Lost Teachings of Ancient Christianity: The Watch of the Heart
Author: Ted Nottingham
Some of the most powerful and applicable spiritual teachings of Christianity remain unknown to the general population, even after two millenia. These teachings were preserved in monasteries and were often instructions to monks on inner warfare, internal self-awareness, on ascetical efforts, and efforts of spiritual discipline for their development and awakening to spiritual reality.
These teachings were never meant to be for the few or for specially called out people, or for people with a particular vocation. These teachings are for all people, and this science of spiritual development is one that is available to humanity, not merely to those who have special access to this material. The split between the East and the West in 1054, that is, between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, in many ways cut those of us in the West off from these profound wisdom treasures which are still as valid today as they were in the 4th, 6th and 10th centuries.
Let’s take a look at one of these marvelous gifts to humanity that have come down, so hidden, though they were not meant to be. One of them is known as the Watch of the Heart. The Desert Fathers of Christianity used this approach as a central method to help people unify themselves around the consciousness of the Divine. The Watch of The Heart translates as self-observation, that is, observation of what is actually taking place within one’s psychological and emotional life. Instead of taking for granted every thought and emotion that comes to us and calling it “I”, letting it take over in the present moment and cause all sorts of random havoc, we become more objectively aware of this activity within our minds and emotions through a process of inner separation. For instance, if thoughts enter that have negative and violent qualites, we consciously resist them rather than take them as a manifestation of our identity.
There is a graphic and rather crude expression of this methodology to be found in ancient writings which is as follows: When we see the snake coming in through the hole under the door — when the thought is about to enter your heart and take you over, and cause you to act out —you must cut off the head of the snake. This forceful teaching makes it very clearly that if we allow any emotion or thought to come in unguarded and enter our minds and hearts, the result is that we ascent to it, we agree with it, accept it, receive it—only to become captives of it. So, when the suggestion which initially appears to us is ascented to, we become captive to it and we act out its wrongful expression. The Desert Fathers perceived that what happens is a universal phenomena: something comes into our mind, we mull it over, we let it enter into our heart, we bond with it, and then we become the thought or emotion.
Most of you know that we often hear a piece of music in our heads out of nowhere, and we cannot even trace where it came from — it is just stuck there. The same is true with many thoughts and emotions. Sometimes we pick them up from the environment. Think of how you feel after watching a violent horror movie. Those negative elements of fear, violence, tension or anguish fill us, and we need to be cleansed from them. So this teaching is very much a contemporary recognition of the human condition. Jesus said it loud and clear: we must cleanse the inside of the cup, meaning our inner life, our psychological life, our spiritual life. We cannot go around with heavy, negative thoughts and think that we are going to progress anywhere in the spiritual life, or please God in any way.
We certainly cannot call ourselves ‘religious people’ when we live in these lower states of consciousness, acting out in any old way from the darkest parts of ourselves. This psychological work, from the Christian perspective is spiritual warfare, that is, the battle to lift ourselves out of anything that drags us down. In many ways, the world around us, our culture for example, seems to actively and aggressively seek to drag us into the lowest centers of our being. It is up to each of us to use our free will not to go that way, but to go another way, to take the Royal Road as it has been called and go the way of love instead of the way of judgment, which only leads to violence. We are not speaking merely of morality; we are talking about the purification of the heart. Purification is a key spiritual concept that we find down through the ages, and it begins with the simple practice of inner attention, of developing some kind of self-awareness and self-control that allows us to not be victimized continuously by whatever is going on around us.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could control yourself in such a way that throughout the day you remained consistent in your state of mind no matter what circumstances you find yourself in? For example, something as simple as having to wait in line at a grocery store and causing one to become impatient, stimulating the adrenal glands and all that which generates a state of mind that is far removed from Spirit. This is a daily work effort, and the great genius of the early teachers of Christianity was that they combined this moment-to-moment inner attention with prayer. Attention and prayer became one, so that in every moment we are conscious of the presence of God. We are in tune and in touch, invoking and enabling Spirit to work in our lives. This is, as Jesus said, a pearl of great price and truly a legacy for all people who seek that higher life which gives meaning and purpose to all that we are and to all that we do, and which enables us to consciously bring the invisible into the visible realm of reality, to become part of God’s mission of loving the world as our only true purpose.
May you be self-aware and attentive in discerning and freeing yourself from anything that would hold you captive and pull you down into the darkness of any negative thought or emotion. There is help. You can find it if you honestly and with right motivation seek to live out this discipline. Through the practice of uncritical self-observation, this watching of the heart, you will find your way to The Way, to the Royal Road, to the Way of Christ, the way of self-surrender, the way of consciousness of God, and become aware of the presence of God in every moment. May you find this great gift to humanity, this revelation of truth and wisdom.
About the Author
Ted Nottingham is the author and translator of a dozen books, the producer of numerous televised programs, and the pastor of Northwood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.