Looking for a Lent Book? (2): Putting on the Wakeful One

Certain instructions given by Jesus have attained the status of ‘dominical commands’, instructions that Christians have obeyed over the centuries: take, eat, baptise. Other clear commands seem to have gathered far less status. Mark 13: 33-37 is a key passage:

Mark 13:33-37

Revised Standard Version 

33 Take heed, watch; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch therefore—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning— 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Watch.”

The strength of Jesus’ language is clear, ‘what I say to you, I say to all’. Watchfulness has long been a key element in monastic spirituality, the Office of Vigils, of waking in the night taken as an important principle. In the Christian east watchfulness is particularly linked to the Jesus Prayer and the command to ‘pray constantly’ (1 Thess. 5:17).

Baptist minister Shaun Lambert has written a series of books, one for children, that explain this tradition of watchfulness, particularly in relation to the practice of mindfulness that is so much a part of popular culture at present. Putting on the Wakeful One was published in spring 2016 and is the most detailed theological and scriptural explanation of this practice and the most Jesus centred. An exposition in part of Mark’s gospel. The key chapters relating to Jesus portray him as:

  • Saviour
  • Seer
  • Sage
  • Storyteller

Shaun paints a compelling portrait of Jesus as one who pays attention, who is awake. I was particularly enthralled by the description of Jesus as one who is awake to the natural world, a natural world so present (of course!) in the teachings and parables he gives.

This would be an excellent book for group study but it is not a simple Lent course, it requires slow, careful reading and that people attend the group having done that reading. Each chapter ends with three pointers for reflection under the headings, ‘intention, attention and attitude’. These three states of mind thread through the whole book and it is ‘intention’ that clearly delineates Christian prayer from mindfulness practice. A Study Guide at the back of the book sketches out a six week course on Christian mindfulness for spiritual growth.

Chapter Eight ‘The Desert Sages, Seers, and Watchfulness’ is a key one for me. It draws most deeply on The Philokalia, that great collection of teachings from those who have practised the Jesus Prayer, Stillness and Watchfulness most deeply. Shaun ably links these teachings to the development and growth of discipleship. I have always thought that there is a clear distinction between mindfulness and the Watchfulness of the Philokalia, because that watchfulness is all about noticing the arising of the Passions and ensuring that they don’t get a hold on the mind/heart. Shaun brilliantly shows how these ‘afflicted thoughts’ as he calls them, or rather the noticing of them leads to self-knowledge which through discernment leads to mindfulness of God (Diadochus of Photike) mneme theou.

Two other elements weave their way through the book in an interesting way. Shaun closely links the practice of mindfulness to the Jesus Prayer and lectio divina. This essential grounding in Scripture which the writers of the Philokalia, like the western monastics and their deep reading of Scripture in the night would have been immersed in. Shaun tantalisingly tells us of practising group lectio with his congregation, I would love to know more about this. The other element in this is the gift of prophecy in the life of the church. He draws attention to the work of a group of Christian musicians known as Epiphany, whose ‘Sound Portraits’ are a wonderful opportunity to exercise attention.

Shaun’s experience as pastor comes through over and again in the pages of this book. His use of the term ‘tracker’ for the spiritual seeker, the pilgrim, has a resonance with adventure, pioneer, explorer that I know would engage teenagers as well as being more active for many adults.

This is a tremendously important book which is not guilty of the highly individualised, disincarnate spirituality that is such a danger of our times. It is profoundly Scriptural, rooted in the Tradition and expressing the life of an actual Christian congregation living out the call to Mission in Harrow in north London. Chapter Eleven, in particular, gives some indicators of ways in which many congregations could apply the insights of this book in their own context.

Shaun is providing a number of online resources to accompany this book, for example:

Shaun Lambert interviewed on Premier Radio, here.

Shaun’s podcasts, here.

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