The Prayer of the Vigilant Heart
Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, December 30, 2018 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA
King Herod is not only an historic figure he is also a metaphor for a mind out of control, in other words, an impure mind. From impure minds come impure thoughts and from impure thoughts come suffering. We call it in Christian lingo sin. It boils down to this. Sin is anything that causes suffering in others or in ourselves. In the case of Herod his impure, out-of-control mind led to the massacre of innocent children.
This is why we are taught by our Orthodox fathers and mothers to carefully watch what is going on in our minds. They call it vigilance of soul which, in fact, is something we pray for in the Divine Liturgy. Did you hear it? "Grant us," we pray, "vigilance of soul." Vigilance, watchfulness, awareness, consciousness, sacred mindfulness, call it what you will, is the narrow path of the Christian life.
Thoughts are like seeds. If you plant flower seeds you get flowers. Plant poison ivy and that is what will grow. “Good trees," Jesus says, "cannot produce bad fruit." We must be careful what kinds of seeds we plant in our hearts and minds so that from them only good things flow. “Our thoughts,” writes the Elder Thaddeus, “determine our lives.”
The bad seed in Herod's mind was fear. He feared the loss of his power and his throne. To a helpless infant at that! Fear, which has the power to close minds and harden hearts, destroyed in Herod any sense of decency and morality and led him to believe that maintaining his power and throne was more important than the welfare of babies and little children.
We do not know the recipe of Herod's life, so we are left with many unanswered questions. What drove him to such extremes? What was the burden of pain he carried within that made such evil possible? What trauma did he experience in his life to make him so paranoid and insecure? It must have been severe. Here is a truth we would all be most wise to memorize. Jack Kornfield says it like this,
"Pain that is not processed is passed on. Pain that is not transformed is transmitted." "Those who are tormented often become tormentors," is another way to put it. Richard Rohr puts it this way, "If you don't transform your suffering, you will transmit it." The very point of repentance is the transformation of suffering into joy. I can never forget what I once read in a book on Orthodox spirituality, “An angry monk in his cell is like an snake spitting poison on the world.” Certainly, we do not want to be like that angry monk!
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it,” John writes of Christ. Vigilance is a lamp. The Light that it bears is Christ. The eye of the soul is the aperture through which that light enters into the very heart of our darkness. When the aperture is open, then the transformation begins and the darkness is transfigured. Repentance is the word that encompasses this whole miraculous process.
Undoubtedly, there is much in all of us that needs transformation. The deep and authentic spiritual practice that brings real transformation calls for courage - the courage to see ourselves, the courage to love ourselves, the courage to open our hearts wide to allow the Holy Spirit to come and transform our pain into joy and to make us a blessing to the entire world. What comes from the transfigured soul is light. What flows from the transfigured believer is “rivers of living water.” It is God’s will that this Light and these Waters flood the whole world.
In closing, I must put in a plug for the kind of prayer whose very center is the practice of vigilance and watchfulness. That is contemplation and meditation. Let me give you an example.
"An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa what she says to God when she prays. 'I don't say anything," she replied. 'I just listen.' Then the interviewer asked her what God says to her. 'He doesn't say anything,' said Mother Teresa. 'He just listens. And if you don't understand that, I can't explain it to you.'"
This is the perfect prayer, the prayer of vigilance, the prayer of attentiveness, of listening, of openness, the prayer of absolute faith, the kind of prayer that heals and transforms. This is the path we must take.
Here is another example from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom from his wonderful book LIVING PRAYER. A French priest noticed that an elderly man often came to his empty and quiet church and sat in a pew for the longest time. Finally, he mustered the courage to ask him the question, “Sir, what do you do when you come here?” The man answered simply, “I look at Him and He looks at me.”
That is perfection.