Being Fully Present: St. Philotheos of Sinai, Philokalia, vol 3

Forty Texts on Watchfulness

Like scenes of epic battles unfolding before you on the movie screen, the demons in this chapter conduct a fierce but invisible warfare as they…

…wage war upon us through our thoughts and are full of anger against us

Using military terms throughout, he refers to them as “this whole detachment of the enemy” that must be “put out of action through prayer.”

Yet, the battle plan does not call for fighting fire by being inflamed ourselves. On the contrary, we deploy our only weapon that works against the devil, God, by entering a state of sobriety called nipsis or watchfulness.

It is through unceasing watchfulness that we can perceive what is entering into us and can to some extent close the door against it, calling upon our Lord Jesus Christ to repel our malevolent adversaries.

The opposite of watchfulness is forgetfulness. Philotheos quotes Christ’s words in the Gospel of Luke: keeping guard over the heart and mind.

‘Then comes the devil and snatches the word out of their hearts’ – that is to say, he steals it by inducing them to forget it – ‘lest they should believe and be saved’ (Luke 8:12).

Instead of the passive indulgence that forgetfulness enables, we are asked to deploy discipline by being watchful and drawing a very precise battle strategy:

Be extremely strict in guarding your intellect.


 In the Greek, the word for “strict” is akrivia which means precision.

Να φρουρείς το νου σου με πάρα πολύ μεγάλη ακρίβεια.

Philotheos employs another term for watchfulness: attentiveness—prosochi or προσοχή in Greek—that brings out the notion of precision and focus.

 Let us go forward with the heart completely attentive and the soul fully conscious. For if attentiveness and prayer are daily joined together, they become like Elijah’s fire-bearing chariot (cf. 2 Kgs. 2:11), raising us to heaven.

I believe that the concept of “attentiveness” highlights another side of watchfulness–the notion of complete presence at specific moments in time and, thus, readiness for action.  

Philotheos has already told us that in true prayer, we are no longer torn by conflict, no longer divided between the present and the past, God and the world. Instead, we bring all of ourselves to Him, not just the fragment that is convenient at that time. In attentiveness, we are made whole and fully present in God.  

An Orthodox blog discusses the concept of holistic presence implied by watchfulness:

Bishop Kallistos Ware tells us that ‘watchfulness means, among other things, to be present where we are – at this specific point in space, at this particular moment in time.  All too often we are scattered and dispersed, we are living, not with alertness in the present, but with nostalgia in the past, or with misgiving and wishful thinking in the future. . . The neptic man, then, is gathered into the here and now.  He is the one who seizes ‘kairos’, the decisive moment of opportunity.”

This complete presence in God allows us to hone and deploy our weapons against the devil with precision.

Attentiveness obstructs the demons by rebutting them; and Jesus, when invoked, disperses them together with all their fantasies.

In the Greek text the absence of fear and willingness to battle are a little more pronounced by employing “talking back” instead of “rebutting.” 

 Attentiveness (using the word for prayer here) prevents and talks back to them.

Η προσευχή πάλι εμποδίζει και αντιλέγει σ’ αυτούς,

 The steps are clear. First you discern and fight thoughts the moment they first enter your mind.

…when you perceive an evil thought rebut it (in the Greek: talk back to it) and immediately call upon Christ to defend you

Όταν λοιπόν αντιληφθείς κάποιο λογισμό, αντιμίλησε σ’ αυτόν, και αμέσως κάλεσε γρήγορα τον Χριστό να σε υπερασπιστεί.

You then pray to Christ with a heart that is completely open and present so that you transition from the fight mode to love and a relationship with God.

….and while you are still speaking, Jesus in His gentle love will say: ‘Behold, I am by your side ready to help you.’

Watchfulness, then, is not simply a defensive mechanism but a vessel for experiencing the constant presence of Christ within us, for enabling us to mystically unite with Him and  for preparing us for action:

Jesus draws near, He illumines the heart; for remembrance of Him confers on us or for a moment, glorify Him who has saved you, and meditate on death.

What do I mean? A spiritual heaven, with sun, moon and stars, is formed in the blessed heart of one who has reached a state of watchfulness, or who strives to attain it; for such a heart, as a result of mystical contemplation and ascent, is enabled to contain within itself the uncontainable God. If, then, you aspire to holiness, Cry with God’s help to invoke the Lord and wholeheartedly to turn words into actions.

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