The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there. (H.43.7) St. Macarius
One of the great difficulties in knowing silence is not to be found in the noisiness of our world, but in the noisiness of our own hearts. Of course there are many distractions around us. I have for years said that the sound of other peoples’ children during a sermon were far less distracting than the sounds of my own children (who are now grown and do not make sounds during my sermons). As a parent I am “hard-wired” to the sounds of my children (like almost all parents).
To a degree, our hearts are “hard-wired” to any number of things. If all the noise around us ceased we would not have silence. There is, of course, the inner “chatter” that most of us find to be ceaseless. I think it is why many choose to jog while listening to music or something else. Listening to the chatter in their own heads is deeply distracting from every activity.
But our chatter is only symptomatic of other things. It is symptomatic of the passions that rage within us. The dragons of anxiety and fear, the demons of self-loathing and pity as well as the fantasies that haunt our every move are all there. To practice silence is also to practice the slaying of these dragons and the “expulsions” of these inner demons. All of this is the hard work of repentance – forgiving those things that must be forgiven – and filling our hearts with the balm that alone can bring the peace which makes silence possible: the name of Jesus.
There are many books written on the Jesus Prayer, very few of which are helpful. They are not helpful because they are books about something which is more akin to riding a bicycle than thinking a thought. Books cannot teach you how to ride a bicycle.
I learned more about the Jesus Prayer by simply participating in the services at St. John Baptist Monastery in Essex last year than all the reading I had ever done on the subject in years past. Indeed, I quickly learned that almost everything I had ever read was useless. St. John’s has the unusual practice of having a 2 and 1/2 hour service in the morning and evening that consists primarily of the recitation of the Jesus Prayer. On the Eves of Feasts and on Feast Days they keep the regular vigils and liturgies. Those who lead the prayer take turns, each reciting 100 prayers. It takes about 15 minutes for each person.
What I learned, on the one hand, was a pace: how does the prayer feel? I realized that I always prayed the prayer too fast. I also learned (as a beginner) how helpful it is to say the prayer aloud, or to hear it aloud. Strangely, since in the course of the week I learned the prayer in two other languages, I also found in time that saying the prayer in other languages was helpful – whether because it reminded me of the prayers in England or what, I do not know. But I now say the prayer in Greek and Slavonic as often if not more than in English.
I have never used any techniques such as breath control or paying attention to the beat of my heart and have been told not to attempt such things (you find them mentioned in some books, which, frankly, is not only unhelpful but potentially dangerous). I recall in my time with one of the Elders, being told to simply say the prayer, remembering that it’s not magic, it’s not a technique, it is the power of the name of Jesus.
I do believe there is a place in prayer when silence itself becomes the prayer – not because silence is the best prayer by itself – but because we have found a fullness in Christ that words would only diminish. Such moments are rare and welcome.
I find moments within the liturgy, particularly when serving in the altar, that silence fills an action and nothing can be said. Occasionally the service of preparation, when the priest is usually alone in the altar, if not the Church, remembering the names of the living and the departed, can take a very long time, and be filled with times of silence. There is nothing to be said, but to hold someone in remembrance before God can take time – and should.
Today my house is empty. My wife is off on retreat; my daughter is in school; I am home recuperating from a medical procedure this morning (quite minor); and nothing happens until late afternoon. In the quiet I will look for silence and in the silence I will pray for all. May God bless.