Concerning Watchfulness and Warfare of Thoughts

A Hymn to the Theotokos

The shadow of the Law passed with the coming of Grace: For just as the bush burned without being consumed, so the Virgin hath given birth and remained Virgin.  In place of a pillar of fire, the Sun of righteousness hath risen; instead of Moses, Christ the Salvation of our souls. (Dogmatic of Saturday Great Vespers Tone 2)  

Concerning Watchfulness and warfare of the thoughts

These words which follow are excerpts from a talk of an Athonite monk given to a sisterhood.  This father had the same spiritual father as the sisters. Now to his talk:

For a monastic the prayer should never stop verbally or mentally. We must always say, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  And we should drive all evil thoughts away immediately.  St. Symeon the New Theologian writes that as the soul is connected with the body likewise prayer should be connected with watchfulness. What is watchfulness? Watchfulness is to take heed concerning our thoughts.

We must be awake and watchful as if we were a guard on a watchtower. Like a soldier with his bayonet drawn on his rifle keeping watch on his lookout tower.  When he sees the enemy approaching he fires at 100 meters and kills the enemy. The guard does not allow the enemy to approach any closer. This is watchfulness, this is to be vigilant. Just as a soldier watches we also must watch our mind and thoughts and not allow any bad or evil thoughts to come within.

Demons are spirits and they never rest; from daybreak to nightfall they keep bringing sinful thoughts. They sow bad thoughts in our mind. That is why we must constantly have prayer and watchfulness. St. Symeon the New Theologian specifically says that watchfulness should be slightly before prayer. We should be watchful concerning what temptations the devil may bring and then right away we must follow with the Jesus Prayer.

Therefore watchfulness should be a little ahead of prayer. Let us suppose that the devil brings in your mind a sinful thought, a thought that goes against the evangelical commandments and truth. Now if we have watchfulness we won’t begin to fantasize but we will detect the enemy. We will recognize the evil thought and with two blows, anger and the Jesus Prayer, we shall immediately destroy the evil thought and we shall expel it from our mind and thus we shall escape the other three evolving stages that lead to sin.

Let us examine the different stages that an evil thought goes through before it becomes sin.  The first stage is provocation, a devil’s attack through our imagination or memory, an evil impression that comes to our mind in the form of a daydream or thought about a person or object. Up to this point we have no responsibility, we are not responsible for the devil attacking us with evil thoughts.  These thoughts could be thoughts of hatred, envy, gluttony, jealousy, etc. any thought at all which is contrary to God’s will.  The second stage is coupling, that is, starting a dialogue with the evil thought. We converse or to be more exact, we listen with pleasure to the content of the evil thought, we listen agreeably to the sinful thought and even with pleasure.  The third stage is consent. I consent to what the thought is saying and I agree to go ahead and accept the evil thought. For instance, my Elder does not love me, and I consent to the thought and I agree with the thought of judgment that my Elder does not love me, that he mistreats me. Another example: a thought comes that I have a good voice and I sing wonderfully in church. That is, I put myself above others or I may consent to anger which may result in a fight with a brother.

The fourth stage is the act of sin; to actually commit a sin in deed.  The Holy Fathers say that the devil, in order to make us sin uses our fantasy like a bridge—fantasy is the devil’s bridge. To fantasize is to imagine, to remember, to think about people and things that are contrary to God.   This is the bridge that the devil uses to cross and enter our souls.  Without fantasy it is impossible to be led into sin.

Therefore it is very important to be careful with fantasizing, and to take heed concerning fantasizing we need watchfulness. That is why watchfulness should be ahead of prayer, slightly before prayer. Let us use the same example of the soldier who is a guard.  When he sees the enemy approaching, he aims and fires and kills the approaching enemy thus eliminating potential threat and harm. The weapon and bullets are the prayer, and watchfulness is the guard, it is the awareness, the sobriety. If the guard is asleep the weapon won’t do any good and the enemy will ambush and kill the guard.

So you see we need the Jesus Prayer, of course, but we also must have watchfulness. It is because of watchfulness that we become aware of sinful thoughts. It could happen that without watchfulness I could be praying with the Jesus Prayer and at the same time while saying, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me,” I can think my Elder always gives me the hardest jobs, he does not love me, he mistreats me.  So I can pray and at the same time pass judgment on my spiritual father.  So we need watchfulness to become aware of the thought and then by using the two blows—anger and the Jesus Prayer—to slay the devil, to destroy the serpent.

So this now leads us also to talk about the positive use of anger in our warfare against evil thoughts.  The devil is involved in constant warfare against us.  One of his prime weapons is evil thoughts, bad thoughts, and especially thoughts of judgment against our Elder.  What the devil wants to accomplish is to place these thoughts within our minds.  There is a difference between the devil’s attack and our consent; if we accept his thoughts, they enter our heart and become a part of us.  

Let us now examine how to fight against evil thoughts.  For example, as soon as a thought of judgment, let’s say against the Elder, comes to our mind you don’t have to run to the Elder for help.  What you must do is immediately try to push it away from your mind in this manner.  First with anger; if you like, with indignation scornfully ridicule the thought.  For example you say, “Get lost devil, you constantly bark like a dog.”  Ridicule the devil and the thoughts he brings.  You may continue by saying, “The Elder is right to ignore me.  The Elder is a saint.  He is absolutely right to discipline me for I am the least among my sisters.  The Elder is like Christ and he has the right to do with me whatever he wishes, and as for you demon: ‘Get lost.’”

Say these kind of words with anger.  As St. Hesychius the priest says first with anger strike out against the thoughts of judgment and second immediately start saying the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  In that way drive the bad thought away.  If it does go away then this is not a fall which needs redemption through confession.  In other words, for any bad thought that you fight against and overcome there is no need to reveal it to your Elder or Eldress.  But listen carefully, for every evil thought that remains in us there is the need of redemption.  An evil thought that remains in us affects our heart in a bad way, and there is a need of healing that bad effect.  This healing takes place through revelation of such thoughts to the Elder or Eldress.  Expose the devil and he will flee from you.

I want to conclude with one last story in order to illustrate how the devil tries to trip us up in many and varied ways.  Once I was picking olives and the devil launched an attack on me.  Evil thoughts came to my mind that my Elder does not love me, and makes me overwork.  I was fighting back at the evil thought.  I was saying with anger, “Devil, I will shred you to pieces,” and then immediately I was saying the Jesus Prayer.  As long as I was fighting back in that manner I was victorious over the devil.  Then the devil put another thought in my mind: “You know that anger is a sin.  Stop saying with anger, ‘Devil I will shred you to pieces,’ surely you know that anger is a big sin.”

A cold sweat came over me, and I felt cold all over my body.  I thought of running to my Elder but he was away on some business.  Now that I stopped fighting back with anger and was only saying the Jesus Prayer the evil thought of judgment against my Elder was stronger and the devil was winning.  You see, I believed that being angry at the devil was a sin.  The thoughts that my Elder is unfair to me and does not love me began to stay in my mind.  Again I thought of going to my Elder but he was not around.  So I looked and found the Elder of a nearby monastery.  I told him my story and how the devil was winning the battle against me.  And I asked if being angry at the devil was truly a sin.

The Elder embraced me and told me, “The devil wants to put us all in hell for eternity.  You should not say only once, ‘Devil I will shred you to pieces’, but 100 times”.  So I took courage.  At that time I had not yet read how St. Hesychius wrote that when evil thoughts come to you, you must deliver two blows at the devil in order to kill these thoughts.  First, when any kind of evil thoughts approach, thoughts of selfishness, jealousy, hatred, gluttony, despondency or any other evil thought; immediately deliver the first blow.  Outraged and with anger scorn and ridicule the devil; the first blow will halfway kill the devil and the evil thought will be half gone.  Then deliver the second blow without losing time; and that is the little prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”  In this way you will have delivered a fatal blow to the enemy and you are saved.

Through the teachings and the prayers of our Holy Fathers may our Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us and save us.  Amen.