The word is usually translated “silence.” It also carries the meaning of “stillness.” It is a quiet, not just of the mind but of the body as well, the silencing of the noise within us. It is Hesychia. The practice and understanding of hesychia is termed Hesychasm. Alexandre Kalormiros wrote:
Hesychasm is the deepest characteristic of Orthodox life, the sign of Orthodox genuineness, the premise of right thinking and right belief and glory, the paradigm of faith and Orthodoxy. In all of the Church’s internal and external battles, we had the hesychasts on one side and the anti-hesychasts on the other.
The very fabric of heresy is anti-hesychastic.
Hesychia is by no means a passive approach to the world. However, it prefers the sound of God and the work of God to that of the self or humanity in general. It listens. This listening lies at the heart of the Church’s perception of Tradition. That which we have, we have received; it is handed down to us. In order to receive what is handed down it is necessary to listen and pay attention, to be willing to accept what is given. It says ‘yes’ to God and ‘yes’ to life.
Modernity is, by its very character, in opposition to tradition. Among many modern errors is the assumption that what has gone before is wrong and in need of correction. It values youth and new opinions over those of the past, regardless of the inexperience involved. Of course, this aspect of modernity is deeply deceptive. Something much darker is at work.
In the 1950’s the phenomenon of youth burst into American culture with the so-called “Baby Boom,” the massive number of children born in the post-World-War-II era. The first discovery of the power of this new demographic appeared in the hottest selling item of the 50’s: coonskin caps. Disney made a tv show with Davy Crockett wearing a raccoon hat. A demand across the country among children made coonskin caps the first great Baby Boomer fad. Marketing directors took note.
America did not fall in love with youth: it was made to fall in love with youth. Being young, thinking young, looking young was marketed. Jack Kennedy was elected President in 1960, projecting an image of youth, though he was, in fact, but 4 years younger than Richard Nixon, his opponent. He looked young. He looked “cool.”
The youth movement of the 60’s, born in a reaction to various elements of mainstream culture, was quickly gathered up by marketing forces who made it the “mainstream.” The sexual revolution, often identified with the 60’s, was much more a “revolution” within marketing than a cultural thing. Sex sells.
And, of course, all of this is very “noisy.”
The Noise of Dissatisfaction
Among the characteristics required to constantly move towards that which is new and young, is a dissatisfaction with that which is old. The 1950’s was a decade in which American cars sought to maximize this experience by cosmetic design changes in cars every year. An astute eye at that time could discern year model and make with perfect accuracy. A car that was 3-years old always seemed “out of style.” I need a new one.
Dissatisfaction is a noisy way to live. You cannot be still and dissatisfied at the same time.
To live a life designed by a marketing firm is deeply sad. It also makes very good sense in a culture that is defined by consumerism. However, the Kingdom of God is not for sale, nor is Christianity a lifestyle.
The dissatisfied life is a breeding ground for heresy. It asks the wrong questions, and only hears wrong answers. Dissatisfaction is not the path to progress or satisfaction. It is a habit of the heart contrary to the Kingdom of God.
A word that properly accompanies silence is “contentment.” Contentment is not the same thing as approval, satisfaction or happiness. It is the willingness to be present to whatever circumstances are at hand without anxiety, anger or shame. It does not mean a declaration that the circumstances are good or that nothing needs to be done. But there are many forms of “doing.”
Many people experience a sort of paralysis when facing a large or complicated task. Indeed, even small tasks can take on a sense of largeness and complication if they are added to all the tasks of a day. Invariably, such an inner sense of what is to be done leaves us exhausted, trying to do the “whole” thing with every small thing. There is no contentment in the effort.
The modern world lives in a mode of information overload. The briefest encounter with a day’s news, or social media’s reaction to the news, can only overwhelm. The news is not designed to create contentment. Anxiety, anger and shame are required emotions for the continued march of a consumer culture branded as progress.
Hesychia is “stillness.” Anxiety, anger and shame are the enemies of stillness. St. Paul writes: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” This might not seem a matter of stillness at first glance. However, it goes to its very heart. What do we want to curse? Everything that we dislike; everything that opposes us; everything that we insist on controlling and changing. We are discontent. The noise of discontentment drowns out the silence and we search, not for silence, but for the constant change that is simply more noise.
Hesychia comes by the quiet of the heart. The noise of the passions, the little thoughts that distract with their condemning and judging voices, will likely continue, regardless of stillness. They are like the sound of the wind or the rustling of leaves – noises in the background that can and should be ignored. Such voices are artifacts, akin to muscle aches and pains: they should not be described as thoughts, per se. The quiet of the heart is found in staying put, blessing whatever situation confronts us. It is possible only because Christ is risen from the dead.
Hesychia is a characteristic of love. When we read that “love is patient and kind” (1Cor. 13:4), we are seeing a description of God Himself (who is Love). Our anxiety and shame cause us to be angry with God (and one another) and despair that He allows the world to be as it is. Hesychia is patient and kind, even to the “evil and the ungrateful” (Luke 6:35).
It generally seems to us that the nature and pace of modern life make stillness impossible. But this is not the case. It is possible to live in a consumerist culture and not be a consumerist. It is possible to live in a culture that is anxious and angry, in need of control and “progress,” and yet be content. To a great extent, the practice of stillness comes by paying attention to what is actually at hand (rather than what we imagine to be at hand) and blessing it.
I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child with its mother. Like a weaned child, I am content.
Shhh. Peace. Be still. It will be alright. God is good.