1st Sunday of Advent
Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; 1 Co 1:3-9;Mk 13:33-37
Nepsis is a Greek word that has a very long history in the monastic tradition. In fact, it goes right back to the very beginnings of Christian monasticism in the deserts of Egypt in the 300s. Comparable words in English would be watchfulness, sobriety, mindfulness, vigilance, alertness. It is very much the theme of our gospel this morning. The opening line is, “Jesus said to his disciples: Be Watchful! Be Alert!” And the closing line is, “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
It seems like it is part of our human nature to become flabby (to use Fr. Gerard’s word from yesterday), to become lazy, dull, sleepy, not on our guard – all those things that are the opposite of nepsis. It’s similar to the law of entropy. It takes effort to be vigilant; it doesn’t take effort to be slothful; like electricity, we take the path of least resistance.
When playing sports one has to be very much mindful and vigilant and alert. Think of a game of tennis. You have to keep all your focus and concentration on where that ball is and where it’s going. To not be attentive is to lose. I remember playing varsity baseball in high school and being in center field one game. I was daydreaming and a ball was hit out to me. I was delayed in my reaction to it and I flubbed up the play. I remember the coach coming out of the dugout and yelling out to me in his frustration. The contents of what he said aren’t quite suitable for a church setting. But he had a right to expect me to be vigilant when I was out in the field. I let down the coach and I let down the team.
In a way, it isn’t realistic to be alert and focused all the time. St. Bruno used the example of a bow and arrow. If a bow is kept taut all the time it loses its spring. You need to unfasten the string when you’re not using it and let the wooden part spring back to its natural position. In the same way we need time for relaxation and leisure to balance our times of watchfulness. But at the same time, we need to be on our guard that our lives don’t get out of balance and we end up spending too much time in relaxation and leisure and not enough time being on our guard and vigilant.
In another way it is possible to be alert on some level all the time. I’m thinking of a mother being in the house with her small children. She’s concentrating on cooking or balancing the checkbook or something, but at the same time she is very much alert and attentive to the sounds coming from the next room where her children are playing. And she’s vigilant like that, not for her own sake, but out of love and devotion for her children. I see the same thing in a mother turkey in the wild with a bunch of little chicks. She is constantly on the lookout for any sign of danger.
I mentioned earlier the word entropy. It comes from a law in thermodynamics but is used in common language to refer to a gradual decline in to disorder. Synonyms would be: deterioration, degeneration, crumbling, decline, degradation, decomposition, breaking down, collapse. It’s the idea that things in the universe are gradually winding down. The sun will eventually burn out. If you spin a top it will eventually stop spinning and come to a standstill. If you don’t maintain a house it will eventually fall into disrepair, the paint will fall off, and it will begin to decompose. Similarly, in our own lives, there’s an insidious tendency to become selfish and lazy and we end up spending way too much time vegetating in front of the TV or a computer screen. Our precious minutes and hours and days that we have been given as a gift, as something to be used for God’s glory, end up being squandered on meaningless wastes of time.
Periodically, we need to stop and take stock of how we are using our time – what we are devoting our energies to. There are passing things, and then there are things that will last. It’s easy to get caught up in things that really don’t matter. We need to refocus our attention on things that will have eternal significance. We need to rearrange our priorities and get things in order again. Our closing prayer at the end of Mass will say, “. . . for even now, as we walk amid passing things, you teach us by them to love the things of heaven and hold fast to what endures.” The season of Advent is an opportunity, given to us by Mother Church, to take stock of our lives and arrest the relentless slide from order to disorder.
One good place to start in our nepsis house-cleaning and rearranging is our thoughts. Our actions quite often flow from thoughts. If we want to nip unwanted behavior in the bud, it pays to be vigilant in regard to our thoughts and emotions. Those thoughts arrive in our minds uninvited – we have no control of them up to that point. But once we become aware of them, then our own volition or will comes into play. We have free will, we have choice. We are different from the rest of the animal world in that way; we are not determined blindly by our instincts and drives. We have an intellect to reason things out; we have a will to freely make choices. But along with these special gifts goes the responsibility and obligation to use them. If a thought of anger comes up or a thought of lust, we mustn’t be like the animals and let those thoughts be in charge. We are the masters of our destiny.
We can’t just go through our lives reacting to stimuli. We should try to be proactive rather than reactive. When we become aware of a new thought in our consciousness, if we are vigilant we will right away assess it as something constructive or destructive of who we want to be. If it is not good, we can determine to let it drift right on by; we can choose not to get on that horse. The more we engage that dangerous thought, the more emotion it stirs up, and the harder it is to turn it off. This practice takes more effort at first, but with practice it becomes easier. Toward the end of the fourth century a monk named Evagrius categorized eight of these dangerous thoughts to be on our guard against: gluttony, impurity, avarice, sadness, anger, vainglory, pride, and acedia (which could be translated as spiritual sloth, or apathy).
Lastly, it’s not a bad idea to examine our motivation for being watchful or vigilant or mindful. Ideally, we should want to do it for the love of God and the greater glory of God and not just for our own selfish desire of self-improvement and self-mastery. The mother at home alert to the noises of her children is paying attention out of love and devotion to her children. I felt bad in center field because I had let down the coach and the team – and of course a little bit because it made me look like an air-head! The choices we make and the thoughts we allow our minds to chew on should be for the long-term instead of the short-term. 500 years from now all that will really matter is what we did for God and what did we do for our neighbor.