By Father Anthony Hughes
This is the third Winter Feast of Light. The Nativity of Christ, Theophany and the Presentation of the Lord are all about the revelation of God, the one true Light, to the world. So, let me begin with a quote from Dr. Jung that, I think is most apropos.
“With a truly tragic delusion…theologians fail to see that it is not a matter of proving the existence of the light, but of blind people who do not know that their eyes could see. It is high time we realized that it is pointless to praise the light and preach it if nobody can see it. It is much more needful to teach people the art of seeing.” — Carl Jung
Simeon and Anna had nurtured the art of seeing over their long lives. The scripture tells us that they had been preparing for this moment. Of Simeon St. Luke writes: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” He had been looking and because of his devout vigilance the Holy Spirit let him in on a secret. He would see the Lord’s Christ before he died.
Of Anna Luke writes: “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of Him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” She, too, had been looking. She had been vigilant and watchful like Simeon, preparing herself to see and receive the Messiah.
The ability to see does not come overnight. It must be nurtured and practiced as we see here, sometimes for a very long time. Eighty-four years for Anna. For us, how long? The practice of seeing is known as watchfulness, vigilance, or mindfulness. It is the fundamental practice of an authentic spiritual life. Without it the spiritual life is anemic. The soul grows weak. In Greek the word is nepsis and we read often of saints called “the neptic fathers” or the “unsleeping ones.” These are saints who developed the art of mindfulness to the degree that even when they slept they were conscious and aware. It is not that they never went to bed, but that their awareness was unaffected by sleep.
Watchfulness, vigilance and mindfulness is the way we train ourselves to see what is before us without attachment or resistance, neither trying to hold on to what is good or push away what is not. It is to see every moment as a gift from God, rich in blessings, unrepeatable and absolutely necessary for our benefit, to know that everything is always changing and to accept that fact with open hearts. It is to see things as they really are, not as we believe them to be, or want them to be, but as they are. This is a practice that calls for great faith. Only those who trust completely in God can embrace life mindfully, as it is and with thanksgiving.
In the anaphora we specifically ask that God will grant us the gift of vigilance. It is a divine virtue, a gift from the “God of Israel who neither slumbers nor sleeps.” It is the oil that filled the lamps of the Five Wise Virgins who took seriously the call to be ready to greet the Bridegroom who comes in the middle of the night. “Blessed is the one whom He shall find awake!” It is what the Lord asked of his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Could you not watch and wait with me one hour?”
Professor Jacob Needleman found in his fascinating book LOST CHRISTIANITY that the Church in our day has grown weak because it has forgotten mindfulness and so has left behind the mystical reality of direct experience of God for the purely rational, moralistic and ethical. Jean Claude Barreau in his introduction to the Olivier Clement’s masterpiece THE ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN MYSTICISM comments that people are leaving Christianity for Eastern religions because they can no longer find in the Church the very things that were at the heart of Christianity from the very beginning. They are still in the heart of the Church. They have never left. We have simply forgotten.
I believe these commentators are correct. We have forgotten the art of nepsis, of being awake, of being able to see clearly and respond wisely and therefore we have lost the vital connection with God that can only come through the conscious experience of union and communion. We must teach again, and to all who want to learn, the art of seeing.
One might compare, wrote Thomas Merton, the journey of the soul to mystical union, by way of pure faith, to the journey of a car on a dark highway. The only way the driver can keep to the road is by using his headlights.
I am afraid that most of the time our headlights are turned off. The practice of mindfulness is turning on the headlights so that we can see the road in front of us. As I tell people all the time, the will of God rolls out before us like a carpet one little step at a time, but if we are not paying attention (being vigilant) to the step we are making, then we will miss it and veer off into either the past or the future and make a royal mess of things.
Simeon and Anna show us what mindfulness, vigilance and watchfulness is. They watched and waited. How long their journey of stripping away the layers of skin from their spiritual eyes – skins of sin, desire, fear, self-centeredness and unconsciousness – took before they were prepared to see the infant Messiah is told by the years of their lives. It is significant that only two among the crowd in the Temple that day were able to see him. Only a few take the narrow path of vigilance it seems, but it is open to all of us.
That is why nepsis has been so highly valued in the Christian tradition of spirituality. It produces great fruit. It is a prerequisite to deep repentance because it brings self-knowledge. It brings peace to the heart and calm to the mind. People are being drawn to the practice in droves outside the Church because we have failed to practice it ourselves. If the Church will not teach it, people will look for it elsewhere. The Holy Spirit will always find a way to reach those who hunger and thirst for deeper things.
Simeon and Anna show us what can happen when the virtue of watchfulness is practiced consistently and patiently. Sooner or later when God wills (for it is always a gift, never automatic) and we are able at last to see, the revelation that Christ and his kingdom are present here and now will dawn in our hearts as dramatically and powerfully as the Second Coming.
~St. Mary Orthodox Church (Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America), Cambridge, MA, http://www.stmaryorthodoxchurch.org/orthodoxy/sermons/2014/presentation-christ.