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Vigils: Training in Patience

March 15, 2013

imagesTime moves differently in a vigil than it does outside of liturgical services. It slows down as psalm after psalm after psalm is read and peace descends upon Israel. And then it speeds up like rapids approaching a roaring waterfall as it draws closer to that mystery before which Angels shield their hallowed eyes. And then, when the Lord so wills, it as though time stops entirely and eternity enters the soul filling her and the darkened Church with another light, not from the candles, not from the oil lamps, but from the presence of the Giver of Light Himself in the midst of His faithful. And when that presence is felt, the heart softens, the thoughts grow still, the soul becomes humble, and the radiant words—“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me”—fill all things with light. Vigils are precious treasures; they are the wealth of monks and the angelic feasting of Christians.

Vigils can be exhilarating, but they can also be exhausting. That is why after an all-night vigil on the Holy Mountain, oil is allowed even on fasting days, because of the labor involved.  Vigils epitomize that famous monastic saying: “good things are acquired by labors.” And vigils, which offer such heavenly good things, also require a great deal of labor, physical and mental. The body can grow tired and the spirit can grow weary, but the soul endures. The soul waits on the Lord. And the soul becomes patient. Vigils provide essential training in patience, a virtue so great that our Lord Himself said, “In your patience possess ye your souls.”

In his letters to his spiritual children, Elder Joseph often linked the vigil with the acquisition of dispassion and patient endurance in the midst of trials, temptations, and struggles with the passions. Thus, he once wrote to a nun, “Be patient in the temptations that come. God always helps. He always comes in time, but patience is necessary. He hears us immediately when we cry out to Him, but not in accordance with our own way of thinking. You think that your voice did not immediately reach the saints, our Panagia, and Christ. On the contrary, even before you cried out, the saints rushed to your aid, knowing that you would call upon them and seek their God-given protection. However, since you do not see beyond what is apparent and do not know how God governs the world, you want your request to be fulfilled like lightning. But this is not how things are. The Lord wants patience. He wants you to show your faith.” In this brief passage, we see that vigils heal the soul by teaching her to be patient and to realize that all things do not proceed as we think they should, but as the Good Lord allows. Vigils teach us that the world does not revolve around us and how tired we may feel or whether our desires have been fulfilled. Vigils heal the soul by encouraging us to strengthen our faith, believing that God is rushing towards us, even when we feel that we are making all the motions. Vigils slow us down, so that we live not on the basis of what will happen, but what is happening now.

Vigils teach us to watch and to wait, saying “Thy will be done” in this moment, and the next, and the moment after that. And if we have not learned that most basic lesson of the Christian faith, vigils can show us our passions in the presence of our impatience. The Elder Joseph wrote, It is necessary also to work towards whatever one prays for, and then to learn to wait. You see that what you longed for in the past has finally happened. However, you were harmed because you didn’t have the patience to wait, in which case you would have gained both the one and the other: both the temporal and the eternal. Now you become angry and fainthearted and grieved, thinking that the heavenly Father is slow in answering. But I tell you that this will also happen as you desire—it will definitely happen—but first it takes prayer with all your soul, and then you must wait. And when you have forgotten your request and have ceased asking for it, it will come to you as a reward for your patience and endurance. When you reach the verge of despair while praying and seeking, then the fulfillment of your request is near. Christ wants to heal some hidden passion within you, and this is why He delays in granting your request. If you obtain it sooner, when you demand it, your passion remains uncured within you. If you wait, you obtain your request and the cure of the passion. And then you rejoice exceedingly and give warm thanks to God Who arranges all things in wisdom and does everything for our benefit.”

The patient endurance of which Elder Joseph writes is cultivated during these extended hours of prayer, especially in vigil throughout the night. To use the words of a familiar psalm, a thousand thoughts shall fall at your side, and ten thousand memories at your right hand, but if you are patient, if you cleave to the prayer, the pestilence that walks in darkness shall not come nigh. Instead, the dayspring from on high will visit you. The soul will be made alive and see her salvation.

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