Watch, therefore, because you do not know in what day your Lord is coming.
Matthew 24: 42
As time passed after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, without the expectation of his imminent return’s being realized, the community of Matthew and of Christian believers was exposed to more and more ridicule, and, as is clear from today’s gospel, needed to be reminded to continue to live with a sense of waiting and expectation. And we are still waiting!
It is not instinctual or easy for human beings to maintain a state of vigilance as the immediate sense of expectation or danger diminishes. We all know the experience of how watchful and careful we are for some time after we have had an auto accident. Our mind and senses are fully awake to each potential threat from our surroundings and the driving patterns of others. Yet, we also know that before very long we return to our habitual sense of the world and patterns of behavior. We cease to be as vigilant of every potential danger and threat posed by the carelessness of ourselves and others.
It is important to be able to function in the world without undue anxiety. Hyper-vigilance and the mental and emotional distress that comes with it is certainly not desirable. To live primarily, however, by social and cultural habituation and unconscious reaction is not to live a distinctively human life at all. Jesus will return at the end of time and for us as individuals at the moments of our deaths, but in our true and deepest life He is always coming to us. It is the routines and habits of mind, our daily thoughts and preoccupations that dull our awareness of that presence and coming.
It is the nature of the human mind to be “busy about many things.” We use our power of reason to survive and so, our minds are always on the lookout for any real or imagined threats to our lives and well being. We worry about our health, our finances, our reputation, our comfort. We worry about the state of our home and possessions, our children’s safety and future possibilities, the success or failure of the home team. We worry about our legacy in the world and the proper maintenance of our autos, home appliances, and personal technology. We are anxious about finding the solutions to the problems at hand, and our effectiveness on the job.
So busy are our minds and so many our thoughts, that they can claim all of our attention, including our capacity for mindfulness, our capacity of soul that is always, to quote St. Teresa of Avila, “calmly absorbed in remembrance of God.” Being watchful, in the deepest sense, is not a strained concentration of thought on God but rather a realization that our anxious thought processes are not the totality of our spiritual awareness. We cannot stop thinking, but we can, at least at times, relativize its dominance in our lives.
The past few days the dominant news story has been a downturn in the global economy and a huge drop in value of the stock market. This morning, however, the stock market is up by 600 points and future indicators are now showing some of the underlying strengths of the economy. As I heard this, I wondered what difference it would have made to my state of being if I had not had access to any of the economic news of the past week. If my attention had not been captured by this potential “crisis,” where could it have been focused? I had a similar experience several weeks ago when my home network signal was not functioning. I found myself fully preoccupied and agitated by the fact that I might not be able to “get online” that day. I spent some hours searching out and responding to the cause of the problem, including a lengthy time waiting on hold on the telephone for an agent to answer. During that time and those agitated and frustrated moments was I really living my life?
Restlessness of mind is not new. What may be new, however, is the number of possessions and concerns that we have to feed that restlessness. Is it possible that the more informed we become, the less awake and aware we are? Paradoxically, we must learn stillness to awaken. At our depth we live in a state of prayer in which we are fully awake to the coming of the Lord in each moment. On the other hand, our illusion of activity based on our anxious and frantic thoughts is a state of sleep. It was once believed that in the afterlife we were but shadows of persons. When life was gone from us, we moved about and acted but without the depth dimension of human personality. In truth, we may often find ourselves in this state in this life. May we find at least some moments today to know and to realize that place in us that is fully awake to the Lord’s loving presence and call within.
Saint Hesychios says the practice of watchful awareness yields “continuous insight into the heart’s depths, stillness of mind unbroken even by thoughts which appear to be good, and the capacity to be empty of all thought.” The deeper our insight into these depths, “the greater the longing with which you will pray.” Saint Teresa also knows this depth-dimension of awareness: “I used to be tormented by this turmoil of thoughts,” she recalls. “A little over four years ago I came to realize by experience that thinking is not the same as mindfulness…. I hadn’t been able to understand why, if the mind is one of the faculties of the soul, it is sometimes so restless. Thoughts fly around so fast…. It was driving me crazy to see the faculties of my soul calmly absorbed in the remembrance of God while my thoughts, on the other hand were wildly agitated.” She learns from her own experience that there is something deep within her that remains absorbed in prayer even amid the whirl of thoughts in her head.
Saint Hesychios sees a direct link between our growth in watchful awareness and the gradual manifestation of the Light of Christ. The two are simultaneous: the more stable and expansive our awareness, the greater the suffusion of awareness in Light. This gradual realization of the loving light of awareness is the simplest and most profound thing that can happen in our lives this side of death. It reveals death’s double-hinged doors.
Martin Laird, A Sunlit Absence, p. 66