Sobriety, the Guardian of the Spirit

Sobriety is a guardian of the spirit. It stands on guard day and night at the gates of the heart, to sort out the thoughts that present themselves, to listen to their suggestions and to observe their intrigues.

In the first place, control the imagination strictly: it is the only route by which Satan can slip thoughts into the mind to deceive it.

Then preserve in your heart deep silence, an undisturbed tranquility.

Next, invoke the help of Jesus unceasingly and humbly.

Finally, keep the thought of death alive in your soul.

This is the way for that guardian, sobriety, to stop evil thoughts from approaching.

— Hesychius of Sinai

The early church fathers and mothers often spoke about the practice of “guarding the heart,” what Hesychius calls sobriety. The heart was understood to be the center and deepest part of our humanity – our truest self. It is the place where our humanity and divinity reside. It is not so much about emotions and sentimentality as it is the place of wisdom, decision-making, and connection with God, each other, and ourselves.

This sobriety or guarding the heart is an ongoing spiritual practice. We must guard ourselves against fears, anger, distractions, disappointments, and speculation about the future. Guarding the heart is about living in and acting out of a place of prayer – that place where we are still and know that He is God. We must turn away from anything that would distract us from a life of prayer and sanctification. Hesychius’ guidance offers four practices:

  1. Controlling our thoughts;
  2. Preserving and trusting silence;
  3. The Jesus Prayer; and
  4. Remembrance of our mortality.

This does not mean, however, that we simply isolate ourselves or ignore the present circumstances of our life or the state of the world. Rather, sobriety is the means by which we  engage life at a deeper level. It is the means by which we prayerfully discern which of our words and actions are life giving, and which are not. It is also the means by which we prayerfully discern to which voices we will listen – and there are many voices demanding our time and attention.

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