“… let us be attentive!”
Three times, in the course of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, worshippers are given this exhortation.
First, just before the reading of the Gospel. Second, at the beginning of the Anaphora (the Great Thanksgiving). And third, after communion before the post-communion thanksgiving.
It is a call away from distraction to single-minded-hearted attention. It is a call out of slumber and sleep of distraction and illusion into the truth of alertness. In other words, “Wake the heck up and pay attention!!” It is a call to remembrance. Paradoxically, this call to remembrance is not a call to retreat into the past or into the future, but into the present. It is the call to be as fully present as possible to God who is fully present to us.
The liturgists of the early Church were offering us the exhortation of St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians:
“Therefore it is said, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. (Ephesians 5.14-17)
One of the fruits of sin is forgetfulness or distraction. Indeed, the concept of “remembrance” is one of the cardinal themes of the Holy Scriptures.
The Passover meal is the great feast of remembrance.
“And Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place; no leavened bread shall be eaten.’ This day you are to go forth, in the month of Abib. And when the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jeb’usites, which he swore to your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a feast to the LORD. Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen with you, and no leaven shall be seen with you in all your territory. And you shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ (Exodus 13.3-8)
In Deuteronomy we hear,
“Take heed lest you forget the LORD your God, by not keeping his commandments and his ordinances and his statutes, which I command you this day: lest, when you have eaten and are full, and have built goodly houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna which your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, `My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ You shall remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth; that he may confirm his covenant which he swore to your fathers, as at this day. And if you forget the LORD your God and go after other gods and serve them and worship them, I solemnly warn you this day that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish, because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God.” (Deuteronomy 8.11-20)
The voice of the prophets agree,
“The way of the Godly is straight; and the way of the Godly is prepared. For the way of the Lord is judgment. We hope in Your name and in the remembrance of You, which our soul desires at night. My spirit rises early in the morning to You, O God, for your commands are a light upon the earth.” (Isaiah 26:7-9)
Jesus says, in the context of the Last Supper,
“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22.19)
When we forget, we walk in foolishness not wisdom. What does the great verse from the book of Proverbs that says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” mean if it does not mean, simply put, “walk constantly (unceasingly) in the awareness of God’s presence and work?”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn is often quoted regarding the danger of forgetting God. In his Templeton Address he says,
“More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
Since then I have spent well-nigh fifty years working on the history of our Revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.
What is more, the events of the Russian Revolution can only be understood now, at the end of the century, against the background of what has since occurred in the rest of the world. What emerges here is a process of universal significance. And if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God.” (Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “The Templeton Address” March 1983)
Forgetting God in the course of our everyday life – the mundane things – is not trivial. It is not just a personal foible. It is one of the most effective tools of the devil, the flesh, and the world. Forgetfulness of God has, according to Solzhenitsyn, changed the course of nations and, therefore, of the history of the world!
To the voice of this 20th century Russian prophet, if I can call him that, let me add two more voices.
First, St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th century Russian elder. He reminds us that prayer is, in essence, being attentive to God.
“The recollection (or remembrance) of God is mentally standing before God in the heart. Everywhere and always God is with us, near to us and in us. But we are not always with Him, since we do not remember Him; and because we do not remember Him, we allow ourselves many things which we would not permit if we did remember. The more firmly you are established in the recollection of God, the more quiet your thoughts will become and the less they will wander. Remembrance of God is something that God Himself grafts upon the soul. But the soul must force itself to persevere and to toil. Work, making every effort to attain the unceasing remembrance of God, and God, seeing how fervently you desire it will give you this constant remembrance of Himself. To succeed in this remembrance it is advisable to accustom oneself to the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,’ holding in mind the thought of God’s nearness, His presence in the heart. [If one prays the Jesus Prayer when one is idle for a time, while driving, doing dishes, etc., will help greatly in building prayer in the heart and mind.] To pray does not only mean to stand in prayer. To keep the mind and heart turned towards God and directed towards Him…this is already prayer.” (St. Theophan the Recluse “The Spiritual Life and How to be Attuned to It”)
“I have explained to you briefly two aspects or two levels of prayer, namely: prayer which is read, when we pray to God with the prayers of others, and one’s mental prayer, where we ascend mentally to God through contemplation of God, dedicating all to God, and often crying out to Him from our hearts.1
But this is still not all. There is a third aspect or level of prayer, which makes up true prayer, and for which the first two aspects are only preparation. This is the unceasing turning of the mind and heart to God, accompanied by interior warmth or burning of the spirit. This is the limit to which prayer should aspire, and the goal which every prayerful laborer should have in mind, so that he does not work uselessly in the work of prayer.” (St. Theophan, “Homily 3, On Prayer”)
Second, St. Justin Popovich, 20th century theologian, writer, and critic of the church’s life. He reminds us of the struggle that attentiveness requires.
“It is by the ascesis of faith that the treatment and cure of a soul which is sick with the passions is begun. Once faith begins to live in a man, the passions begin to be uprooted from his soul. But ‘until the soul becomes intoxicated with faith in God, until it comes to feel faith’s power,’ it can neither be healed of the passions nor overcome the material world. There is both a negative side to the ascesis of faith, freedom from sinful matter, and a positive side, oneness with God.
The soul, which was dispersed by the senses among the things of this world, is brought back to itself by the ascesis of faith, by fasting from material things and by devoting itself to a constant remembrance of God. This is the foundation of all good things. Freedom from enslavement to sinful matter is essential for advancement in the spiritual life. The beginning of this new way of life is found in the concentration of one’s thoughts on God, in incessant pondering on the words of God, and in a life of poverty.
Through faith the mind, which was previously dispersed among the passions, is concentrated, freed from sensuality, and endowed with peace and humility of thought. When it lives by the senses in a sensual world, the mind is sick. With the help of faith, however, the mind is delivered from the prison of this world, where it has been stifled by sin, and enters into the new age, where it breathes in a wondrous new air. “The sleep of the mind” is as dangerous as death, and it is therefore essential to rouse the mind by faith to the performance of spiritual works, by which man will overcome himself and drive out the passions. ‘Drive out self, and the enemy will be driven from your side.’
In the ascesis of faith, man is asked to act according to a paradox that denies understanding: ‘Be dead in your life, and you will live after death.’ By faith the mind is healed and acquires wisdom. The soul becomes wise when it stops ‘consorting shamelessly with promiscuous thoughts.’ ‘Love of the body is a sign of unbelief.’ Faith frees the intellect from the categories of the senses and sobers it by means of fasting, by pondering on God, and by vigils.
Intemperance and a full stomach cloud the mind, distract it, and disperse it among fantasies and passions. The knowledge of God cannot be found in a body that loves pleasure. It is from the seed of fasting that the blade of a healthy understanding grows–and it is from satiety that debauchery comes, and impurity from excess.
The thoughts and desires of the flesh are like a restless flame in a man, and the way to healing is to plunge the intellect into the ocean of the mysteries of Holy Scripture. Unless it is freed from earthly possessions, the soul cannot be freed from disturbing thoughts, nor feel peace of mind without dying to the senses. The passions darken the thoughts and blind the mind. Troubled, chaotic thoughts arise from an abuse of the stomach.
Shame and the fear of God steady the tumult of the mind; the lack of this shame and this fear disturb the balance of the understanding, making it fickle and unstable. The mind is only on a firm foundation if it keeps the Lord’s commandments and is ready to endure suffering and affliction. It is enslaved by the things of life, it is darkened. Collecting himself through faith, a man awakens his intellect towards God, and by prayerful silence cleanses his mind and overcomes the passions. The soul is restored to health by silence. It is therefore necessary to train oneself to silence–and this is a labor that brings sweetness to the heart. It is through silence that a man reaches peace from unwarranted thoughts.
Faith brings peace to the intellect and, in bringing it, uproots rebellious thoughts. Sin is the source of restlessness and strife in the thoughts and is also the source of man’s struggle against heaven and with other men. “Be at peace with yourself, and you will bring peace to heaven and to earth.” Until faith appears, the intellect is dispersed among the things of this world; it is by faith that this fragmentation of the intellect is overcome. The wandering of the thoughts is provoked by the demon of harlotry, as is the wandering of the eyes by the spirit of uncleanness.
By faith the intellect is confirmed in pondering God. The way of salvation is that of the constant remembrance of God. The intellect separated from remembrance of God is like a fish out of water. The freedom of a true man consists in his freedom from the passions, in his resurrection with Christ, and in a joyous soul.
The passions can only be overcome by the practice of the virtues, and every passion must be fought to the death. Faith is the first and chief weapon in the struggle with the passions, for faith is the light of the mind that drives away the darkness of the passions and the strength of the intellect that banishes sickness from the soul. Faith bears within itself not only its own principle and substance, but the principle and substance of all the other virtues–developing as they do one from the other and encircling one another like the annual rings of a tree. If faith can be said to have a language, that language is prayer. (St. Justin Popovich [Trans. Asterios Gerostergios], Orthodox Faith and Life in Christ, (Institute For Byzantine And Modern Greek Studies, 1997), pp. 123-127)
The ascesis that salvation requires is the struggle (warfare) to live “in the present” and “in The Presence,” and to “be present.” To be attentive and awake is to become open, receptive, and responsive to God, others, and the world around us. In essence, it is to live “in spirit and in truth”; to obey the command of our Savior to do what can only be done if we are all of these – to love.