St. Hesychios the Priest – On Watchfulness and Holiness

Here we present selected excerpts from St. Hesychios the Priest, taken from the book ‘Philokalia’.

αρχείο λήψης

Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if sedulously practiced over a long period, completely frees us: with God’s help from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It enables us to fulfill every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart, a state blessed by Christ when He says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8); and one which, because of its spiritual nobility and beauty – or, rather, because of our negligence – is now extremely rare among monks. Because this is its nature, watchfulness is to be bought only at a great price. But once established in us, it guides us to a true and holy way of life. It teaches us how to activate the three aspects of our soul correctly, and how to keep a firm guard over the senses. It promotes the daily growth of the four principal virtues, and is the basis of our contemplation.

The great lawgiver Moses – or, rather, the Holy Spirit -indicates the pure, comprehensive and ennobling character of this virtue, and teaches us how to acquire and perfect it, when he says: ‘Be attentive to yourself, lest there arise in your heart a secret thing which is an iniquity’ (Deut. 15:9. LXX). Here the phrase ‘a secret thing’ refers to the first appearance of an evil thought. This the Fathers call a provocation introduced into the heart by the devil. As soon as this thought appears in. our intellect, our own thoughts chase after it and enter into impassioned intercourse with it.

Watchfulness is a way embracing every virtue, every commandment. It is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect.

Just as a man blind from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace. He cannot free himself from evil thoughts, words and actions, and because of these thoughts and actions he will not be able freely to pass the lords of hell when he dies.

Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought. In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and Himself God. It confesses Him who alone has power to forgive our sins, and with His aid it courageously faces its enemies. Through this invocation enfolded continually in Christ, who secretly divines all hearts, the soul does everything it can to keep its sweetness and its inner struggle hidden from men, so that the devil, coming upon it surreptitiously, does not lead it into evil and destroy its precious work.

Watchfulness is a continual fixing and halting of thought at the entrance to the heart. In this way predatory and murderous thoughts are marked down as they approach and what they say and do is noted; and we can see in what specious and delusive form the demons are trying to deceive the intellect. If we are conscientious in this, we can gain much experience and knowledge of spiritual warfare.

Continuity of attention produces inner stability; inner stability produces a natural intensification of watchfulness; and this intensification gradually and in due measure gives contemplative insight into spiritual warfare. This in its turn is succeeded by persistence in the Jesus Prayer and by the state that Jesus confers in which the intellect, free from all images, enjoys complete quietude.

I shall now tell you in plain, straightforward language what I consider to be the types of watchfulness which gradually cleanse the intellect from impassioned thoughts. In these times of spiritual warfare I have no wish to conceal beneath words whatever in this treatise may be of use, especially to more simple people. As St Paul puts it: ‘Pay attention, my child Timothy, to what you read’ (cf. 1 Tim. 4:13).

One type of watchfulness consists in closely scrutinizing every mental image or provocation; for only by means of a mental image can Satan fabricate an evil thought and insinuate this into the intellect in order to lead it astray.

A second type of watchfulness consists in freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still, and in praying.

A third type consists in continually and humbly calling upon the Lord Jesus Christ for help.

A fourth type is always to have the thought of death in one’s mind.

These types of watchfulness, my child, act like doorkeepers and bar entry to evil thoughts. Elsewhere, if God gives me words, I shall deal more fully with a farther type which, along with the others, is also effective: this is to fix one’s gaze on heaven and to pay no attention to anything material.

When we have to some extent cut off the causes of the passions, we should devote our time to spiritual contemplation; for if we fail to do this we shall easily revert to the fleshly passions, and so achieve nothing but the complete darkening of our intellect and its reversion to material things.

The man engaged in spiritual warfare should simultaneously possess humility, perfect attentiveness, the power of rebuttal, and prayer. He should possess humility because, as his fight is against the arrogant demons, he will then have the help of Christ in his heart, for ‘the Lord hates the arrogant’ (cf. Prov. 3:34. LXX). He should possess attentiveness in order always to keep his heart clear of all thoughts, even of those that appear to be good. He should possess the power of rebuttal so that, whenever he recognizes the devil, he may at once repulse him angrily; for it is written: ‘And I shall reply to those who vilify me; will not my soul be subject to God?’ (Pss. 119:42; 62:1. LXX). He should possess prayer so that as soon as he has rebutted the devil he may call to Christ with ‘cries that cannot be uttered’ (Rom. 8:26). Then he will see the devil broken and; routed by the venerable name of Jesus — will see him and his dissimulation scattered like dust or smoke before the wind.

If we have not attained prayer that is free from thoughts, we have no weapon to fight with. By this prayer I mean the prayer which is ever active in the inner shrine of the soul, and which by invoking Christ scourges and sears our secret enemy.

Those who love true knowledge should also be aware that the demons in their jealousy sometimes hide themselves and cease from open spiritual battle. Begrudging us the benefit, knowledge and progress towards God that we derive from the battle, they try to make us careless so that they can suddenly capture our intellect and again reduce our mind to inattention. Their unremitting purpose is to prevent the heart from being attentive, for they know how greatly such attentiveness enriches the soul. We on the contrary, through remembrance of our Lord Jesus Christ, should redouble our efforts to achieve spiritual contemplation; and then the intellect again finds itself engaged in battle. Let all we do be done with great humility and only, if I may put it like this, with the will of the Lord Himself.

The devil, with all his powers, ‘walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour’ (1 Pet. 5:8). So you must never relax your attentiveness of heart, your watchfulness, your power of rebuttal or your prayer to Jesus Christ our God. You will not find a greater help than Jesus in all your life, for He alone, as God, knows the deceitful ways of the demons, their subtlety and their guile.

Just as it is impossible for fire and water to pass through the same pipe together, so it is impossible for sin to enter the heart without first knocking at its door in the form of a fantasy provoked by the devil.

The provocation comes first, then our coupling with it, or the mingling of our thoughts with those of the wicked demons. Third comes our assent to the provocation, with both sets of intermingling thoughts contriving how to commit the sin in practice. Fourth comes the concrete action – that is, the sin itself. If, however, the intellect is attentive and watchful, and at once repulses the provocation by counter-attacking and gainsaying it and invoking the Lord Jesus, its consequences remain inoperative; for the devil, being a bodiless intellect, can deceive our souls only by means of fantasies and thoughts.

We should zealously cultivate watchfulness, my brethren; and when – our mind purified in Christ Jesus – we are exalted by the vision it confers, we should review our sins and our former life, so that shattered and humbled at the thought of them We may never lose the help of Jesus Christ our God in the invisible battle. If because of pride, self-esteem or self-love we are deprived of Jesus’ help, we shall lose that purity of heart through which God is known to man. For, as the Beatitude states, purity of heart is the ground for the vision of God (cf. Matt. 5:8).

Guard your mind and you will not be harassed by temptations. But if you fail to guard it, accept patiently whatever trial comes.

If you do not want to suffer evil, do not inflict it, since the suffering of it inevitably follows its infliction. ‘For whatever a man sows he will also reap’ (Gal. 6:7). Reaping unwillingly the wickedness we deliberately sow, we should marvel at God’s justice.

The intellect is made blind by these three passions: avarice, self-esteem and sensual pleasure. It is because of them that wrath, anger, war, murder and all other evils have such power over mankind.

He who does not know the truth cannot truly have faith; for by nature knowledge precedes faith. What is said in Scripture is said not solely for us to understand, but also for us to act upon.

We should therefore set about our task, for by doing so and advancing steadily we will find that hope in God, sure faith, inner knowledge, release from temptations, gifts of grace, heart-felt confession and prolonged tears come to the faithful through prayer. For not only these blessings, but the patient acceptance of affliction, sincere forgiveness of our neighbor, knowledge of the spiritual law, the discovery of God’s justice, frequent visitations of the Holy Spirit, the giving of spiritual treasures and all that God has promised to bestow to men of faith now and in the future age – in short, the manifestation of the soul in accordance with the image of God — can come only through God’s grace and man’s faith when. he guards his mind with great humility and undistracted prayer.

Because humility is by nature something that exalts, something loved by God which destroys in us almost all that is evil and hateful to Him, for this reason it is difficult to attain. Even if you can easily find someone who to some extent practices a number of virtues, you will hardly find the odor of humility in him, however you search for it. It is something that can be acquired only with much diligence. Indeed, Scripture refers to the devil as ‘unclean’ because from the beginning he rejected humility and espoused arrogance. As a result he is called an unclean spirit throughout the Scriptures. For what bodily uncleanliness could one who is completely without body, fleshless and weightless, bring about in himself so as to be called ‘unclean’ as a result? Clearly he was called unclean because of his arrogance, defiling himself thus after having been a pure and radiant angel. ‘Everyone that is arrogant is unclean before the Lord’ (Prov. 16:5. LXX), for it is written that the first sin was arrogance (cf. Ecclus. 10:13). And it was in arrogance that Pharaoh said: ‘I, do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel go’ (Exod. 5:2).

Someone else wise in the things of God has said that as the fruit begins with the flower, so the practice of the ascetic life begins with self-control. Let us then learn to control ourselves with due measure and judgment, as the Fathers teach us. Let us pass all the hours of the day in the guarding of the intellect, for by doing this we shall with God’s help and with a certain forcefulness be able to quell and reduce the evil in us. For the spiritual life, through which the kingdom of heaven is given, does indeed require a certain forcefulness (cf. Matt. 11:12).

Dispassion and humility lead to spiritual knowledge. Without them, no one can see God.

One ignorant of the spiritual path is not on his guard against his impassioned thoughts, but devotes himself entirely to the flesh. He is either a glutton, or dissipated, or full of resentment, anger and rancor. As a result, he darkens his intellect, or he practices excessive asceticism and so confuses his mind.

Many passions are hidden in the soul; they can be checked only when their causes are revealed.

Do not devote all your time to your body but apply to it a measure of asceticism appropriate to its strength and then turn all your intellect to what is within. ‘Bodily asceticism has only a limited use, but true devotion is useful in all things’ (1 Tim. 4:8).

Humility and ascetic hardship free a man from all sin, for the one cuts out the passions of the soul, the other those of the body. It is for this reason that the Lord says: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:8). They shall see God and the riches that are in Him when they have purified themselves through love and selfcontrol; and the greater their purity, the more they will see.

Just as it is impossible to fight battles without weapons, or to swim a great sea with clothes on, or to live without breathing, so without humility and the constant prayer to Christ it is impossible to master the art of inward spiritual warfare or to set about it and pursue it skillfully.

Just as he who looks at the sun cannot but fill his eyes with light, so he who always gazes intently into his heart cannot fail to be illumined.

Just as it is impossible to live this present life without eating or drinking, so it is impossible for the soul to achieve anything spiritual and in accordance with God’s will, or to be free from mental sin, without that guarding of the intellect and purity of heart truly described as watchfulness; and this is so even if one forces oneself not to sin through the fear of punishment.

The intellect’s great gain from stillness is .this: all the sins which formerly beat upon the intellect as thoughts and which, once admitted by the mind, were turned into outward acts of sin, are now cut off by mental watchfulness. For, with the help of our Lord Jesus Christ, this watchfulness does not allow these sins to enter our inner self and so to burgeon into outward acts of evil.

Each hour of the day we should note and weigh our actions and in the evening we should do what we can to free ourselves, from the burden of them by means of repentance – if, that is, we wish, with Christ’s help, to overcome wickedness. We should also make sure that we perform all our outward tasks in a manner that accords with God’s will, before God and for God alone, so that we are not mindlessly seduced by the senses.

For if with God’s help we make progress daily by means of our watchfulness, we should not behave indiscriminately and damage ourselves through a host of random meetings and conversations. On the contrary, we should scorn all vanities for the sake of the beauty and blessings of holiness.

When combined with watchfulness and deep understanding, the Jesus Prayer will erase from our heart even those thoughts rooted there against our will.

The fruit starts in the flower; and the guarding of the intellect begins with self-control in food and drink, the rejection of all evil thoughts and abstention from them, and stillness of heart.

A ship does not go far without water; and there is no progress whatsoever in the guarding of the intellect without watchfulness, humility and the Jesus Prayer.

It is through unceasing prayer that the mind is cleansed of the dark clouds, the tempests of the demons. And when it is cleansed, the divine light of Jesus cannot but shine in it, unless we are puffed up with self-esteem and delusion and a love of ostentation, and elevate ourselves towards the unattainable, and so are deprived of Jesus’ help. For Christ, the paradigm of humility, loathes all such self-inflation.

Let us hold fast, therefore, to prayer and humility, for together with watchfulness they act like a burning sword against the demons. If we do this, we shall daily and hourly be able to celebrate a secret festival of joy within our hearts.

Purification of heart, through which we acquire humility and every blessing that comes from above, consists simply in our not letting evil droughts enter the soul.

There is no venom more poisonous than that of the asp or cobra, and there is no evil greater than that of self-love. The winged children of self-love are self-praise, self-satisfaction, gluttony, unchastity, self-esteem, jealousy and the crown of all these, pride. Pride can drag down not men alone, but even angels from heaven, and surround them with darkness instead of light.


7 thoughts on “St. Hesychios the Priest – On Watchfulness and Holiness

Add yours

  1. Dear Sir/Be

    What are the page numbers for the chapter “On Watchfulness and Holiness” by Hesychius of Vatos?


  2. Thank you for your help in providing the page numbers for the text by Hesychius.
    It is highly appreciated

    Rev. Canon Robert M. Marankey

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have recently been introduced to the text as I start catechesis. It is foundational and full. I read a little each day.

    I’m so struck by this and was wondering where I might obtain an icon of St Hesychios if anyone knows?

    Dr Dawid Crook


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