Silence, Stillness and Listening to God

There is an obvious and deep irony in any attempt to talk about silence.  It’s like trying to describe the ineffable or depict the invisible.  The task itself is inherently impossible.  Silence can only speak for itself: not through words, but through experience.  The best way to begin, therefore, is not by any definition or analysis, but by a story.

There is a very familiar little story in the alphabetical collection of traditions that have come down to us from the desert fathers of the early Christian centuries.  It is said that one day Abba Theophilus, who was an archbishop, came to Scetis, a desert wasteland and spiritual paradise, where great numbers of monks carried on their unseen spiritual warfare.  Archbishop Theophilus made his way to the cell of Abba Pambo, a man recognized and acclaimed for his humility and wisdom.  The brethren who accompanied Theophilus said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.”  Abba Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”

There is really little more that can or should be said.  If people are not edified by our silence, then they will not be edified by our words.

In these few minutes, nevertheless, I will try to speak of silence and stillness in the language of Scripture and the desert tradition, and to elaborate very simply with some personal experiences.

 

In the beginning there was absolute silence.  Through His Word, God spoke into this silence, to create the heavens and the earth.  Then, on the cosmic sabbath known as “the seventh day,” God rested.  His Word, however, has continued its creative activity throughout human history.  As God declares through the prophet Isaiah, “My Word that goes forth from my mouth will not return to me empty; it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11).  To affirm that God creates ex nihilo  is to say that He speaks out of silence, to bring all things into existence by the power of His creative Word.  Word and silence, then, complement each other.  Silence, in the most positive sense, is the environment and atmosphere, the sacred space, into which God speaks His Word, both to create the world and to save it from death and corruption.

Further on in Old Testament tradition, silence becomes the medium for divine revelation.  In a terrifying epiphany recounted in the first Book of Kings, God appeared on a mountain to the prophet Elijah.  As the Lord passed by, there came a mighty wind, so strong it split the mountain and shattered the rocks in pieces.  But, the narrative tells us, “the Lord was not in the wind.”  After the wind there came an earthquake, then a fire; but the Lord was in neither.  Then, the passage concludes, “after the fire a still, small voice” (1 Ki 19:12).  The New Revised Standard Version renders this more forcefully: “after the fire the sound of sheer silence.”  Through this paradoxical image — “the sound of sheer silence” — God reveals both His presence and His purpose.

From the time of Elijah through the period of classical prophecy, God continued to reveal Himself through His Word of blessing and judgment.  At the same time, silence was increasingly perceived as something negative: the absence of God’s voice and thus of His presence.  “The land of silence” became synonymous with Sheol, the place of the dead where, by definition, the life-giving God is not to be found (Ps 94:17).  God’s judgment pronounced against the nations includes the withering command: “Sit in silence, and go into darkness, daughter Chaldea!” (Isa 47:5).  Silence is darkness, and that darkness is death.

Finally, Israel itself experiences such a judgment, when the tongues of prophets fall silent as God withdraws His prophetic Word from the people’s midst.  (The post-Exilic Psalm 74:9 laments, “We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet…”; cf. 1 Macc 14:41, 2 Baruch 85:3, for whom “the prophets are sleeping.”)

Yet even in the Old Testament silence is recognized to have a profoundly spiritual value.  “Be angry but do not sin,” the psalmist admonishes, “commune with your own hearts on your bed, and be silent” (Ps 4:4).  The Septuagint or Greek version of the Hebrew Bible expresses the deeper meaning of this verse by slightly modifying the translation: “Be angry, and do not sin; for what you say in your hearts feel compunction on your beds.”  Genuine compunction arises out of the silence and solitude of one’s own bed, where, as St Augustine declares, the heart opens to the outpouring of divine love through the Holy Spirit.

The final word on silence, as it was experienced in ancient Israel, is that of the prophet Zephaniah: “Be silent before the Lord God!  For the day of the Lord is at hand” (Zeph 1:7).  Silence possesses an eschatological quality insofar as it prepares both heart and mind to receive God in His final coming.  The day of the Lord is a day of judgment, symbolized by thunder and fury.  But it is also a day of vindication, blessing and the bestowal of everlasting peace.  These are qualities both given and received in silence.

Israel perceived the silence of the prophets to be a sign of God’s judgment upon the people’s rebellion and faithlessness.  For early Christians, on the other hand, the falling silent of Israel’s prophets presaged a new creation and a new revelation.  As St Ignatius of Antioch expressed it some eighty years after our Lord’s death and resurrection, “There is one God who manifested Himself through Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, proceeding from silence…” (Mag 8:2).  God speaks out of silence at the original creation; He does the same with the new creation in Jesus Christ.  The Word of God, whose creative power brought all things from non-existence into being, brings about the new creation of the Church, the universal Body of Christ.  From this point on, the Church will be the primary locus of God’s creative activity and self-revelation.  It is there that the heart can acquire the gift of silence.  And it is there that silence resolves into the stillness that allows us to listen to the voice of God.

In the New Testament little is said of silence as such.  The people are themselves reduced to awe-filled silence as they witness Christ’s ability to silence his adversaries (Lk 20:26).  And Jesus, in the presence of His disciples, displays  the authority to still the waters and silence the thundering of the waves as a great storm threatens to swamp their boat.  He rebukes the wind and the sea: “Peace!  Be still!”  And, St Mark continues, “the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mk 4:39).  Whether on the open sea or in the human heart, peace requires stillness.  In the midst of our own storms and turmoil, Jesus speaks these same words, “Peace, be still!”  For those who have ears to hear, who can listen to this commandment which is also an invitation, the wind of noise, confusion and tumult ceases, and there comes a great calm.

As in the Old Testament, silence in the New Testament possesses an eschatological quality.  It describes the response of those in heaven to the promise of Christ’s final judgment and vindication of the righteous, together with creation’s ultimate and eternal glorification of God: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal,” the Book of Revelation declares, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev 8:1).  That brief moment of silence recalls the silence to which Israel is called with the coming of the day of the Lord, a day which promises both judgment and salvation: “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord,” exclaims the prophet Zechariah, “for He has roused Himself from His holy dwelling!” (Zech 2:13; cf. Isa 41:1; Zeph 1:7).  This admonition is repeated on Holy Saturday, when its meaning, nevertheless, is completely transformed.  Then the Church sings, “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand; for the King of kings and Lord of lords comes forth, to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful.”  In that profound silence the eschatological warnings of judgment are transformed into a ringing promise of salvation, as the Lord offers Himself as eucharist “for the life of the world.”

God speaks out of the depths of His own silence, first to create the world, then to renew the world through the incarnation of His Son.  Through the voice of the prophets, including the prophet John of the Book of Revelation, God calls us to silence as well.  He invites us to go into our room, our chosen sacred space, and there to shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret, assured that our Father who is in secret will answer our prayer (Mt 6:6).  In that silence we contemplate the mystery of God’s creative and saving work, together with the promise of our eternal salvation.   It is in that silence that we can listen to God, hear His voice, discern His will and purpose for our life, and, finally, come to know the truth of a precious insight offered by St Isaac of Nineveh: “Silence is the sacrament of the world to come” (Letter 3).

A catena of sayings, drawn at random from the desert ascetics of the early Christian centuries, well expresses the value and necessity of authentic silence, silence of the heart.

“A brother asked Abba Pambo if it is good to praise one’s neighbor, and the old man said to him, ‘It is better to be silent.’”

“A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Is it better to speak or to be silent?’  The old man said to him, ‘The man who speaks for God’s sake does well; but he who is silent for God’s sake also does well.”

“It was said of Abba Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”

St Diodochos of Photiki, a fifth century anti-monophysite bishop well versed in the desert monastic tradition, explained the purpose and fruit of silence in these words.  “Spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness and complete detachment….”  And he adds,  “when the soul’s incensive power is aroused against the passions, we should know that it is time for silence, since the hour of battle is at hand.”

Silence and stillness are essential to attain spiritual knowledge, to engage in spiritual warfare against the passions and against demonic powers, and to allow the voice of God to be heard.  Silence and stillness nevertheless require a certain solitude, a temporary withdrawing from the noise and busyness of the world that cause endless distractions and hinder us in our quest for God.  “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word.  The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.’”  Perhaps the greatest challenge in Orthodox Christian life is to transform the heart and mind, our inner being, into a place of silence and solitude, an interior monastic cell in which the Spirit of Truth dwells, to teach us everything we need for our journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. John 16:13-15).

 

Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “silence” and “stillness” are not synonymous.  Silence implies in part an absence of ambient noise, together with an inner state or attitude which enables us to focus, to “center” on the presence of God and to hear His “still, small voice.”  To silence, the virtue of stillness adds both tranquility and concentration.  Stillness implies a state of bodily rest coupled with the creative tension that enables a person to commune with God in the midst of a crowd.  It means openness to the divine presence and to prayer, prayer understood as a divine work accomplished by God Himself.  As the apostle Paul insists, it is not we who pray, but the Spirit who prays within us (Rom 8:26).

This kind and quality of stillness is termed in Greek hesychia.  It underlies the practice of Prayer of the Heart which focuses on the Name of Jesus: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Most of us are familiar with the 19th century account entitled “The Way of a Pilgrim,” and “The Pilgrim Continues His Way.”  Here an anonymous Russian pilgrim, physically handicapped and with only the most rudimentary education, undertakes a voyage of the heart that will lead him step by step toward the heavenly Jerusalem.  His journey is marked by numerous encounters with all sorts of people, several of whom initiate him into the practice of the Jesus Prayer.  In the Church’s ascetic tradition, that prayer is progressively purified, becoming, in rare and privileged cases, “pure prayer” (kathera proseuchê) or “prayer of the heart.”  As many within that tradition have described it, repetition of the name of Jesus begins with the lips, gradually passes to the mind in a spontaneous outpouring, and finally descends with the mind into the heart, the spiritual center of our being.  The hesychast tradition therefore invites us to “stand before God with the mind in the heart,” to offer Him intercession, thanksgiving, praise and glorification day and night, without ceasing.

The terms used in this context need to be carefully defined.  The word “mind” refers not only to our rational capacity, discursive reasoning and analysis, that is, to the activity of the brain as it is usually understood.  “Mind” or “intellect” translates the Greek term nous, a notion well-defined by Bishop Kallistos Ware as “the power of apprehending religious truth through direct insight and contemplative vision.”  The “heart” he goes on to define as “the deep self; it is the seat of wisdom and understanding, the place where our moral decisions are made, the inner shrine in which we experience divine grace and the indwelling of the Holy Trinity.”  The heart, he adds, “indicates the human person as a ‘spiritual subject,’ created in God’s image and likeness.”

Silence fosters stillness; it is indispensable for stillness.  Stillness, however, goes beyond silence insofar as its aim is to purify the heart and issue in pure prayer.  That purification involves the body as well, because body and soul, like mind and heart, are ultimately inseparable.  In the words of St Mark the Ascetic, “The intellect cannot be still unless the body is still also; and the wall between them cannot be demolished without stillness and prayer.”

Most of traditional hesychast teaching was formulated by ascetic elders and transmitted to younger monks.  It is a tradition developed in the monastery and aimed principally at monastic life.  Its roots, however, go back to the New Testament and to Jesus’ own teaching and experience.  Frequently the Gospels show Jesus separating Himself for a while in order to pray to His Father in secret.  Then to His prayer there is joined that of others, persons who supplicate either Him or God the Father for mercy and forgiveness.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” cries the blind beggar Bartimaeus (Mk 10:47).  In Jesus’ parable of the Publican and the Pharisee (Lk 18:9ff), the publican or tax-collector cries from the depths of his misery, “O God, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  Gradually, appeals such as these gave rise to the familiar formula of the Jesus Prayer.  Throughout history, and perhaps especially in our own day, this prayer or some variant of it has served as the cornerstone of the prayer and worship of lay persons as well as monastics.  Hesychasm, in other words, is not the product of a medieval controversy between Athonite monks and Latin theologians, as some have argued.  It is an ancient yet living tradition that anyone, with proper spiritual guidance, can seek to interiorize and experience as a primary means for creating and maintaining a deep, personal and unbroken communion with God.

“Let the remembrance of Jesus [that is, the Jesus Prayer] be present with each breath,” St John of Sinai urges his monks, “and then you will know the value of solitude.”  St Hesychios the Priest, recalling these words of St John, adds, “Lash the enemy with the name of Jesus and, as a certain wise man has said, let the name of Jesus adhere to your breath, and then you will know the blessings of stillness.”

Those blessings have been admirably described by Nikitas Stithatos in his treatise entitled “On the Inner Nature of Things.”

Stillness is an undisturbed state of the intellect, the calm of a free and joyful

soul, the tranquil unwavering stability of the heart in God, the contemplation

of light, the knowledge of the mysteries of God, consciousness of wisdom by

virtue of a pure mind, the abyss of divine intellections, the rapture of the intellect,

intercourse with God, and unsleeping watchfulness, spiritual prayer, untroubled

repose in the midst of great hardship and, finally, solidarity and union with God.

To this we can add the sublime words of St Gregory of Sinai, who died in the year 1346.  St Gregory traces the hesychast way by which silence and stillness achieve their ultimate end: “Stillness gives birth to contemplation, contemplation to spiritual knowledge, and knowledge to apprehension of the mysteries.  The consummation of the mysteries is theology, the fruit of theology is perfect love….”

If theology in our day can ever rediscover its true and proper end, it can do so only by recovering the virtues of silence and stillness as essential prerequisites for “listening to God” and dwelling in His perfect love.

 

Where do these glimpses into the hesychast tradition lead us?  Is it really possible for us today, as monastics, clergy or lay people, to acquire the gift of ceaseless prayer, to sound the depths and scale the heights of “pure prayer,” the prayer of the heart that unites a person with God in the most intimate communion of all?

If we consider the lives of holy people such as St Silouan of Mount Athos, or Father Arseny (Streltzov) of the Soviet gulag, or countless lay men and women who make at least occasional use of the Jesus Prayer, the answer can only be “Yes, such prayer is indeed possible,” at least to those who seek it fervently and with a profound longing.  In its purest form it is certainly not accessible to everyone.   We know very well that many saints labored and prayed for years without ever being granted the gift of prayer that roots itself in the depths of the heart.  And only a very few have ever known the grace and the ineffable joy of “pure prayer,” in which the nous itself is transcended and the soul dwells with joyous ecstasy in perfect communion with God.  “He who has not transcended himself,” St Maximos the Confessor holds, “and has not transcended all that is in any way subject to intellection, and has not come to abide in the silence beyond intellection, cannot be entirely free from change,” that is, cannot enjoy perfect and unending stillness in blissful union with God.   Intellection, the faculty of the nous that allows it to apprehend spiritual realities directly, must itself be surpassed.  Where this occurs, there a person comes to experience “the sound of sheer silence,” the “silence beyond intellection” that enables one’s entire being to be flooded with that perfect divine love which is the very being and life of the triune God.

For those of us who will never attain to such heights, there is still abundant hope and an abundant promise.  Any one of us, if we truly desire it, can acquire the gifts, the divine virtues, of silence and stillness.  And with those gifts we acquire ears to hear the voice of God that speaks to us in the silence of our heart.

Orthodoxy has always been loathe to prescribe techniques for acquiring certain spiritual benefits.  Other traditions often stress the role of breathing and posture in attaining inner tranquility and the stillness required for contemplative prayer.  They may introduce into their teaching elements from Oriental religions: yoga, for example, or some similar practice that aims to bring body and soul into harmony.  To Orthodox spiritual elders, however, practices such as these all too easily become ends in themselves, rather like using the fasting period as an opportunity to lose weight.  We can make idols of virtually anything, even those things that seem at first glance to advance our spiritual quest.

Rather than offer concrete suggestions as to how we might attain a greater degree of inner silence and stillness, I would prefer to share with you a few very simple and modest experiences I have been blessed with over the past few decades.  They are intended merely as verbal icons or images conveyed to me by persons and events through whom I and others have heard the voice of God and sensed the awesome power of His presence.

– In the early 1970s a community of French Roman Catholic contemplative sisters invited our family to live among them as we made our entry into the Orthodox Church.  These sisters were deeply imbued with Orthodox liturgical and ascetic tradition — to the point that many longed to become Orthodox themselves.  My fondest memory of the three years we spent in their midst is of the evening Vespers services.  A half hour or more before the office began, sisters and their guests began to enter the chapel.  They venerated icons, then knelt on the rug and sat back on their heels to pray in the evening stillness.  After the service, those who could, remained.  Again they knelt on the rough hemp rug, settled back on their heels, bowed their heads and prayed.  The silence in that place was palpable.  I often wondered why it is that silence is so much deeper when it is shared with others.  Why is our prayer so much more focused, so much more intense yet totally simple, when we join together in silent worship before the God of infinite love and compassion?  How is it that in that silence our prayer encompasses one another in a unique way, so that, in unspoken harmony, we intercede for each other, give thanks for each other, and make offering of each other to the God whose presence and love we sense almost physically, God who is ever Emmanuel, God with us?

This kind of experience is a blessed gift, realized through the presence of the Spirit, who unites us before our Lord in thanksgiving, in supplication and in love.  These sisters, and the group of brothers who later joined with them, blessed our lives beyond measure.  Yet as I look back, I realize we hardly ever spoke to one another.  We passed each other in that wilderness area where the community was located; we nodded and smiled; but we kept quiet, unless there was some specific need to speak.  In the silence of the pathway, or of the refectory, or of the chapel, we heard the voice of God, as it were, through the silence of the other person.  In that silence we exchanged the unspoken assurance that we were praying for one another.  And in that silence I came to realize that holiness exists everywhere, that the “ecumenical problem” can be fully resolved there where people, who love Christ and offer Him their unceasing adoration, gather in stillness, to worship together and to listen together for the voice of God.

We have had similar experiences in Orthodox monasteries.  Whether in this country or in Western Europe, in Greece or in Romania, the same values of silence and stillness leaven prayer and our communion with others.

– In the village of Taizé in south-central France there is an ecumenical community of monks who receive thousands of pilgrims each year.  More significant for me on our visits there has been the small village church, a Romanesque structure that dates in part to the eleven hundreds.  The stone walls are permeated with centuries of prayer.  The hard wood benches oblige concentration, and one can spend hours in that place, listening to the silence, hearing the muted voices of the thousands of villagers who, over the ages, have gathered there to pray.

– A small monastery on the island of Crete was home to a community of monks until they were slaughtered by invading Axis forces during the Second World War.  Now a group of sisters lives and prays there.  The grounds are filled with fruit trees and the natural beauty provides an ideal setting for shared words and shared silence.  The tragic history of this community somehow enhances the sense of God’s presence, of His merciful providence that has created in this place of violence and death a haven of stillness and contemplative prayer.  “Agathos ho Theos!” a sister tells me, “God is good!”

– In a hospital room a close friend lay dying.  For years he had rebelled against God and against his Orthodox faith, expressing that rebellion by indifference to everything connected with the Church.  In the last years of his life he had come home.  With the simplicity and openness of a child he now turned his face to God and prayed.  You could see in his eyes that God replied.  One day, shortly before he died, we spoke about the need for total surrender in the Christian life.  Surrender of our being, our values, our hopes and ambitions, all into the loving hands of our merciful Lord.  He was quiet for a while.  Then he took a scrap of paper and slowly wrote on it the word “surrender.”  We stayed together a while longer, saying nothing.  There, too, was silence — a silence filled with mutual longing for “the one thing needful.”  In that silence, our friendship, our love for one another, enabled both of us, for a moment, to know stillness, and in that stillness, to know the presence of God and the unfathomable depths of His love.

– Near the center of Paris there is a medieval Roman Catholic church that bears the name of St. Eustache.  One afternoon I left a friend at the metro station and crossed the River Seine to the church, then entered by a large, ornately carved wooden door toward the rear.  The massive stone walls almost totally closed out the noise of the city.  With only a handful of people scattered about, lighting tapers or sitting in prayer, I took a seat next to one of the immense pillars that rose toward heaven to support the great domed roof.  As the setting sun reached the horizon, shafts of brilliant light flooded through the stained glass windows to my right, illumining the entire nave and turning the pillars from gray to gold.  Candle flames flickered all around the altar and in the side chapels, and a little girl, maybe eight years old, walked backwards down the center corridor, to photograph the ancient organ above and behind me.  Her shoes scuffling along the stone floor made the only sound audible in that stillness.  Once again, here in the midst of a bustling metropolis, one could experience the sound of “sheer silence.”  And in that silence, complemented by the radiant light of evening, one could pray with tears.

 

All of this is not to say that silence and stillness are simply given.  They can be enhanced by environment, circumstances and communion with others.  But they need nevertheless to be cultivated.  They require ascetic discipline, including fasting and ongoing repentance.  Some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting, Christ tells His disciples.  The same is required in order to learn to pray.  Paradoxically, we can only learn to pray by praying, by opening ourselves to the movement of the Spirit in the temple of the heart.  Yet we can, at the same time, ask for the gift of prayer.  In those moments when prayer seems farthest from us, when we walk in a desert wasteland with no sense of God’s presence or concern, then we must ask for the gift of prayer.

Silence is the prerequisite for inner stillness, and only inner stillness enables us truly to listen to God, to hear His voice, and to commune with Him in the depths of our being.   Yet silence and stillness are, like prayer itself, gifts that God can and wants to bestow upon us.  The greatest truth about us is that God has created us with a profound longing, a burning thirst for communion with Himself.  We can easily pervert that longing into an idolatrous quest for something other than God.  Yet God remains faithful even in our times of apostasy.  Like the father of the Prodigal Son, he always awaits our return.  Once we begin that journey homeward, through repentance and an ongoing struggle against our worst inclinations, God reaches out to embrace, to forgive and to heal all that is broken, wounded and wasted.  He reaches out to restore within us the sublime image in which we were made.

Repentance of this kind, coupled with inner warfare against the passions, is essential if we are to acquire the gifts of silence and stillness, and from there learn to listen to the voice of God.  One weapon that proves especially effective in that warfare is the Prayer of Jesus: frequent, quiet repetition of the Name of the Son of God.  That Name, which “upholds the universe,” has the power to lift us from spiritual death to a new life of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” which the apostle Paul identifies with the Kingdom of God (Rom 14:17).  It is a Name that possesses such power and grace that it can sustain a person even in the face of physical death.  Let me close with another incident that illustrates what I mean.

A sister of the Catholic contemplative community I mentioned a moment ago was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident.  She was transported to the hospital, and for days she hovered between life and death, comatose and maintained on life-support.  Her sisters were by her side day and night, gradually losing hope as she failed to regain consciousness.  As the medical team was deciding whether to continue life-sustaining treatment, she stirred and made a sound.  The sisters gathered close to her and watched as her lips began to move.  While she was still in a state of semi-consciousness, they recognized the words she was forming.  Out of the depths of her darkness she was speaking the words that, as she later recounted it, sustained her and virtually saved her life: “Seigneur Jésus-Christ, Fils de Dieu, aie pitié de moi!”  “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”

Out of a seemingly impenetrable silence and stillness, she found in the Name of Jesus a strength that sustained her in her struggle from near death to recovery.  Her experience is a spiritual metaphor for the struggle each of us is called to assume: to speak out of inner stillness the sacred Name of Jesus, and to find there the only true healing of soul and body.

But as we speak out of that stillness, we also listen.  We listen for ineffable words of love and compassion, of healing and life.  These are words God addresses to each of us, without exception.  And He does so in the silence of the heart.  There He makes known the infinite depths of His love for us, His passionate concern to lead us from brokenness to wholeness and from death to life.

This is the experience of the saints, and it can be our experience as well.  All that is required is that we make our own the confession of the Psalmist: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation.”