Russian monk lighting candles in church.

A Scattered Life and an Attentive Life 

by St Ignatius (Brianchininov)

Excerpt­ed from The Field: Cul­ti­vat­ing Sal­va­tion [The Col­lect­ed Works of St Ignatius (Bri­an­chani­nov), Vol­ume 1], Paper­back — 374 pages — $19.95– ISBN 978–0‑88465–376‑9. Avail­able direct­ly from the pub­lish­er or from any good book­store or online bookseller.


The sons of the world con­sid­er dis­trac­tion to be inno­cent, but the Holy Fathers con­sid­er it to be the begin­ning of all evil. (Say­ings of the Desert Fathers, “On St Pimen the Great”)

A per­son who is entrenched in his scat­tered way of liv­ing has a very super­fi­cial and shal­low appre­ci­a­tion of all things, even the most impor­tant ones. 

The scat­tered man is usu­al­ly inconstant—the emo­tions of his heart are lack­ing in depth and strength, and so are fee­ble and short-lived. 

As a moth flut­ters from flower to flower, so the scat­tered man pass­es from one earth­ly plea­sure to the next, from one use­less activ­i­ty to another. 

The scat­tered man lacks love for his neighbor—he sees his neighbor’s suf­fer­ing with no twinge of sym­pa­thy and very flip­pant­ly lays intol­er­a­ble bur­dens on others. 

The scat­tered man is pro­found­ly affect­ed by sor­rows, since he nev­er expects them; he always expects pleasures. 

If the sor­row is heavy, yet short-lived, the scat­tered man quick­ly for­gets it in the noise of his con­stant dis­trac­tions. A long-last­ing sor­row destroys him. 

The scat­tered way of life itself turns on the one who is devot­ed to it—sometimes it becomes bor­ing to him, as to one who has nev­er acquired any real knowl­edge or impres­sions, he descends into a dead­ly, pro­found depression. 

The scat­tered life, so dan­ger­ous in essence, is espe­cial­ly harm­ful in the doing of God’s work, in the work of sal­va­tion, which requires con­stant vig­i­lance and attention. 

Watch and pray, lest you enter into temp­ta­tion, (Matt 26:41) said the Lord to His disciples. 

I say unto all, Watch!, (Mk 13:37) He said to every Chris­t­ian, con­se­quent­ly to us as well. 

He who leads a scat­tered life direct­ly con­tra­dicts the com­mand­ment of the Lord Jesus Christ with his very life. 

All the saints assid­u­ous­ly avoid­ed dis­trac­tion. Con­stant­ly, or at the very least as often as pos­si­ble, they con­cen­trat­ed their thoughts with­in them­selves, pay­ing atten­tion to every move­ment of the mind and heart, direct­ing these accord­ing to the com­mands of the Gospels. 

The habit of vig­i­lance over the self pro­tects one from an absent way of life, espe­cial­ly in the midst of loud world­ly plea­sures that sur­round one from every side. The atten­tive man remains alone with­in him­self even in the midst of a crowd. 

Hav­ing learned for him­self the impor­tance of atten­tion and the harm of scat­tered thoughts, Abba Agath­on said, “With­out force­ful vig­i­lance over our­selves we will not progress in a sin­gle virtue.” (Apoph­theg­ma­ta)

It is fool­ish to waste our short tem­po­ral life (giv­en to us to pre­pare for eter­ni­ty) on earth­ly con­cerns alone, on sat­is­fy­ing our insignif­i­cant, end­less, insa­tiable desires and pas­sions, friv­o­lous­ly rush­ing from one per­ish­able plea­sure to the next, for­get­ting about or only some­times remem­ber­ing about immi­nent, majes­tic, and ter­ri­fy­ing eternity. 

God’s work—this is obvious!—should be exam­ined and stud­ied with great rev­er­ence and atten­tive­ness; oth­er­wise, a per­son will be able unable to con­sid­er it, or to learn of it. 

That great work of God, the cre­ation of man, and the renew­al of man after the fall through Christ’s redemp­tion, should be stud­ied in great detail by every Chris­t­ian. With­out this knowl­edge, he will nev­er know and be able to ful­fill the call­ing of a Chris­t­ian. Knowl­edge of the great work of God can­not be acquired while lead­ing a scat­tered life! 

The com­mand­ments of God are giv­en not only to the exter­nal man, but more so to the inner man. They encom­pass all the thoughts and emo­tions of a per­son, all his sub­tlest move­ments. Liv­ing accord­ing to these com­mand­ments is impos­si­ble with­out con­stant vig­i­lance and pro­found atten­tive­ness. Vig­i­lance and atten­tive­ness are impos­si­ble in a scat­tered way of life. 

Sin, —and the dev­il who wields it as a weapon, —sneaks qui­et­ly into the mind and heart. A per­son must be con­stant­ly on guard against his invis­i­ble ene­my. How will he stand guard when he is devot­ed to his scat­tered thoughts? 

The scat­tered man is like a house with­out doors or locks—he can pro­tect none of his trea­sures, which are all stolen by thieves, mur­der­ers, and prostitutes. 

A scat­tered life, full of the cares of this world, makes a per­son weak and stu­pid, just like a per­son who eats and drinks too much (cf. Luke 21:34). Such a per­son is stuck to the earth, busy only with vain and tem­po­rary mat­ters. Serv­ing God becomes a sec­ondary mat­ter to a scat­tered man; to him, the very thought of such ser­vice seems to him wild, murky, and intol­er­a­bly heavy. 

An atten­tive life lessens the effect of phys­i­cal emo­tions on a per­son, while sharp­en­ing, strength­en­ing, and form­ing the influ­ence of spir­i­tu­al emo­tions. A scat­tered life, in con­trast, has a soporif­ic effect on the spirit—it feeds on the con­stant activ­i­ty of phys­i­cal emotions. 

It is use­less for the scat­tered man to call his scat­tered way of life harm­less! He is only prov­ing the depth of his own sick­ness, which has tak­en him over com­plete­ly. This sick­ness is so pro­found, it so dulls the fine emo­tions of the soul, that the infect­ed soul does not even rec­og­nize its dis­eased state. 

Those who desire to learn atten­tive­ness must reject all emp­ty activ­i­ty in their lives. 

Pri­vate and social respon­si­bil­i­ties are not con­sid­ered part of the scat­tered life—distraction is always con­nect­ed to a waste of time or activ­i­ties that are so mean­ing­less, they can very cor­rect­ly be con­sid­ered a waste of time. 

Use­ful earth­ly work, espe­cial­ly ser­vice to one’s coun­try done with con­sci­en­tious dili­gence, does not pre­vent the devel­op­ment of atten­tive­ness to one­self. In fact, it helps to form it in the first place. Even more use­ful are monas­tic obe­di­ences, when they are ful­filled in the prop­er man­ner. An active way of life is a per­fect way to acquire vig­i­lance over one­self, and this path is rec­om­mend­ed by the Holy Fathers for all who want to learn self attentiveness. 

Atten­tion to one­self in soli­tude brings price­less spir­i­tu­al gifts, but such soli­tude is pos­si­ble only for men of mature spir­i­tu­al age, who have long labored in piety, at first learn­ing atten­tive­ness dur­ing an active life. 

Oth­er peo­ple are a great help to a per­son striv­ing to learn atten­tive­ness in an active life, because they remind him of how he con­stant­ly los­es atten­tion. Being a sub­or­di­nate is the best way to become attentive—no one teach­es atten­tive­ness to the self as much as a strict manager. 

As you do your work among peo­ple, do not allow your­self to waste time in emp­ty words and fool­ish jokes. If you do cler­i­cal work, avoid flights of fan­ta­sy. Soon, your con­science will become sharp; it will begin to show you every time you lapse into scat­tered thoughts, since each lapse is a breach of the Gospel law. Amen. 


St Ignatius (Bri­an­chani­nov) (1807–1867) was a pro­lif­ic author of Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian asceti­cal works. Pub­lished toward the end of his life, his writ­ings con­tin­ued to grow in pop­u­lar­i­ty long after his death. Along with his con­tem­po­rary, St Theo­phan the Recluse, St Ignatius is now con­sid­ered a fore­most author­i­ty on Ortho­dox spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. He was can­on­ized by the Russ­ian Ortho­dox Church Abroad in 1988. His writ­ings have pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in Eng­lish as The Are­na and On the Prayer of Jesus. His feast day is cel­e­brat­ed on April 30th/May 13th.