The Watchful Mind

A Monk of Mount Athos The Watchful Mind: Teachings on the Prayer of the Heart George Dokos, translator. St Vladimirs Seminary Press, 2014


Written by an anonymous priest-monk living in asceticism on the Holy Mountain of Athos, The Watchful Mind is the fruit of a life of deep prayer. The unknown writer was a hesychast a practitioner of stillness and the Jesus Prayer and in these pages he shares with readers his hidden life, a life filled with spiritual struggles, ecstatic experiences, and mystical revelations. Moved by a burning love for Christ, the author does not give us a neatly composed reflection on the spiritual life, but rather an account of his own passionate search. This deeply personal book is an account of one holy man s unique journey in the life of contemplation. It touches on many aspects of the spiritual and ascetic life, particularly the hesychastic themes of watchfulness, spiritual warfare, and the prayer of the heart.


This profound book written in 1851 and preserved in the library of the Sacred Monastery of Saint Xenophon represents the fruit of holy and spiritual revelations, painful struggles, and divine experiences and ascents of this humble, unknown ascetic of the Holy Mountain.

Nepsis or watchfulness attentiveness through vigilance and stillness is the heart of spiritual prayer and comprises the essence of the message of the Philokalia. This little known text by an unknown author demonstrates that, beyond the recent revival of monasticism on Mount Athos, the prayer of the heart never abated there through the centuries. Indeed, the method of contemplation (theoria) has always remained vibrant in the lives of numerous unseen and unheard hermits.

“In 1851, an anonymous monk on Mount Athos wrote a book on prayer.  The title of the book has been translated as The Watchful Mind: Teachings on the Prayer of the Heart.  It is a book that I cannot recommend for most people because, like much classic Orthodox spiritual writing (the Philokalia, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, The Ascetical Homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, to name a few), it was written for people pursuing the spiritual life, a life in communion with God, in a very specific monastic setting, a setting that exists in very few places in the world today, or some might say—indeed have said—in a setting that does not exist at all in the world any more.  And yet, these texts are nonetheless compelling for us because they bear witness to a relationship with God, an intensity of relationship with God, that many people in the world today long for.

The big danger in reading these books is twofold.  The first is delusion: to think you have attained to the heights of which these holy writers speak.  The second (and most common in my experience) is despondency as you realize that you cannot discipline yourself to attain even to what these writers describe as the preliminary conditions for noetic prayer.  Both delusion and despondency are real possibilities for those who venture into these texts without care and guidance.  Nonetheless, like treasure hunters, some of us are lured into these texts seeking nuggets of helpful guidance in prayer, nuggets that can be applied in the world, in the fallen culture and capitalist economic realities we find ourselves in.  Even in the mud and mire, some of us still long to glimpse the flowers that only grow in alpine meadows.

And here is the good news: it is possible to find wise advice and nuggets of helpful insight in these books written for advanced strugglers in spiritual prayer, advice and insight that is not only helpful for those great athletes of prayer, but also for us in the beginner’s class, those of us in the world, distracted by cares of family and of making a living.  Even here in the world, we can begin to pray and experience some of the low-hanging fruits of prayer.

We must take care, however, to remember that we are barely beginners.  If God grants us an experience in prayer that overwhelms us, it’s only a token to encourage us on the way, not evidence of maturity.  And, we must never forget that as beginners we can be easily deceived (like children enticed by candy from strangers), so we must not hide what we think God is showing us from our spiritual fathers and mothers.  The evil one works in darkness.  Revealing our thoughts to someone else, someone we respect, whose evaluation of our experiences we will respect, this is our main weapon against delusion.  Similarly, as beginners, we must not despair when we see how far we are from the spiritual heights described in these holy books.  Neither do we need to become despondent at our slothfulness or the intensity of the attack of our passions.  We are beginners, babies in the spiritual struggle.  And just as babies can suddenly fall into a temper tantrum and just as suddenly fall out, we too are just beginning to learn to recognize and battle against the passions.”

From Archpriest Michael Gillis “Learning the Prayer of The Heart”. Full text available on-line at:

For nepsis, see further:

For The Philokalia, see further:



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: