed to distraction, our attention spans shorten and our ability to listen, to God and to one another, grows shallow.
St. Hesychios offers us an alternative: watchfulness. He asks us to step away from the cacophony of voices around us, and listen instead to our own minds. Listen to the chatter inside you own head. What of it is true? What of it is a lie? What of it is glorifying to God? What of it is leading you further from God? Is there too much noise inside to be able to tell? Pray the Jesus Prayer. Call upon the name of the Lord, and he will come to your aid, grant you discernment, and quiet the voices that are not his own.
This is watchfulness. Hesychios tells us that wactchfulness “completely frees us with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions” (no.1 / p. 162). But such freedom comes at a cost. As he goes on to say, “watchfulness is to be bought at great price”. To “scorn all vanities for the sake of the beauty and blessings of holiness” is akin to selling all one has in order to purchase the pearl of great price.
What vanities must we scorn today in the pursuit of watchfulness? Hesychios knew nothing of the technological wonders of our day. But he knew the challenges the world poses to the practice of such watchfulness. For him, idle talk came in the form of “random meetings and conversations”. He sensed that banal, purposeless chit-chat does not lead to the Kingdom of God. Perhaps as the leader of a monastic community, Hesychios found that meetings and administrative duties became an obstacle to his own watchfulness. If Hesychios was concerned that indiscriminate conversations and random meetings could disrupt his watchfulness, perhaps we should think more carefully about the purpose behind each of our social interactions. Does each conversation we participate in have the Kingdom of God as its ultimate end? Regarding technology, surely there is potential for good within the myriad forms of communication available today. But such media should be engaged mindfully. Will turning on the television or checking Facebook or pressing play on your mp3 player aid your pursuit of holiness, or multiply the noise you must already sort through in search of God’s voice?
These are demanding and challenging questions. But, thanks be to God, there is grace. Hesychios says that it is with God’s help that we make progress daily by means of watchfulness. That is why he constantly falls back upon the use of the Jesus Prayer in the pursuit of watchfulness. It is in and through the mercy of the Lord that we are granted strength to be watchful and to scorn all vanities. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us.