To keep vigil is simply to keep watch. In the Christian tradition it finds its most intense expression in Sacred Scripture as Christ prepares, in prayer to the Father, to face the events of his Passion. Having celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples, he goes into the garden at Gethsemane and, taking those three closest disciples with him, he prays. But he returns, three times, to find them sleeping:
Then Jesus said to them, ‘My soul is sorrowful to the point of death. Wait here and stay awake with me.’ And going on a little further he fell on his face and prayed. ‘My Father, ‘ he said, ‘if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let it be as you, not I, would have it.’ He came back to the disciples and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, ‘So you had not the strength to stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake, and pray not to be put to the test. The spirit is willing enough, but human nature is weak.’ (Matthew 26:38-41)
Stay awake and pray. For the early Christians this invitation was to be taken literally. They already had the example of Christ, the master of prayer, who, again and again in the gospels, is seen to be at prayer, by himself or in the midst of others:
In the morning, long before dawn, he got up and left the house and went off to a lonely place and prayed there. (Mark 1:35)
Now it happened in those days that he went onto the mountain to pray; and he spent the whole night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12)
Now it happened that he was praying alone, and his disciples came to him and he put this question to them…. (Luke 9:18)
Now it happened that he was in a certain place praying, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ (Luke 11:1)
And Jesus asks others to join in prayer, and indeed asks that that prayer be constant and ceaseless, something echoed later by St Paul:
Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen…. (Luke 21:36)
Always be joyful; pray constantly; and for all give thanks; this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)
The practice of watching at night is heavy with the Christian idea of the movement from darkness to light, one which is so prevalent in the Gospel of John. From the outset, John is keen to tell us that the Word who takes flesh – God becoming man – is the light which is the true light, and which comes into the darkness of our world and our lives to dispel that darkness. For the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God that light which ultimately is life is already the way to salvation. And so, clearly, the healing of the man born blind (John 9) is the journey which all of us who regard ourselves as serious seekers in the spiritual life wish to make, and which Christ, by touching our lives, wishes to show us.
To rise at night – as did the early Christians, and the fathers and mothers of the desert, and monks from the earliest times of Christian practice – is to renew this deep watchfulness. St Benedict, in the guidance which he provides in the Rule, clearly sees the night office – which we call the Office of Vigils – as definitive of the monastic vocation and life. Its detailed outlay recognises that the monk must be given structure and prayer to keep the effort of the night vigil going, and that even when the office in common is finished, the private prayer which accompanies the remainder of the night must be directed in some way. The monastic Office of Vigils draws us to a specific watching – for the one who is the Resurrection. So, while the world sleeps the monk watches for the return of the Master, so that the world will not be caught, as it were, unawares, but ready and at our station.
One of the most striking accounts of watching and being God- and self-present is given us by Thomas Merton, Cistercian monk of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, who died in 1968. Known as the ‘Fire Watch’, it is the epilogue to Merton’s volume of journals published as the ‘Sign of Jonas’. Merton keeps watch while the rest of his brother monks sleep, and the ensuing reflections demonstrate how his vigil is a time of deep personal self-knowledge.
Those who have been on pilgrimage to the St Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, Co. Donegal, will recall the 24 hour vigil – a mixture of prayers in common and private time of quiet, which mirrors a common struggle and invitation to perseverance.
These resonances are important for us in the vigils which we keep, be they exterior or interior. To keep vigil, to keep watch and pray, asks patience of us, since the dawn will not be rushed but will arrive in its own time, a time which is God’s, not mine. The invitation to perseverance, again, lies at the heart of ‘vigiling’ – the temptation to give up, to walk away, to return to the sleepiness which characterises the rest of my life, is always, in some way present.
And perhaps this is where keeping vigil is hardest. Often, the interior work of watching my own thoughts and keeping guard over my heart, lest it become a place which is numb or forgetful of God, is the real work which is ignored, or abandoned because it seems too demanding, or simply not taken up because I am enmeshed in other, more worldly concerns. Particularly in the work of the thoughts, and moving aside the afflictive thoughts, staying awake, alert and ready is the first task. That this should be done in prayer, before the Father, with the Son as example and accompanist, and the Spirit who resides deep within our souls, is a practice worth establishing along with our new found silence and stillness.
-Part of our ‘Monastic Practices’ series-