Life from Death: St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

Forty Texts on Watchfulness

Τhe need for constant awareness of death, preached by Philotheos and the other Fathers,  sounds macabre to the 21st century dwellers, driven by the pursuit of pleasure and happiness as  the ultimate goals in life. This ideal is supported by multi-billion-dollar industries and ever-growing relaxation/meditation practices. While depression is rampant, we may just have forgotten how to mourn.

When doing ethnographic research into Greek ritual laments for the dead near the border of Greece with Albania, I was shocked to see women lamenters completely surrender to the sorrow of their loss. Their songs faced death head-on, at times expressing anger and even describing the body’s slow process of physical decay in the grave. The lyrics use the same format and formulaic expressions as the lamentation of the Virgin in the Orthodox church, sung on Holy Friday.

As the hours and days pass by, the women weave into the collective lamentation verses about their own losses. Antiphonal singing, sharing of heart and the beauty of words and music transform individual grievance into a community of shared sorrow and comfort, enabling the living to go on living.

The idea of facing rather than hiding sorrow and traumatic experience has been embraced by modern psychology.  

While this is not an exact parallel to the patristic notion of constantly remembering death to gain perspective, there is a subtle psychological parallel. Remember and face death so that you can live.

Philotheos, like other Fathers of the Eastern church, calls on us to constantly remember death, not for an exercise in sorrow and despair but as a launching pad from darkness into life.

Watchfulness for Philotheos is not an act of suspicion or paranoia but a state of full discernment in which we recognize both good and evil and understand how human powers can be ordered and employed to guard one and defeat the other.

To heighten the urgency for watchfulness, he presents the demon as “a skilled commander,” whose attacks are often disguised and whose strategy is to confuse and obscure the intellect.

He does not attack us by exciting desire through an actual physical woman, but he operates inwardly by projecting into our intellect lascivious figures and images, and by insinuating words that rouse desire…

Again, the enemy – wanting to overpower the intelligence, a skilled commander – first addles its wits with gluttonous and promiscuous thoughts…dismissing it from its command as though it were a drunken general; then he uses anger and desire as servants of his own will.

If the devil is a skilled general, Philotheos wants us to become skilled and ferocious warriors.

To defend the fort, we must marshal our weapons. The most powerful among them is remembrance of death.

We must be constantly aware of our own mortality to maintain perspective on our lives and be kept humble. Whoever guards the intellect against passions…

…is in a far better position to discern the continual presence of demonic provocations than the man who chooses to live without being mindful of death.

Thinking of death is not a destination to dwell in but a gateway to light. Philotheos alternates the darkness of death with the light of salvation. The more watchful we are the more light and clarity increase.  

But he who all the day long is mindful of death discerns the assaults of the demons more keenly; and he counterattacks and repels them.

 Watchfulness cleanses the conscience and makes it lucid. Thus cleansed, it immediately shines out like a light that has been uncovered, banishing much darkness.

In our society, we avoid thinking of death and mourning. At many funerals, guests are admonished to “celebrate” the person’s life and not dwell on, or even acknowledge, death.

Philotheos’ watchfulness and constant awareness of death and the fragility of life…

…immediately shines out like a light that has been uncovered, banishing much darkness. Once this darkness has been banished through constant and genuine watchfulness, the conscience then reveals things hidden from us.

The demon as a “skilled general” clouds our mind and heart with destructive thoughts that confuse he intellect and render it subject to the senses. Watchfulness restores the intellect to its rightful position, above the senses, so that it can teach us…

…how to fight the unseen war and the mental battle by means of watchfulness, how we must throw spears when engaged in single combat and strike with well-aimed lances of thought, and how the intellect must escape being hit and’ avoid the noxious darkness by hiding itself in Christ, the tight for which it longs. He who has tasted this light will understand what I am talking about.

By facing the darkness of death, we emerge into light and are transformed into fierce warriors, more “skilled” than the devil.

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