Restraint and Humility, St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

Forty Texts on Watchfulness, #9-16

Philotheos has already told us that he will be focusing on the toughest and most nuanced sins of all, those committed on the noetic plane. This enemy is so subtle and so formidable that combatting it, requires constant watchfulness.

What do we, as modern men and women, think of as “enemy?”

“Sin” is often an unfamiliar and even repellant concept to us in the 21st century. We may define it as equivalent to a social or legal transgression, like murder, or we may vaguely associate it with archaic offences that are no longer considered “sinful.”

Philotheos approaches this concept with great psychological subtlety:

But the enemy in his turn tries to subvert this commandment by stirring up strife and thoughts of rancor and envy within us.

Who cannot relate to inner turmoil and fear? How often do persistent thoughts of resentment, anger, envy, self-pity, arrogance, ambition, or desire for control clutter our minds and gain momentum until they become obsessive and explode in destructive action?


Philotheos attributes this state of spiritual defeat to the misuse of, and imbalance between, the powers of the soul. When the intellect (nous), the highest faculty in human person, cedes control to the incensive power–the irascible power that provokes passions and can be manifested in wrath—our souls die gradually.

The enemy that wants to overpower the intelligence is “a skilled commander.”

…and so, by bombarding the intelligence with evil thoughts-with thoughts of envy, strife, contention, guile, self-esteem-he persuades the intelligence to abandon its control, to hand the reins over to the-incensive power, and to let the latter go unchecked. And the incensive power, having so to speak unseated its rider, disgorges through the mouth in the form of words all those things stored up in the heart as a result of the devil’s wiles and the intellect’s negligence.

When we are in a state of watchfulness and attentiveness, we see clearly. We grasp the potential significance of actions and thoughts that may appear neutral or harmless to one lacking in watchfulness. For the fathers of the Eastern Church, for example, talking is evidence of lack of restraint, and can become means of control and gateway to evil:

It is as the Lord said: ‘The mouth expresses what fills the heart’ (Matt. 12:34). For if the devil can induce the person he has taken possession of to utter what is harbored within, then that person will not merely call his brother ‘dolt’ or ‘fool’ but may well pass from insulting words to murder… Thus the devil achieves his purpose when he makes us break God’s commandment by means of the thoughts that he insinuates into the heart.

…Untimely talk sometimes provokes hatred in those who listen, sometimes – when they note the folly of our words – abuse and derision. Sometimes it denies our conscience, or else brings upon us God’s condemnation and, worst of all, causes us to offend against the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual warfare, then, is not conducted with fanfare in glistening chariots and displays of subjugation of others, but through restraint.

St Paul says: ‘The person engaged in spiritual warfare exercises self-control in all things’ (1 Cor. 9:25). For, bound as we are to this wretched flesh, which always ‘desires in a way that opposes the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:17), we cannot


When we talk a great deal, we usually do so to impress others, win them over, get their admiration or sympathy, overshadow them, denigrate, flatter or persuade them. We may even talk because the anxiety within us makes us afraid of silence.  Our effort at filling any possible silent space is exhausting. Our hyper focus on our own “agenda” also blunts our ability to discern God’s will and be watchful. This is why, Theophilos speaks of the need for humility:

Guarding the intellect with the Lord’s help requires much humility, first in relation to God and then in relation to men. We ought to do all we can to crush and humble the heart.

To resist pride, Theophilos advises “perpetual and vivid mindfulness of death,” and “the detailed remembrance of our Lord’s Passion, the recollection of what He suffered.”  

Lives Transformed

Rather than use our weapons of humility, restraint, and remembrance of death opportunistically, Theophilos calls for integrating them into our everyday reality, in short, for transforming our lives. A life of watchfulness and restraint is attenable to all of us, not only monks. The secret is to be consistent and establish habits and routines:

Let us accustom our body to virtuous and orderly habits, nourishing it with moderation…

For those with experience regard virtue as consisting in an all-inclusive self-control, that is, in the avoidance of every kind of evil. For the pre-eminent source of purity is God, the source and giver of all blessings; but next comes self-control with regard to food, exercised in the same regular manner each day.

The result of restraint and watchfulness is the absence of sin and attainment of salvation. It will also grant you a different level of perception and understanding that you never thought possible and, hence, a renewed relationship with everything around you. With the Lord’s help you can:

…cleanse your heart and uproot sin – struggling for the knowledge that is more divine and seeing in your intellect things invisible to most people

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