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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.