Be sober and vigilant. Your opponent the Devil is prowling around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in faith.
1 Peter 5:8
These words are the opening of Benedictine Compline (and the traditional Roman Compline), an office I sang for a long time before entering the Monastery using the English text in the Monastic Diurnal from Lancelot Andrewes Press. In the Latin in the video below, it’s the brief chant right after the loud “Amen!”
Fratres : Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte : quia adversárius vester diábolus tamquam leo rúgiens círcuit, qućrens quem dévoret : cui resístite fortes in fide. Tu autem, Dómine, miserére nobis.
R. Deo grátias.
It’s so important to be both sober and vigilant! What the Latin does in four word, Sóbrii estóte, et vigiláte, the Greek does in two: Νήψατε γρηγορήσατε. The first word, “nepsate”, caries with it the general idea of “don’t be drunk” but, in the context of hellenic thinking, that “drunkenness” can come from the passions, from the weaknesses and faults that we carry in our very being. A glutton who will eat anything is the last person you want to ask about tasty food. A drunkard is the last person to recommend a tasty liqueur. A sinner will be full of ideas about how to keep sinning – but not about stopping. When the first papal encyclical letter says “Be Sober” what it means is, “be untainted by the world, the flesh, and the devil.” And that last is so important: because he is a person, and crafty. He can use the other two against you.
Once we are sober (detached from our sinful pleasures and desires), then and only then are we ready to begin our night watch. I think of how many times drunkenness has lead to sin on my part, but even exhaustion, “letting my guard down”. It’s such a commonplace that it can be shorthanded in scripts: an imagine of a couple walking into a bar… and then waking up together the next day. A few empty beer cans on the beach, and a pile of clothes. We all know what it means… most of us have been there now.
One of the things I found so very interesting coming into the Catholic Church is the idea of the “well-formed conscience”: one that is trained up in the mind of the church. This idea is found in Orthodoxy too, but it often comes attached to some spookiness. This is the sober and watchful mind. This is the brain that is alert to the wiles of him who like “roaring lion walketh about seeking whom he may devour.” And we are counselled to “resist, steadfast in the faith.”
We have our own lion: St Mark, whose feast is today, and he will intercede for us. His is the shortest Gospel, and the easiest to navigate. He is known as the abridger of St Matthew – often times telling the same story, sometimes with the very same words – but in a shorter, more succinct mode. I’ve been told that St Mark more often uses the word “immediately.” As in “When that had happened, immediately this other thing happened.” St Mark is a good Gospel to keep on hand for reading spurts (like standing in line at the bank or riding the train to work). It does well in short chunks, easy to digest: unlike St John’s Gospel or even the Epistles. St Mark is almost intended for “Snippets” that you can then take away and chew on. This is the best way to begin well-forming a conscience: meditation on the scriptures in a slow and daily practice Snippets. It could take 3 or 4 months to get through St Mark’s, done right. Maybe by journaling.
It’s the only way to resist Satan. So that’s my challenge today, brothers and sisters: pick up St Mark and meditate your way through it. You’ll find no where suggesting that we’re supposed to hide, by the way. When Satan’s out there roaming around, we’re supposed to resist – not hide.
A blessed feast!