Remembrance, the path to the kingdom

St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance. He will not be afraid of evil tidings.

Remembrance, watchfulness and spiritual sobriety are the keys to the kingdom according to St. Philotheos of Sinai in Forty Texts on Watchfulness. This is reminiscent of St. Hesychios. We are told, in fact in the introduction that, along with John Klimakos, these three can be seen as forming a distinctive Sinaite school of ascetic theology.

Philotheos identifies the realm in which the warfare he discusses is being fought — within us, on the noetic plane.

For since the soul is invisible, these malicious powers naturally attack it invisibly.

This is the toughest kind of warfare, “tougher than that on the plane of the senses,” he clarifies.

In the sphere of the senses, it is easier to identify the “enemy, but this noetic warfare lacks one feature possessed by visible warfare: declaration of hostilities.”

In noetic warfare the hidden enemy “kills the soul through sin,” which to our deluded mind is often perceived as virtue.

The fathers of the church constantly point out the difficulty of even discerning evil from good when we succumb to passions and justify our choices. All-consuming ambition, unrestraint passion, aggressiveness toward others, neglect of things that nourish one’s soul, for example, are often considered great assets in the professional world. Fantasy that blocks reality can be wrongly interpreted as creativity and an ecstatic state as spirituality.

The only remedy is remembrance of God, what John Chrysostom calls the noetic vision of God that “can by itself destroy the demonic spirits.”

There is, a warfare. The Spiritual worker has to press on with his intellect towards the goal (cf. Phil. 3:14), in order to enshrine perfectly the remembrance of God in his heart like some pearl or precious stone (cf. Matt.13:44-46)

Why is remembrance of God so important? Imagine a life without remembrance of what matters the most. We think of God at church but forget his existence in our “regular” life, thus failing to rely on him as our helper and dismissing the comfort of his presence. Our hearts are closed and unaware of the beauty of little miracles all around us when the world is inhabited by Him, unable to fully love and ignorant of the peace and stillness of the heart.

We technically “believe” in God in our intellect but not in our heart since we live as though He did not exist.

“It is very rare to find people whose intelligence is in a state of stillness,”  Philotheos tells us and advises us:  

From dawn we should stand bravely and unflinchingly at the gate of the heart, with true remembrance of God and unceasing prayer of Jesus Christ in the soul; and, keeping watch with the intellect, we should slaughter all the sinners of the land (cf. Ps. 101:8. LXX).

… When this pattern of spiritual practice is firmly established in us, it gives birth to the triad faith, hope and love.

Watchfulness is imperative to keep remembrance of God in our hearts. We start by exercising self-control with regard to the senses—eating, drinking, talking etc. When self-restraint becomes a habit, we are ready to begin “the noetic” work “by guarding our intellect and by inner watchfulness” and to begin the journey from passions to inner stillness. This, he tells us, “is the true philosophy in Christ.”

Humility is imperative for watchfulness and remembrance of God. There is no inner peace when we are busy imposing our agenda on others or seeking ways to demonstrate our superiority.

Where humility is combined with the remembrance of God that is established through watchfulness and attention, and also with recurrent prayer inflexible in its resistance to the enemy, there is the place of God, the heaven of the heart in which because of God’s presence no demonic army dares to make a stand.

Talkativeness, another manifestation of pride, is also an obstacle to inner stillness:

Nothing is more unsettling than talkativeness and more pernicious than an unbridled tongue, disruptive as it is of the soul’s proper state. For the soul’s chatter destroys what we build each day and scatters what we have laboriously gathered together.

Crucial to our capacity for watchfulness and remembrance is mindfulness of death which Philotheos wants to make his “life’s companion.” He goes beyond intellectual remembrance to talk about the meaning of remembrance in the heart:

It makes life-giving, healing tears flow from our bodily eyes, while from our noetic eyes rises a fount of wisdom that delights the mind.

Philotheos’ prose becomes lyrical as he describes this joy of such remembrance:

 I always longed, as I said, to have as my, companion, to sleep with, to talk with, and to enquire from her what will happen after the body has been discarded.

It is hard to imagine deriving joy by remembering death. We get a glimpse of Philotheos’ meaning when we contemplate the opposite—forgetfulness of death or, as he puts it, the devil’s murky daughter.

Just as with forgetfulness of God, forgetfulness of death locks us in a self-made fantasy world, unreconciled with God. Though we theoretically grasp the fact that we all die, we choose to live as if we will never die, inwardly believing that it will happen so far into the future we can ignore it or that, though it happens to others, we can’t visualize how it could possibly happen to us. 

Without imminent remembrance of death, our attachment to worldly things consumes us, our souls are in turmoil pursuing goals that deplete the soul, and we grow arrogant.

Watchfulness, Philotheos concludes, is our most powerful weapon. It will  “guard your intellect from error and observe the attacks of the demons and their snares woven of fantasy…”  

 Guard your heart with all diligence, for on this depends the outcome of life (Prov. 4:23).

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