Some Initial Thoughts About Vigils
Vigil, throughout the night, was an ascetic practice instituted by our Savior, valued by His holy Apostles, and continued by Christians throughout the ages. Saint John Chrysostom pointed out to the faithful that Christ frequently went up into the mountain to pray in order to teach us to keep vigil in a special place where we can be alone with God and at a special time in which distractions are less intrusive (Homily on Matthew). In other words, praying during the night is divinely-ordained ascetic practice given by the Lord Himself to the faithful. Saint Jerome likewise noted how the Apostles kept vigil singing the psalms until the earth quaked and the guards believed, giving us an example of the power of prayer throughout the night (Letter 109). The Apostolic Constitutions (5.19) directly refer to vigils and the need for Christians to “assemble together in the Church, watch and pray and beseech God, in your night-long vigil, reading the Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms, until the rooster crows.”
Vigil is from the Latin vigilia meaning wakefulness. Τhe corresponding Greek term ἀγρυπνία likewise has connotations of sleeplessness and watching. And being watchful, wakeful, and alert in soul when the body is drawn towards sleep are all very much a part of the practice of stillness and hesychasm. The Saints loved vigil, perhaps more than any other ascetic practice, because vigils transformed that period of time in which so much sin occurs into a time of holiness. Vigils make the nights more radiant than the day. Vigils enable the Christian to step out of time and into eternity. And vigils allow for purer communication with God Himself. That is why Saint Gregory the Theologian cried, “O nights of vigil, and psalmody, and standing which lasts from one day to another! …O cry in the night, piercing the clouds and reaching unto Him that dwelleth in the heavens!” (Oration 8)
The All-Night Vigil is an important part of the Orthodox Christian life of worship, but properly speaking it should be scheduled for the time when people would otherwise be getting ready for sleep. Vigils are correctly practiced today, as they were in the ancient Church, on the Holy Mountain of Athos. Athonite patronal vigils last between 12 and 14 hours, with the longest vigil being in honor of Saint Athanasios the Athonite and lasting around 17 hours. And yet for the monk, every night is a small vigil of about 8 hours. During the night, the monk feels especially alive and active in a motionless stall, saying again and again that powerful prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy one me.” During that time, there is no other purpose or aim in life, other than communication with God and entry into His Kingdom. And this time of vigil transfigures the way the monk looks at the world, listens to the world, and loves the world in terms of the light of Christ and the doxologies of angels.
A blog post cannot hope to portray the riches that vigils provide. Like so much in the Christian life and Christian asceticism, it needs to be experienced in order to be appreciated. And as the common life is appropriate for beginners and the hermitic life is appropriate for the advanced, so vigils with other Christians is a more appropriate starting point than vigils by oneself alone, although both are important and necessary in the life of the believer. In the Slavonic tradition, the All-Night Vigil is typically abbreviated and includes Vespers, Matins, and the First Hour. Unfortunately, excessively abbreviating vigils or having vigils before sunset is like modifying fasting according to the latest diet plan. It is an accommodation in which the initial purpose becomes less clear and the therapeutic force less powerful. Fortunately, in Greek monasteries, vigils are celebrated according to the Byzantine tradition in which the service of Vigil lasts the entire night and includes Great Vespers, Litia, Artoklasia, Orthros (Matins), First Hour, Third Hour, Sixth Hour, and culminates with the Divine Liturgy.
A thoughtful reader of this blog asked me to say a few words about how vigils are healing. Elder Joseph the Hesychast (1897-1952) highly recommended the practice of vigilant prayer during the night. He taught that the purpose of vigil is to pray and the goal of prayer is “to activate grace; to make it active. And when grace acts, this is everything.” By this, he means the purpose is to say the prayer calmly, yet with great alertness and heartfelt longing, until the prayer begins to say itself, until, saying the name of Christ becomes as natural as breathing in and breathing out, until the Holy Spirit begins to say “Abba, Father,” until the soul starts to function properly, thinking of Christ, desiring Christ, striving for Christ, loving for Christ.
Because the mind moves from thought to thought, it is good to give it different kinds of nourishment. This is why there is such variety in an Athonite all-night vigil, chanting, then reading of the Psalter, then words from holy books, and antiphonal singing, all to help the soul keep vigil and moving, always moving in a world that is holy, beautiful, compassionate, and true. This all requires struggle and vigil is very much about struggle. I recall nodding off to sleep in vigils on the Holy Mountain and feeling even a bit sleep deprived. I asked my Elder about this, and he told me, “Isn’t it worth tiring yourself out a bit for the sake of Christ?” From that point on, the labors of vigil became even sweeter, because they were with a purpose, a holy purpose, to love Christ with all one’s soul.
So, part of the value of vigils is they help believers live more intimately in Christ and with Christ. They help the believer to acquire the Jesus prayer. To say the prayer even when their bodies might prefer to be asleep. And so, the soul begins to be healed. According to Elder Joseph, “”Say the (Jesus) prayer all the time, don’t rest your mouth at all. Thus it will become habitual in you and the mind will receive it. The practice of noetic prayer is to constrain yourself to say continually the prayer unceasingly with the mouth. Attend only to the words ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’ and you will experience sweetness as if you had honey in your mouth. Always say the prayer: sitting or in your bed or walking or standing. ‘Pray without ceasing, give thanks in all things,’ says the Apostle. You should not only pray when you lie down. It wants struggle: standing, sitting. When you tire, sit down, and then stand again. If you eat or work, don’t stop the prayer. The prayer is the breath of life for the soul. Let ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me’ be as your breath.”