“For even profitable words, spoken without measure, produce darkness, how much more so does vain talk.”
(St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 48)
I feel a little crazy sometimes, like an idiot—not a godly, holy idiot, just a plain, old-fashioned idiot: the kind that boasts of humility and speaks about the virtue of silence.
It seems strange to feel compelled to talk about the virtues of silence. Perhaps I am my own negative example. As the hymns of the Church teach us, it is indeed impossible to compose hymns of praise for saints and especially for the Mother of God, and how much more so hymns to Christ God Himself, hymns that worthily glorify or extol the acts of the Holy Ones. Why is it impossible? It’s impossible because words get in the way. Words, we can even say, betray. Words, even the best words, lie—they only tell a fraction of the truth, or they say too much: words have baggage. No, what is true about Christ and His saints can only be communicated by the language of heaven. What is the language of heaven? Silence.
Nonetheless, we are somehow compelled—perhaps as St. Paul was compelled to preach the Gospel—we are compelled somehow to speak, to write, to compose hymns, to paint icons, to adorn Churches, to express in some feeble way, some inadequate (maybe even largely false) way, the love or praise or awareness in our hearts using whatever medium we have, as inadequate as those media are.
I was listening to a lecture on St. Maximos the Confessor the other day by Fr. Maximos Simonopetritis (Constar) in which he referred to a recent discovery of some of the sayings of Saint Silouan of Mt. Athos. Apparently, toward the end of St. Silouan’s life, someone met him at a large, popular monastery on Mt. Athos and said to him, “What are you doing here in this crowded place? You should be in a cave somewhere.” Fr. Maximos comments at this point that Mt. Athos is one of the very few places in the world where you can tell someone that they should be living in a cave, and it is understood as a complement. St. Silouan then responds to this person, “I do live in a cave. My body is a cave for my soul, and my soul is a cave for the Holy Spirit.”
(You can get these lectures as a download from Patristic Nectar Publications for only $20 U.S. They are rather academic—what would you expect from a Harvard professor—but very informative)
This idea of our body being a cave for our souls comes up also in the first pre-Communion prayer of St. John Chrysostom: “As You [Christ] consented to lie in a cave and in a manger of dumb beasts, so also consent to lie in the manger of my unspiritual soul and to enter my defiled body.” Our body is understood not as prison for our souls, but rather as a birthing place, like the cave in which Christ was born. Within our body, in our soul is the place where Christ is born in us. And how is Christ born in us? Christ is born in us by the coming of the Holy Spirit in our souls through baptism and in the eating of Holy Communion. The Holy Spirit dwells in the cave of our soul, and our soul dwells in the cave of our body. But this does not mean that our souls are passive recipients of the Holy Spirit, just as our body is not a passive receptacle for our souls. No, not at all.
When we receive Christ, we receive Christ as a whole human being, body and soul—material and immaterial. And as the various pre-Communion prayers make clear, in Holy Communion we do actually receive Christ in a physical, material, bodily way. We receive Christ bodily because we are embodied beings. However, we are not merely embodied beings, we are beings with body and soul, with material and immaterial aspects. And it is this immaterial aspect that we call our soul which is housed (as in a cave) in our bodies. And it is within our soul that the Holy Spirit dwells. It is in this cave, in this cave within a cave in our souls, that we are able to know and contemplate God. (By the way, this is why some Orthodox Spiritual writers do not speak of a human spirit, but rather of a soul, spirit referring to the Holy Spirit dwelling in our souls.)
Nevertheless, for most of us most of the time, our soul’s attention is not focused inwardly on the Holy Spirit, on the Presence of God within us. Rather, most of the time, almost all of the time really, our attention, that is the attention of our soul, is directed toward the outer cave, toward our body and the material world. Our mind (which is an aspect of our soul) is trained and patterned by its interaction with and attention to what is sensual—that is, what can be perceived by our body. Even language itself, which is certainly something that proceeds from the soul, is formed, trained and limited by our soul’s constant attention to what is material. And this is at least one of the reasons why words betray us. This is at least one reason why words are unfaithful servants.
When I use the word ‘word’ here, I am not speaking principally of the specific words of languages. Rather, I am speaking of the conceptualizations that are expressed in language. When our mind, or nous (the ‘eyes’ of our mind or soul or heart—all three words can refer to the same immaterial aspect of ourselves, or can refer to different aspects of that immaterial part of ourselves, depending on which spiritual writer you are reading [and sometimes, it seems, on which day of the week he or she is writing]), when our nous is trained to look outwardly through our senses using the rational or reasoning aspect of our mind, then all of our conceptualizations, all of our reasonings and thoughts (you might say) and thus our language is formed by this outward gaze, this attention to created things, created things tainted and twisted and darkened by death. And thus, consequently, all of the language resources my mind has at its disposal, all the words and concepts that I can express, these too are tainted and twisted and limited by the twisted and dead and dying material reality that I have spent almost all of the time of my life focusing on.
But thanks be to God: He has not left us in our sin. Thanks be to God that He has sent us His Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, to dwell in our hearts, that is in the innermost, most central aspect of our souls, of our immaterial being. Liturgically speaking, this indwelling of the Holy Spirit begins at our Chrismation—which is nowadays part of our Baptism. However, one cannot be too picky about timing. The grace of the Holy Mysteries often precede the Mystery: “The Wind blows where it will,” after all. Even in the book of Acts, Cornelius’ household received the Holy Spirit before the Mystery of Baptism—in fact it was because St. Peter could see that they had received the Holy Spirit already, that he commanded that they be Baptized. But just as the presence of the Holy Spirit may precede the liturgical manifestation of Baptism, so also the Holy Spirit may dwell dormant (we might say) for many years in the cave of one’s soul. The Holy Spirit comes and dwells in us (so to speak) as a spark, as a seed. And a seed can lay dormant for years, even for a lifetime. The Holy Spirit is a spark in us that can easily be ignored, as our conscience can be ignored, ignored to the point of being deadened or seared, seared as with a hot iron (or so St. Paul tells us).
But when we begin to pay attention to this spark, when we start to nurture the seed, then a strange miracle begins to happen. A new and strange reality opens inside us, a reality that cannot be expressed by the words and concepts we have spent a lifetime learning, words and concepts that are all we have to express this glorious miracle we are becoming aware of within us.
And so we are stuck. To speak of it is to lie. To remain silent is to frustrate ourselves. To remain silent, we feel, is not to love: who wouldn’t share a treasure with his or her loved ones? Who, having won the lottery, wouldn’t share the prize with those he or she loved? (I actually know someone who won a million-dollar lottery prize and bought new cars for everyone in her family). But, alas, we only know how to express love with material things. We have plenty of words and concepts to talk about material things, but things of the spirit, realities hidden in our hearts, here our words fall woefully short.
But I don’t have to tell you this. Anyone who has tried to share her or his inner life with a loved one and received only a polite smile and a blank stare in return knows what I am talking about (and the polite smile and blank stare comes only from those who pity us. Often the response is more like an impatient grimace and sharp rebuke of some sort). Words are so lifeless. Words are so tainted by death.
However, here I am, talking. Here I am writing with these dead words about the Life that dwells in the cave within the cave. I don’t know why I do it. A kind of insanity, maybe; a kind of insanity driven by a love that feels the pain of others who know, who have become aware, who have begun to pay attention to the Life within them. It is a frightening and confusing thing to become aware of the awesome Life of God within one’s heart, and yet be surrounded by loved ones (perhaps even very religious loved ones) who don’t seem to get it, who can’t understand your words, who don’t seem to know what you are talking about. In fact, I, myself, am not even sure I understand what I’m talking about.
And then suddenly, it seems by chance, you hear a metaphor, an irony, a paradox expressed by a holy father, by a spiritual mother, by a friend, an acquaintance, an oddball on the Internet, and then you know, you know you are not the only one. What words cannot express, suddenly a metaphor or paradox expresses. No, that’s too confident. What is hidden cannot at all be expressed, but it can in some way be illumined. What words cannot express, you can sometimes see in an image, in an icon, in a paradox, in a metaphor.
And when that happens, when a window lets in a ray of light, when something you see or hear points right at the reality you have come to know in your heart, then you know you are not completely crazy. Then for a moment your heart sings, for a moment the image or the word or the paradox enables your mind to understand in some small way what in your heart you have already deeply known.
And I guess that is why I write. I write to share the words I have read and heard from others, words that have made my heart leap, words that have helped me. But everyone is different. Words that have spoken to my heart will not necessarily speak to everyone’s. Each of us has to find voices that speak to us, that enlighten the cave, that help us listen to the Holy Spirit. May God graciously grant that no one be more confused by the words that I use. May God graciously grant that some small ray of light shines in the hearts of others through these broken words.