Nepsis: νῆψις

“For the ancient fathers, a basic prerequisite for genuine growth in the spiritual life involves a constant attitude of nepsis or watchfulness. The word nepsis (νήψις)in antiquity literally meant to drink no wine, but by extension it also included the metaphorical sense of being sober-minded, sane, alert, and finally vigilant. If one desires to not be under the influence of the passions, if one wishes to not be drunk with anger, with envy, or with desire, one must spiritually speaking drink no wine. The ascetic fathers are also referred to as the neptic fathers.
be sober
This watchfulness is paramount because as Saint Peter warns in his epistle, “Be sober (νήψατε), be vigilant (γρηγορήσατε meaning stay awake); because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.” If you are drunk or asleep, you are obviously defenseless in the face of an attack.”
philokalia 3
The full title of the compilation of writings of the Desert Fathers is ‘The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Father, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect.’ Thus, the full title of the book refers to the original authors as the ‘Neptic Saints’, emphasizing one of their common practices of nepsis or ‘watchfulness’. It refers to much more than general spiritual alertness and vigilance and is the practice of watching all of one’s thoughts and fantasies, thus keeping guard over the heart and mind.
philokalia coniarsis
Anthony Coniaris, in his work ‘Philokalia: the Bible of Orthodox Spirituality’, states: “Nepsis means to be completely present to where we are just as a mother has an attentive ear to the least sound of her baby in the crib even as she talks on the phone or vacuums the rug. Love is attentive and watchful. Bishop Kallistos Ware tells us that ‘watchfulness means, among other things, to be present where we are – at this specific point in space, at this particular moment in time. All too often we are scattered and dispersed, we are living, not with alertness in the present, but with nostalgia in the past, or with misgiving and wishful thinking in the future. . . The neptic man, then, is gathered into the here and now. He is the one who seizes ‘kairos’, the decisive moment of opportunity.”

This may seem to be a rather broad definition, but its broadness captures the all-encompassing nature and importance of nepsis for the spiritual life. Coniaris reminds us: “There is in the mind a deep center where the whole person converges. This center is to be completely tuned in to God. To be completely present to God is the beginning of prayer. The essential part of prayer is this inner attention to God . . .” Thus, nepsis is intimately tied to what was addressed in the previous post – the intellect (nous). “The intellect (nous) is like a bridegroom. St. Ilias the Presbyter said, ‘The intellect that encloses itself within the mind during prayer is like a bridegroom conversing with the bride inside the bridal chamber.’”

Philokalic spirituality presupposes above all that the deep center where the whole person converges should be healed. When the nous (intellect) is darkened through sin, the whole soul is darkened and defiled.
orthodox psychotherapy
Hierotheos Vlachos in his work ‘Orthodox Psychotherapy’ speaks of this healing in terms of two kinds of watchfulness: the guarding of the nous and the guarding of the thoughts. He writes: “The guarding of the nous is a ‘watchtower commanding a view over our whole spiritual life.’ The guarding of the nous has been called ‘light-producing and lightning-producing and light-giving and fire-bearing’ and it surpasses many virtues. The guarding of the nous is that which by Christ’s power can change men from being sinful, indecent, profane, ignorant, uncomprehending and unjust to being just, responsive, pure, holy and wise.”

“Watchfulness is also called the guarding of thoughts.
john ladder
St. John of the Ladder teaches that it is one thing to guard thoughts and another to watch over the nous. Watching over the nous is higher than guarding the thoughts. This is true in the sense that we defined earlier, that the nous is the eye of the soul, the heart, while a thought is what functions in a man’s mind. It is one thing to try to keep the mind pure and another to try to keep the nous, that is the heart, pure. Nevertheless, purity of thoughts is needed, because it is impossible to keep one’s inner self free from sin if one has evil thoughts. The patristic commandment is to concentrate our nous (the soul’s energy and essence), to be watchful of thoughts and to fight against impassioned thoughts. It is essential that we pay attention to our reflections, recollections and notions. Indeed in this struggle to keep the nous pure and have constant remembrance of God, we have to discard the good thoughts as well, because even with good thoughts the nous gradually forms the habit of withdrawing from God.
Silouan 2
The monk Silouan taught: ‘The saints learned how to do battle with the enemy. They knew that the enemy uses intrusive thoughts to deceive us, and so all though their lives they declined such thoughts. At first sight there seems to be nothing wrong about an intrusive thought but soon it begins to divert the nous from prayer, and then stirs up confusion. The rejection of all intrusive thoughts, however apparently good, is therefore essential, and equally essential is it to have a nous pure in God.’ We should protect the eye of the soul from every thought, as we do the eye of the body from every harmful object. When a person becomes accustomed to this holy struggle of laying aside all thoughts, then the nous tastes the goodness of the Lord and acquires purity so that it can distinguish thoughts and ‘store in the treasures of memory those thoughts which are good and have been sent by God, while casting out those which are evil and come from the devil.’”

Thus, the clarion call that comes to us from the Scriptures and the Fathers is “Watch and pray.” In the words of Philotheus, “At every hour and moment let us guard the heart with all diligence from thoughts that obscure the soul’s mirror, for in that mirror Jesus Christ, the wisdom and power of God the Father, is . . .luminously reflected.”
Philokalia Volume 2 Cavarnos s
The Philokalia, that wonderful collection of writings by the fathers on prayer of the heart, has as its full title, The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Fathers, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect. Little wonder it is known popularly as the Philokalia. That word, Philokalia, means “the love of beautiful things.” It is not a reference to expensive, decorative items, but to the things which are made beautiful by their union with God. All things are beautiful inasmuch as they are united to God, Who is Beauty itself.Another important word in the title is the adjective, “Neptic” (νηπτικός). It has a variety of translations: sober, watchful, vigilant. It refers to those who, having their earthly senses purified, have become truly aware of God and dwell in Him. This title is especially used to describe the fathers of the Hesychast tradition in Orthodoxy, the tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness associated with the monastic life.
philokalia greek
To describe these fathers as “sober,” is very insightful. For our experience with the passions, the disordered desires of our body and soul, is often an experience of drunkenness.
For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thess. 5:7-10).

The man who is drunk is famously unaware of his surroundings. He stumbles physically, mentally and spiritually, barely aware of his own imbalance. The passions have the same ability to blind us. In anger we are aware primarily of our own anger. What we see, we see through the haze of the energy that pulses through our mind and body.
All of the passions have this property. They consume us and become the primary lens through which we see the world and with which we react. Thus we are described as in “delusion.” Those who see the world through their passions do not see the truth of things. They see their own passions.

There is a social aspect to the passions – they are not restricted to an individual’s experience. Whole societies, or significant segments within it, can be drunk with the same passions. Thus a whole society can be drunk with the passion of racism (a mixture of ignorance, superstition, fear, anger, etc.). Such a passion is reinforced by being repeatedly affirmed by those around us. Many aspects of culture are simply a communion of the passions.

We live in an age where the passions are carefully studied and used as the objects of marketing. Those things that are sold to us (even those that supposedly appeal to our intellect) are marketed to our passions. Apple computer famously researches the “feel” of its packaging, presenting a sensual experience that is associated with quality, precision and value. It is a successful strategy across the whole of our culture.

However, those who are “drunk” with the passions also yield themselves as victims to their intoxication. Political parties pour massive amounts of money into their campaigns simply to create and nurture the passions by which people vote. We are not governed by reason or informed decisions. Most of what you or I think about political subjects is a description of the passions to which we are enslaved. The political cynicism of many is, to a degree, a recognition of our disgust with the politics of passion.

By the same token, most of the opinions we nurture are equally the product of our passions. We think, we believe, we decide, we act largely in accord with the passions to which we are enthralled. Theological debates are generally arguments between one person’s passions and another’s. It is a conversation between drunks.

And so the Church values the holy, sober fathers. These are the men and women who have walked the narrow way of salvation, “putting to death the deeds of the body.” Inner stillness is the state of freedom from disordered passions. The neptic fathers do not cease to desire (they are not Buddhists). But their desires have been purified and healed – restored to proper order. Sobriety means desiring the right thing in the right way at the right time. Traditionally, this purification and healing come as a result of a life of repentance, fasting and prayer. It slays demons and heals the wounds of the soul. All things are brought into obedience to Christ.

It is the life that Scripture enjoins:
Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he my devour. Rsist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).
peter apostle
There is a story in the desert fathers that illustrates such vigilance. A community of monks once heard a rumor that one of their number was harboring a woman in his cell. They went to the elder and complained. While they became yet more agitated, the elder slipped away to the cell of the erring monk. Finding the woman there, he hid her in a large earthen vessel. He placed the lid on the vessel and sat on it. Soon the angry monks arrived at the cell and began to search for the woman. Out of respect for the elder they overlooked the vessel on which he was sitting. Finding nothing, they apologized to the erring monk and left. The elder, rose from his seat and said to the monk, “Pay attention to yourself.”

It is a call to sobriety. The angry monks were drunk with their own self-righteousness. Their sin was at least as great as the erring monk. The elder alone was sober. His sobriety hid the sin of a man from those who would have harmed him, and revealed the sin to the one who needed to be healed. The word of healing was kind and without judgment. “Pay attention to yourself.” It is the simple word of St. Peter, “Be sober.”

For all of us, in every moment of the day with regard to all things and all people, it is good to pay proper attention to ourselves.
Isaac the Syrian
This prayer of St. Isaac of Syria, great among the neptic fathers, is one of my favorites:
I knock at the door of Thy compassion, Lord: send aid to my scattered impulses which are drunk with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness.
Thou canst see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition – though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them.
Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find relief from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Thy gift, for without the power of Thy grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them, be able to be still from great distraction.

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