I have a confession to make. Not the sacramental kind, but the admission of an unpopular opinion, a minority stance.
I’m enjoying the quiet of this year’s Nativity season. I don’t miss the cancelled office parties, community events, and noisy “holiday” celebrations that crowded the days of Christmases past. I’m even relieved by the lack of extra events at my parish. (Shhh—don’t tell anyone.)
Instead of frenetic activity, many of us are experiencing a hush, a gift of time and solitude. Of course, some of our situations aren’t exactly hushed, especially if the bedrooms are populated with young children. And I can only imagine how desperately our exhausted doctors, nurses, and lab technicians are craving any kind of hush. Or how much the harassed clerks at the grocery store long to escape the tinny holiday Muzak and complaining customers.
But once the shift is over and the work deadline is met and the homework is done, we have fewer places to go. Mom and Dad are no longer part-time, unpaid chauffeurs.
Whether our moments of quiet come in small bites or in great chunks throughout the day, most of us have more time. Time to think. Time to pray. Time in December, finally, to contemplate the grace of God poured out on the world in the Incarnation.
That’s the theory, anyway. So why am I so bad at solitude?
Inner Chatter Fills the Silence
Without . . . quietude, which the Fathers call hesychia, we do not even realize how dominated we are by our thoughts. With it, we at last are given eyes to see how they flood through us and out of us with such abandon. — Bishop Irenei Steenberg, The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer, p.96
Amen, Your Grace. Quietness surrounds me, but inner quietude is lacking. In fact, the outer silence amplifies the voices in my head. My scattered thoughts are usually buried under an avalanche of activity. But now that much of that activity has been removed, I’m left with a lot of internal chatter.
We are more than halfway through the Nativity Fast, and although outer circumstances have changed, my inner world feels much the same as in previous “normal” years: my scattered thoughts rarely focus on the reason for this Nativity season, and I “see God clearly” only in occasional glimpses through the mental fog. Solitude in this season is easy, but inner quiet must be cultivated.
Thus is it with the man who dwelleth with men, for by reason of the disturbance caused by the affairs of the world he cannot see his sins; but if he live in the peace and quietness of the desert he is able to see God clearly. — The Paradise of the Holy Fathers
Fasting with All the Senses
During each fasting season of the Orthodox year, the dietary guidelines affect menu planning, shopping, and cooking. Because of the daily effort involved, I am more aware of the food part of the fast—my stomach and sense of taste—than its other aspects.
Almsgiving is easy to remember during the Nativity Fast because of Christmas’s proximity to the end of the calendar year. This year, because of the financial hardships of the pandemic, Rob and I are giving to food banks and homeless ministries.
But carving out the time and silence needed for increased prayer is, as always, the more difficult part of the fast. I have no excuse; like many of us, I have extra time and solitude available now. What I don’t have is the inner quiet which, in the lives of the saints, does not depend on outward circumstances. This is where the other elements of the fast come into play.
For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles.
Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. — St. John Chrysostom
This year, the need to fast with my ears feels far more urgent than in the past. I long for a respite from the cacophony of our political discourse and the endless violence, disaster, and despair of the evening news. I am craving the sacred and the quiet.
During a regular December, I would enjoy the Christmas playlist that my family has collected over the years. Beginning with the evening of Thanksgiving, our tradition is to play our own seasonal soundtrack throughout the house—a collection of songs that includes the sacred and the silly. Haunting hymns (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”) and carols based on the Nativity story (“We Three Kings”) are mixed in with recordings that are so bad, they’re good in their own weird way. (“The Man with All the Toys” from The Beach Boys Christmas Album, anyone?) Normally this is a fun tradition that adds a little joy to the everyday chores.
But in 2020, our Sacred Christmas playlist feeds my soul, bringing with it a peace and hope that are missing from the news. So does a blessed, peaceful silence while reading, knitting, or doing the dishes.
I am fasting with my eyes, making a valiant effort to watch or read the news only once a day—maybe twice. I have written about this struggle with electronic input here and here. But in this season, my desire to disconnect from the outside world is greater; thus the silence is deeper and wider.
On my own, I would never have chosen the circumstances of this fast. But as I fast with all of my senses, my prayer is that temptations will lessen. By choosing Psalm reading and quiet moments in the icon corner, my eyes might not feed a lust for material things and a preoccupation with outer beauty. As I listen to calming, sacred music, perhaps I will be less likely to give in to despair and anger at the outside world. As my feet remain at home rather than running to the latest diversion, perhaps the anxiety caused by the frantic rush will dissipate. As my hands work and give instead of grasp and take, I may find greater contentment.
Then, perhaps, the blessing of peace on earth will become an inward reality. The inner chatter will cease. As I reject the noise and flurry, the solitude of silent nights will become the blessing of a monastic cell rather than the curse of a jail cell.
Right now I experience this inner quietude, this sense of God’s presence filling all things, only in glimpses. I have a long way to go. But I pray that the necessary slow-down of 2020 and the enforced isolation, even in the midst of illness, grief, and disaster, will bring inner gifts to us all.
Quietude in solitude is no small teacher of virtue. — St. John Chrysostom