When you squeeze an orange, you find out what’s in it: sweet, sour, or even sometimes rotten. Stress does the same thing with most people, in my experience. Stress reveals what is in our hearts, and it is usually not nearly as sweet as we thought it would be. But that is a gift. St. Isaac tells us that to know your own heart is a gift greater than the raising of the dead. And almost all of the time, the sourness that is revealed in a time of stress is only evidence of spiritual immaturity, not of serious spiritual failure. Like an orange, we take time to sweeten.
When my wife and I lived in California, we had an orange tree growing right up against our chicken coup. It was a very happy orange tree. Every year during Great Lent, I would start my day with a big glass (five or six oranges) of freshly squeezed orange juice. It would get me through the day. We learned quickly, however, that freshly picked oranges were not the best for making orange juice. The best were the ones that had been set aside for a week or ten days. These were the sweetest. The sour edge is taken off with time.
I have found the same thing is true about what we say—the juice of our soul, you might say. I have found that it is usually better for me to say nothing at the beginning, at the moment I feel like saying something. At that moment, it is usually best not to say anything because if I say something the very moment I feel like saying it, the juice is not sweet. It’s sour. And no matter how true or right what I have to say is, all the hearer notices is the sour, bitter, angry or judgemental note hidden in my words. Even when I do not intend to communicate anything but truth and edification, a bit of the bitterness or arrogance or prejudice of my own soul slips in and somehow sours the entire message.
In the Letters of Sts. Barsanuphius and John, letter 265, St. Barsanuphius prays for St. Dorotheos of Gaza, who is his spiritual son. Sts. Barsanuphius and John write over fifty letters to St. Dorotheos while he is still a relatively young monk struggling with the desire to be completely still and silent in prayer, despite the fact that he has been given the obedience from his Abbot to oversee the care of some of the monks and the oversight of some of the practical aspects of the administration of the monastery. St. Dorotheos asks at one point which is more important, obedience or stillness in prayer. The answer is that he must obey and learn to find stillness even when he must be active.
Isn’t that what we who live in the world also must do? We are given the obedience of family, job, civic responsibilities, etc. Ours is not to flee to the desert and caves to find stillness. Ours is to find the desert and cave in our own hearts and to flee there to find stillness even while we care for our family, do our work, encourage our friends and basically do all that we have to do to be in the world but not of the world.
Consequently, much of the advice that Sts. Barsanuphius and John give St. Dorotheos is easily applicable to us who live in the world because we too have responsibilities that make it difficult for us to pray and to keep peace in our heart and to avoid passion-inducing situations. One of the things that St. Dorotheos confesses is that he has noticed that whenever he has to speak to a subordinate monk or gets called away from prayer to take care of a practical matter, it is very difficult for him to discern the thoughts of his own heart, and because of passion he loses his inner peace.
Does that sound familiar to anyone? That’s so often my experience: I feel strongly that I need to say something, I say it; and then I am so disturbed because I can feel the passions at work in me and my peace is gone. One of the prayers that St. Barsanuphius prays for St. Dorotheos to help him with this very problem is the following:
May God protect you, granting you the strength to keep silent in knowledge and the grace to know when it is necessary for you to speak without passion.
I think this is a very helpful word and a much needed prayer. The first part of the prayer asks for strength to keep silent in knowledge. When we know something, we feel so compelled to say something, don’t we? I think that’s why St. Barsanuphius prays for strength. We need God’s strength to keep silent with knowledge. When we know something, that’s exactly when we need to struggle to keep silent. Just because I know something that could correct someone else, even someone it is my responsibility to correct (like my own children or students), that does not mean that I should say something. In fact, St. Barsanuphius tells us that the correct time to speak, or rather knowing when it is necessary to speak is a grace, a gift from God.
When we wait, when we keep silent with knowledge rather than sharing it just because we know it, we are able to keep peace and begin the process of discerning our own hearts. Like the oranges we kept on a shelf for ten days, time and silence with knowledge mellows us, sweetens the knowledge and allows us time to discern the sour parts of our own soul: sour parts that would instil passion into our words. This is not easy to do. That’s why St. Barsanuphius prays for the strength to do it. It requires spiritual strength and maturity to stay silent with knowledge waiting for the moment of grace, the right time, waiting until it is necessary to speak.
Timing is so important. One reason why timing is important is that the person to whom you will speak will not be able to hear what you have to say—no matter how true, right or correct you are, until God has made them ready. But the more important reason why it is necessary to be silent with knowledge, at least according to St. Barsanuphius, is for our own soul. When we speak without grace, we stir up passions, in ourselves and probably in the one we are speaking to. When we wait for grace, when we wait until it is necessary for us to speak, then we are more likely to speak the truth in love, without passion.
So how do you know when you have the grace to speak? How do you know when it is necessary to speak? Probably, you have the grace when you have been silent long enough to discern your own heart and you are able to speak without passion. But in my case, that’s about never.
Like almost all spiritual advice, we cannot walk in it, or do it, perfectly or fully, not without a lot of practice and a lot of mistakes and a lot of repentance. At the beginning we cannot know exactly when we have been silent enough, or when it is necessary to speak, or when we have the grace to speak without passion. However, we will never learn if we do not begin. You cannot run a four-minute mile if you don’t start with a ten-minute mile (or wherever you are at). You have to begin, begin by being silent with knowledge. Begin by paying attention to your own heart, discerning your own thoughts as best as you can. Here, the guidance of a spiritual father or mother can be very helpful.
You can also begin by noticing your passions, especially as you experience them while and after you speak. You can learn from your own experience when you tend to speak with passion, and avoid speaking in those contexts. By the way, speaking here would also include writing—just saying….
So to review, like St. Dorotheos of Gaza, we are often kept from the kind of stillness and spiritual practices we would like to pursue because of the various obediences that are put upon us. But even as we must attend to practical matters, we can learn to keep stillness and peace in our heart. In a later letter (269) St. Barsanuphius tells St. Dorotheos that in the distraction from prayer he experiences in attending to his practical duties, “Behold, you have not strayed from the way. For godly concern [for others] is also a spiritual work accomplished and achieved for the salvation of the soul.” We too need not despair that our soul may be lost because we cannot pray as we think we should. Godly concern for others is also a spiritual work for the salvation of our souls.
And in regards to passions that are stirred up by our own words, St. Barsanuphius offers us a prayer, a prayer that I have been praying for myself for the past little while: O Lord Jesus Christ, grant me the strength to keep silent in knowledge, and the grace to know when it is necessary to speak without passion. Amen.