There are many cliches describing our cultural failure to be “present to the moment.” We do not “stop and smell the roses.” We do not “let go and let God.” There is a momentum to life that carries us along. Our jobs, our families, our habits – all conspire to make us oblivious to the landscape and lifescape hurrying past our awareness. It is not surprising that we are often described as being spiritually “asleep.”
Arise, O Sleeper, wake from the dead. And Christ shall give thee light (Eph. 5:14).
With this in mind, we can easily see that one of the hardest disciplines of the spiritual life is “staying awake.” In the fathers, the word for this is nepsis, variously translated as “watchfulness,” or “sobriety.” Christ speaks of the bridegroom coming “at midnight” (Matt. 25:26). We are told to be watchful, for there is someone for whom we should be watching.
This watchfulness is quite different from the sharp words, “Watch out!” – the warning we throw at one another to avoid danger. There is certainly plenty of danger in the spiritual life and we should certainly “watch out,” but fear is never a proper foundation for our lives. It is the watchfulness of those who await the joy of the bridegroom’s arrival that is the hallmark of sobriety. St. John the Baptist, the “friend of the Bridegroom,” is the great saint who embodies this life of watchfulness. He waits, watching – and finding, he announces the arrival and says, “He must increase and I must decrease.” The Church’s teaching sees his ministry extending even into Hades following his martyrdom. In the icon of the Resurrection, St. John is always depicted among the dead – for even among the dead he maintains his watchfulness and announces, “Behold the Bridegroom comes!”
The fasting employed by the Church in preparation for great feasts (such as Pascha), as well as the Wednesday-Friday fasts, are part of this watchfulness/sobriety. It is hard to sleep when you are hungry. John ate locusts and wild honey, observing a life-long Lent that awaited the Pascha of Christ’s coming to the Jordan.
In the middle of a busy world it is easy to imagine ourselves to be awake. However, the somnambulant spirituality of modern man (our usual state) constantly leaves us bumping into furniture and crashing about the world, injuring others and making a general mess of things. True nepsis requires a heart for the Bridegroom and His appearing.
Another way to account for our sleep-filled spiritual lives is our secularity – our default spiritual position. To see the world as self-existent, governed by its own rules, operating according to some set of independent principles, is to give ourselves over to an agreed-upon model of indolence. We assume the secular world-viewas the basis of our lives, with “religion” or “spirituality” as optional extensions of personal preference. The truth of things is that God is everywhere present and filling all things, all things existing only because He sustains them. The “principles” which we see as “laws” are the providence of God, the bounty of His good will. Secularism is the sleep which deadens the mind and hardens the heart. Our stubborn faith in the immutable independence of the world is a breeding ground for fear and anxiety. The secular world-view leaves God at a remove: the world not the arena of His goodness, but the battleground of brute forces. We brutalize ourselves as we feel driven to control the world and our lives, bereft of the active kindness of a good God. We exchange neptic watchfulness for anxiety and panic.
Whenever we take charge of the outcome of history, we agree to do violence.
Watchfulness is inherently an attitude of wonder. In the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Only wonder understands anything.” Wonder is not the vision itself – it is not an awareness of the Bridegroom. However, it is the state of the heart in which we can see Him when He comes. Wonder confronts the mystery as mystery. It does not judge. It does not speak but listens. Wonder does not assume. Wonder dwells in the silence of the heart, for it waits for the announcement of the Bridegroom’s advent.
Wonder is an exercise of love, making room for the other as it recognizes that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” It is not a position of passivity – though it is not always acting in the “active voice,” seeking to impose itself on and control the “objects” around it.
I have a long fascination with language (having been a Classics major in college). Ancient Greek had a “Middle Voice” in its verbs (as does modern Greek). In the Active voice, the action is directed towards the other (such as a direct object); in the passive voice, the action is directed towards the subject (“I was struck”). But in the middle voice, the action is my own, directed towards myself. The Middle is often the voice of the inner life. English once had something like a Middle voice. It survives in the suffix “be.” Thus verbs such as become, bemuse, besmirch, beclothe, bedazzle, etc. are all “middle voice” verbs. The action is inward.
Wonder is middle-voice in its meaning. A word, largely fallen out of use, that seems useful to me is: bethink. The dictionary defines it as “to cause oneself to consider.” We think about many things, but we would do better to bethink, or at least to bethink whenever we think. The world is not as it appears to someone who has been nurtured in a secular world-view. There is far more than meets the eye. This “far more” does not yield itself to the easy, active attentions of life in the Active voice. Neither does it impose itself on us should we choose to live in the Passive voice. It comes and is seen when we live with our eyes wide-open and our hearts watchful. It is revealed to the heart of wonder, which alone understands anything.