Looking at my children as they grow up, I tend to think not so much about their past, as their future. This is at least in part due to a comment from Dr. Philip Mamalakis during one of his classes. He said that parenting is done with a long term view, providing children with a path for growth so that, when they leave the parental home, they are mature enough and have the necessary tools to make the right decisions in life and to face its difficulties. A parent’s job is to help children mature in every aspect of life, especially in their faith.
As I think of my children’s growth, I also think of spiritual relationships. In the sacrament of confession, the priest prays:
My spiritual son/daughter, you have confessed your sins to God in the presence of my humble person ; I who am an unworthy sinner have no power to forgive sins on earth, except for God Himself. But for the sake of that word uttered by God to the Apostles, after the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and saying, "If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained," (John 20:23) we too are reassured by that word and in turn say to you: Whatsoever you have in repentance confessed in the presence of my humble person, and whatsoever you may have not said through ignorance or forgetfulness, whatever it may be, may the Lord God of love and mercy accept your confession and forgive you in this present world, and in the world to come.
If priests and bishops (and, in some cases, monks and nuns) are spiritual parents, what do they hope for from their “spiritual sons and daughters” as the prayer above puts it? The answer is that they hope for the same thing parents hope for their children: continued growth and maturity in the spiritual life.
Even more than physical maturity, spiritual maturity does not mean isolation or complete independence. The saints had (and today’s saints continue to have) guides in the spiritual life: St. Moses the Ethiopian had St. Dorotheos, St. Symeon the New Theologian had St. Symeon the pious, St. Timothy had St. Paul. Every spiritual father has a spiritual father. So, one element of spiritual maturity is having a trustworthy guide, someone who is faithful to Christ and to whom we can open our hearts.
Two related elements of spiritual maturity are sobriety and watchfulness, which both apostles Peter (1 Pet. 5:8) and Paul (1 Thess 5:6) mention. St. Hesychios says that
“[w]atchfulness 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. [...]
In one who is attempting to dam up the source of evil thoughts and actions, continuity of watchful attention in the intellect is produced by fear of hell and fear of God, by God’s withdrawals from the soul, and by the advent of trials which chasten and instruct. For these withdrawals and unexpected trials help us to correct our life, especially when, having once experienced the tranquillity of watchfulness, we neglect it. 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” (The Philokalia Vol 1., p. 163).
As we can see from St. Hesychios’s words, watchfulness (and therefore spiritual maturity) is something that is attained gradually, with patience and perseverance. And it is useful to note that the first step mentioned by the saint is continuity of attention. In a world of thirty-second commercials, ten-second camera cuts, and five-seconds sound bites, continuity of attention requires intentionality - it requires us to make time to work on our attention, specifically attention to our minds and hearts. The prayers of the church both private (such as morning and evening prayers) and corporate (such as the Liturgy, vespers, or paraklesis) are particularly suited at guiding us to attention and watchfulness.
Certain prayers speak specifically to aspects of watchfulness. A prayer of small compline, usually read or chanted in front of the icon of Christ during the Salutations of the Theotokos, guides us to pray
“And grant to us, O God, alert mind, prudent thinking, sober heart, light sleep free of any satanic fantasy.”
A morning prayer which comes to us from St. Basil the Great says: “
And grant us to pass through the night of the whole present life with watchful heart and sober thought, ever expecting the coming of the bright and appointed day of Thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, whereon the judge of all shall come with glory to reward each according to his deeds. May we not be found fallen and idle, but watching, and upright in activity, ready to accompany Him into the joy and divine palace of His glory, where there is the ceaseless sound of those that keep festival, and the unspeakable delight of those that behold the ineffable beauty of Thy countenance. For Thou art the true Light that enlightenest and sanctifiest all, and all creation doth hymn Thee unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
And in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we pray
“Grant also, O God, to those who pray with us, progress in life, faith, and spiritual understanding. Grant that they always worship You with awe and love, partake of Your Holy Mysteries without guilt or condemnation, and be deemed worthy of Your celestial Kingdom.”
I hope that these prayers remain close to our hearts and inspire us to journey together on the path to watchfulness, to spiritual maturity, to salvation.
With love in Christ,