Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.
Thou hast made us for thyself and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee. Augustine’s Confessions, 1.1
St. Augustine speaks of a restlessness within the human heart – an apparently timeless hunger of the soul. The story of his own life marks a wandering and a search. He did not think or reason his way into the Kingdom of God. Despite his wandering, God found him.
There is a saying from the Lives of the Desert Fathers: “Stay in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
The restless heart is carried even into the desert. Unless it learns to remain in one place it will not find the One Place within itself. The restless heart now finds itself in a restless culture. Change is a mantra recited as a key to success, whether personally, politically or economically. How does the restless heart stay put in such a world?
In the monastic life there are four traditional vows: poverty, chastity, obedience and stability. The first three are familiar to many. The fourth is not. The form it takes in the Eastern Church is a vow to remain in the monastery you enter until your last breath. With an abbot’s blessing this last vow is often relaxed. Even monks have to change from time to time.
The monastic vow of stability offers important insight, however. It posits the idea that we are more likely to find salvation by staying put than traveling. The journey is therefore inward more than outward. Outward movement can prove to be a positive distraction.
Of course, instability, as a vice, is ubiquitous today. It is possible to stay in one place and still be witness to unceasing change. To make matters worse, in American culture, our rounds of change do not produce greater variety. The process of change in mass-culture is homogenization. The more things change, the more they become the same – and the more they become the same – the less real, permanent and truly existent they become. Our culture has a vision of hell as a franchise operation.
Among the most unstable aspects of our civilization is our individual self-identity. The “false self” or “ego” (as some current Orthodox writers are naming the self-generated inner sense of identity) floats like a point on the edge of a bubble. The anxiety that surrounds the modern identity is manifest everywhere. Mass culture, particularly those segments aimed at youth, markets identities as though they were items on a shelf. Modern Evangelicalism often assists the culture with the same market strategies, conforming the gospel to the ever-changing fashions of the world.
Augustine’s observation remains as true today as it was 1500 years ago. The heart of modern man remains as restless as ever in a sea of change. But stillness of the heart is possible.
The discipline and teaching concerning the heart in Eastern Orthodoxy go under the name of Hesychia (“quiet” or “stillness”). It is a recognition that there can be no growth in the spiritual life without a change within the heart, or a change of relationship to the heart, and that this can only come with stillness. An inner stability and sobriety are essential in our life in Christ.
Much that passes for Christianity today runs little deeper than slogan and opinion. As such, it fits neatly within a lifestyle of change. The latest book on spirituality will soon be replaced by the next latest book on spirituality. Most Orthodox bookshelves are filled with un-read or half-read books through which the answer has not quite arrived.
The Christian life is a very serious, difficult way of living. It is made possible by grace – but just as that grace was gifted to us on the hard wood of the Cross, so its reception is through grace-filled crucifixions. “I am crucified with Christ,” is worth repeating – often.
At the very least, the restless heart needs to find some measure of rest. Here are some suggestions for being at rest:
For [however long], I will not –
-use my phone (turn the ringer off)
-use my computer
-read a book (or anything else)
-engage in conversation
For [however long], I will not –
-think about what I have done wrong
-think about whom I have hurt
-think about problems or difficulties
-think about physical pain
For [however long], I will
-sit (stand if you must) before an icon of Christ
-not talk to Christ or think about what I should say
-not think about what I am doing
-will not think about another person
-will not think about God or imagine Him
Perhaps the list could be longer. The simple goal of such an exercise is to be still. It is quite difficult. This, too, is prayer. If we manage to actually do (or not do) this small laundry list, it will be very good prayer. In such quiet rest, thoughts do come to us. For the most part, dismiss them. You can think later. When I do this I sometimes fall asleep. It’s an indicator that I’m not getting enough sleep!
Learning to be quiet, to be still, not to think or feel, not to judge or worry – all of this is surprisingly difficult. The level of difficulty is a sign of just how unquiet our lives truly are. When the noise ceases and our awareness comes back to the simple presence of the moment, the heart at rest becomes possible. It may seem surprising to some that I suggest not thinking about God or imagining Him in any way. The icon takes care of that need – it is not our job. It will seem surprising to many precisely because they believe prayer includes thinking about God and spiritual things. It does not.
Prayer is communion with God. Communion does not require ideas or feelings because it is real. I do not need to imagine my cup of coffee or even think about it in the morning. The coffee just is. And that is fine.
This exercise in stillness that I have suggested is a beginning. I practice something like this whenever I pray. It is essential to quiet the noise and distraction if we are to know God. Strangely, in time, the ability to enter into such quiet becomes possible in places and settings that are quite noisy and busy (like Church). The discipline is about discovering the place of the heart and the rest that can only be found in God.
This reminds me of a story Met. Anthony Bloom told in his book, Beginning to Pray. He said an older woman who, I believe, had been living in a retirement home for some time, came to him one day, and said that she said so the Jesus Prayer for so long every day, and, yet, she never seemed to hear from God.
He replied that of course she never heard from God: she kept talking! So, he told her to go and sit down in her room in front of her icon of Christ, take a good look around, and then pick up her knitting, and do nothing but knit before the icon for a certain amount of time.
She came back to him later, and said she’d originally thought his advice was very unspiritual, but she tried it. She went to her room, sat down and looked around, then remembered she was supposed to knit, so she started knitting before the icon. It was very quiet, but, in time, the silence began to seem full, and she felt that she indeed experienced God’s presence.
I’ve always liked that story. Now, if I could just learn to be so still.
What a good reminder. It’s been a long time since I sought stillness. And even as I read this, I think, baby steps. Maybe first I should try to do only one thing at a time, and then work my work up to doing nothing.
What fantastic advise! What indispensable admonition!
I can only say Thank you and Thank you for this post, Fr. Stephen, from the bottom of my heart, Thank you!
I don’t understand *not* talking to Christ … ?
It troubles me how much we identify with Freud and accept the premise that there is an ego or even that there is a “self” for that matter. I’d be interested to see you post something about this because I think that the presumption that there is an “ego” causes all manner of unnecessary issues. (When you say “false self” are you saying there is no ego or are you saying that there is something there but that it is an imitation of something else?)
Here’s what I mean. We tend to think that “I am” something (a soul, a spirit, etc) that has experiences which affect who I become. But if you look at a watch, you cannot say that there is such a thing as a “watch” to which cogs and springs are added. Similarly, there is not a thing called “water” to which hydrogen and oxygen are attached.
All things are a sum of their parts. Why do we think that we are different from all the rest of creation? Are we not simply a sum of our parts (including experiences)?
If we think of ourselves in this light, then admonitions such as Phil 4:8 (“dwell on these things”) changes from being a way of beating down some (perhaps non-existent) “ego” to a prescription for seeking out the types of parts that will give us the experiences that will form us into the “self” that we want to be.
Your recommendations for “being at rest” will not suffice if we believe that we are doing these things in order to battle our “ego” because, in the end, the ego is at the center of it. It is similar, I think, to coming to god in order to avoid hell, thus making hell the foundation of one’s faith.
And if we simply deny that there is such a thing as the ego, the first two lists are as ineffective as “don’t think about breathing.” Rather, only the “I will” action items will have any positive impact on us and by choosing “I will think about things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely and of good report” will we become the people that we want to be (and perhaps the people that god wants us to be).
Does that make sense or am I blithering?
PJ, Yes. You start talking and then you’re all about listening to your talk. It will distract. First learn not to talk. Your heart won’t rest while you talk. The time will come when you can talk. First, learn to be still.
Go back to June and start with the post, “The True Self and the Story of Me.” There are a number that follow that thread.
The “ego” or “false self” only exists because we create it. It’s an illusion. The true self is the something else. It’s not a created identity (or not created by us). Indeed, it’s not experienced particularly as identity so much as an awareness (not so much self-awareness). But until we learn that place, we don’t really “think” about anything in the right way.
Father, would it be correct to say *not* talking to Christ because stillness is a listening or attentive mode, not a talking one?
My turn to share a favorite passage from Anthony Bloom’s “Beginning to Pray”:
“In the life of a Catholic priest of France, the Curé d’Ars, Jean Marie Vianney, there is a story of an old peasant who used to spend hours and hours sitting in the chapel motionless, doing nothing. The priest said to him “What are you doing all these hours?’ The old peasant said ‘I look at Him, He looks at me and we are happy.'”
(It is much like being with a good friend with whom there is such comfort that we can sit in silence for long stretches of time – only much, much better. I’m admittedly not there at the moment, being in the midst of major life changes that inevitably distract, but it is a lovely reminder of my true way of being.)
In the same context as this:
“Among the most unstable aspects of our civilization is our individual self-identity.The “false self” or “ego” floats like a point on the edge of a bubble.”
Fr. Stephen also wrote this:
“To make matters worse, in American culture, our rounds of change do not produce greater variety. The process of change in mass-culture is homogenization.”
As bearers of the image of God we are all one as the Holy Trinity is One, albeit fragmented, disintegrated, and individualized by sin. Only when this fragmentation and disintegration is overcome by the gift and power of the Holy Spirit to love other persons is who we are made manifest. Only in communion with others do we have a ‘name’ and a ‘face’ that is absolutely distinct and unique to each of us as persons. This distinctiveness is radically contrary to worldly, shallow, selfish ‘individuality’ wherein just the opposite actually occurs: in the quest for the individuality of the world we wind up becoming exactly alike, enslaved to the latest ‘movement’, mere fragments of a homogeneity that tyrannically imposes its will on us, valuable only to the extent that we serve the purposes of the society, mere individuals rather than true unique persons. Our struggle together is to become who we are, who we were created to be in loving communion with God and one another – a person with a unique ‘name’ bearing the image of God among others and showing forth His glory in a way that only we (I, you) personally were created for. (“Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed…”) To be a fully human person with all the dignity and personal distinctiveness God intended is our gift and our calling.
There is a mystery of human nature (rooted, it would seem, in God Himself) that we only ‘find’ ourselves by losing ourselves in the love of others. To be clear, I don’t think this is unique to Christianity, although Christians know the One in whom this mystery is rooted. “He who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses his life…”
Yes. But I would listen passively. Don’t try to hear anything it only leads to imagination. In praying with an icon we understand that an icon makes present what it represents. This is true whether we think so or not. So we are free to be with God and to let go of the anxiety that needs to “make” Him be there…or the anxiety to make ourselves be present. I should have said in the article to do this for only five minutes at first.
How is this different from the Zen practice of mindfulness meditation?
I may very well be wrong.
I think that we mortals are in an ever changing experience of Time, which moves serially from the Past and toward the Future but that we are actually only alive in the Present moment. The Future has not come yet and may differ from what we think will happen, and we can do nothing about the Past, we cannot fully recreate it, even in our thoughts, because it is full of what we did not observe or remember.
I have thought that God is in Eternity which is “Not Time” and we can be in His presence only at this moving point which we call Present.
To stay in that point as Time moves along is the problem.
The attitude of mind resembles listening.
If this is wrong please do not publish it.:-)
an important way in which Orthodox stillness is different to zen budhism:
In ‘Zen’ we clear the mind too, but here in Orthodox “hesychia” we are motivated by a personal relationship: the reason I sit in stillness and ignore everything is because I am being watched by my Lord; God is a person here, not some impersonal energy.
I also must not meditate to achieve something for my own good but -( believing in only truly existing “relationally”)- I must reach that stage of true communion where I am purely motivated by love.
It so happens that, as a rule, I only love God to the extent that I forget myself.
I meet eternity in this present moment, but eternity is not a thing, it is Someone. This God of ours is our desire behind all desires. Orthodox dispassion is not a lack of desires but an all-consuming single desire (as in the first commandment to love God with all my being).
All this profound sounding stuff is actually very simple, that’s why children are much better at it! Our restless culture and multicultural comparisons are no insignificant hindrance…
This is another blessing from Fr. Stephen’s comment above:
“So we are free to be with God and to let go of the anxiety that needs to “make” Him be there…or the anxiety to make ourselves be present. I should have said in the article to do this for only five minutes at first.”
In addition to my previous comment concerning ‘Zen’ and Orthodox stillness differences I could mention that very “joyful sorrow” called “χαρμολύπη”. You will not see as many (healthy) tears in Buddhism as in the caves of Mount Athos…
Remember, God desires a “broken and contrite heart” more than “sacrifices” (Ps 51.16-17) And flying to the heights of Divine Love simultaneously involves plumbing the depths of my fallenness (as is clearly seen in the Prophet Isaiah’s encounter with the Lord).
Thus Saint Isaac the Syrian, considered one of the greatest and most experienced authorities on stillness, says:
It is a sign I am encountering Light Himself that I am finally becoming
aware of my darkness. After all, our Saviour appears only as the one that we have betrayed and yet forgives. (remember the Prodigal, prophet Isaiah, the Apostle Peter the denier, St Paul the persecutor as well as all those who encountered the living Christ as God – they all say “I am not worthy to be your son” and that is what he makes them into).
So, stillness in Orthodoxy exists only within such a context…
Very well said. I let the icon carry all of this – so that I’m not thinking about it.
Father, is the appetite for scandal and indeed some of the behavior that is scandalous connected to the restlessness?
Awesome post. I recently read the book “Staying Put” by author Scott Russell Sanders that touches on this theme in its own way. To stay still and stay quiet… you said it well, this is truly a difficult endeavor.
you probably know all of this already! but, concerning the “not talking”… the idea is not to start thinking of anything at all when in His presence. Talking without thinking, expressing oneself (one’s ego) is virtually impossible – more so to a beginner.
The “Jesus Prayer” however, is not to be considered “talking” The “monotony” of repeatedly invoking the Jesus prayer in stillness surpasses the “polytony” of al talking… One could only liken it to unceasing Holy Communion.
(There are, however, many stages of this)
I don’t know about all that, as I am still a spiritual novice. That stuff is above my head, intriguing as it may be.
My prayer life is built around the psalms and the Our Father, which seems to me the perfect prayer, as well as lectio divina and, to a lesser extent, the rosary.
I also find great comfort in confiding in the Lord using my own words — bringing troubles and hopes and anxieties before Him, that He might rightly order my existence.
Sometimes, I just sit before Him in silence, letting the Spirit do all the work with groans I do not understand. I’ve never experienced anything extraordinary: just peace and contentment.
My main temptation is prayer is to “imagine” God. I am always trying to think about, well, how to think about Him. I sort of have this weird image of a conscious, ethereal substance that is diffused throughout every inch of the universe. Bizarre, I know.
Oh, geez: Conscious ether. That’s my God. Better than the old dude with the white beard — barely. Bah! Lord have mercy on me! Purify my heart and enlighten the eyes of my heart!
Some practical question:
I’m fairly certain you’re not saying this is the only way we should pray ever so: How should we fit this type of prayer in with our regular rule or prayer? Is this something you’d suggest we attempt to do daily or just periodically? Are you gazing at the icon, or just sitting in it’s presence?
Thank you Father! This is very good teaching for me– inconstancy and being scattered seems to be a central theme in (what I would like to be) my contemplative life. I try to be still with what bears good fruit, but it is difficult when I don’t know what is right. I guess that is what stillness reveals though, isn’t it?
Thank you for the great picture of Trinity Church at Bellingshausen Father, – for your readers, here’s a look
I had not thought of that.
I would suggest this for any who feel a need to be still and quiet. If it disrupts your prayer routine – ignore it by all means. It seemed a fitting way to finish the article – other than just making observations about how scattered we are, etc.
I do this always when I pray, which is all I can say for recommendations. If you have a spiritual father, I would ask him for guidance. Often I just sit in the icon’s presence. Looking at it often sets me off to thinking. Icons do what they do whether we look at them are not. Miraculous icons weep even when we’re not watching. 🙂
Thank you Father
reminds me of the truth that even if one was to provide you with the advise of the most discerning saint, it could never take the place of one’s spiritual father.
Even though there are some very common guidelines concerning the first stages of this type of prayer (the centre of which is always the unceasing invocation o the Jesus prayer/name). You know they are the kind of guidelines you need to ideally receive from your Father in Christ when you realise they might involve such advise as this: to start off with, combine your daily prayers, a steady (preferably nightime) “rule” of exclusively saying the Jesus prayer in -as far as possible- total stillness and quiet, as well as the constant repetition of the prayer as you eat, drink, walk, work, (think and sleep eventually even!), Holy Communion at ceratin regular intervals, sobriety in all dealings (the lack of which will be instantly manifested as extra scattered mind during the nightime rule etc
Father, I hear your wise admonition to pull away from the world’s distractions. Do you also think it is possible for a busy person to have peace and quiet at the core of one’s being? It requires balance between work-rest, self-others, speech-silence; trust that all is well even when it may not seem to be; faith that joy comes in “the morning.”
I’m also struggling with the same thing PJ was talking about-not thinking about God or imagining Him in a time of silent meditation. After first reading the end of your post, I honestly was dismayed. During prayer, I am incredibly susceptible to all kinds of distracting thoughts. It seems that if I don’t focus my contemplation on God, who knows where my mind will end up? Would it be better to dwell on God’s energies rather than His essence? Even repeating the Jesus Prayer, which has been an invaluable spiritual resource for me, seems to contradict your recommendations for finding a place of rest.
Forgive me if you have already explained this in another post, but I still can’t see the value in gazing at an icon of Christ without contemplating He Who dwells in it and in all things.
it might be better to enclose all of your attention on nothing but the words of the Jesus prayer, in the full awareness of the fact that the Lord is watching you lovingly. (“I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand”) It might also help if you do not let your attention/mind wonder -not even outside of your upper chest – you know how it does of itself when you have just partaken of Holy Communion sometimes?
More importantly – we must not worry about it but be like a child… we are nothing, we are not the ones who do any of the saving of ourselves, God does all of it, we generally do the damning of ourselves, but, thankfully God knows how to ensure our salvation… 🙂
I know what you mean-I have had that. And I love the quote. Is it from the Psalms?
I’m sorry to have caused any confusion or consternation in your prayer. What I describe is only a preparation for prayer. Gathering the “mind into the heart” is its goal. It is always best to do this with the Name of Jesus. We are all (myself included) utterly dogged by a wandering mind. Reining it in is very difficult! I don’t fret too much when I’m largely unsuccessful. But being calm and not launching myself out into a bunch of thoughts is also useful. If I have the name of Jesus on my lips – what else could I need?
By the way Fr. Stephen,
I forgot to mention that this post means a lot to me. For one thing, my father very much embodies the St. Augustine in the beginning. I think it might very well end up on his tombstone.
For another thing, the instructions that you “threw on” to the end of the post just to round it out were a very good reminder of similar directions you gave a few months ago. I needed both of those. Thank you once again for your ministry.