Good strength to you during this second week of Great Lent. I hope you have consulted with your spiritual father regarding your Lenten journey and the disciplines you are practicing. All together now: Prayer, fasting, almsgiving! You’ve probably noticed that the lectionary includes much longer Bible passages than the rest of the year, and we begin the fast with Old Testament readings in Genesis, Proverbs, and Isaiah. You may also be trying to read through an additional spiritual book or perhaps spend more time in silence and prayer.
Great Lent can be difficult for those of us in the West. Orthodox practices are more strenuous than those of other Christian groups—if they even bother with Lent at all—plus, Western societies are not Orthodox. Life goes on as usual in work, school, and other activities. If you travel during Lent, it can be difficult to find vegan choices, although it’s much easier now than it was a few decades ago.
This is a good season to be talking about stillness and silence, which the Church finds crucial for any progress in the spiritual life.
In our previous post we considered the noise we make. Most of us speak more than we need to, and the saints and elders warn that too much talk can wreak havoc on our relationship with God. Our speech is something we can control, and in any season of life, with God’s help we can choose our words carefully.
The Noise Outside
Noisy input, though, can be harder to control. If we are to cultivate silence and stillness in our lives, we have to be intentional, because we are surrounded by sounds. There is no such thing as a quiet trip to the store; almost every place that wants to sell us something plays background music—a curated playlist to set a specific mood. A lot of it is awful from an artistic standpoint, but whether or not we approve of the music, it’s everywhere. A few years ago Macy’s actually drove me out of the shop because the royalty-free pop music they played was so loud and so bad, I had to leave to protect my eardrums and my sanity. A new pair of jeans just wasn’t worth the audio torture.
We are so accustomed to the ongoing soundtrack that its absence is noticeable. Once I went to the grocery store and realized I was rolling my cart around in silence. The sound system must have been having problems, and it was an odd feeling, like the eerie calm before a storm. I should have enjoyed the quiet, but I felt out of sorts, as if I might run into a zombie in the frozen foods aisle. We have been well trained to expect a constant hum of noise wherever we go.
But what about our travel to the store? We have some control there. And what do most of us do? We hop into the car and reflexively turn on the radio. We take a seat on the bus or train and immediately stick AirPods into our ears.
Travel time is dead time, and it feels good to put it to use by listening to an audiobook, a podcast (like mine—Hello there!) or our favorite tunes. We fill those empty minutes with words we enjoy—words that teach us new things and perhaps help our careers and personal lives.
If we’re careful about the things we listen to, these can be positive practices. I love listening to podcasts and audiobooks. And ’70s rock music. (That’s not an apology.)
But . . . is this constant input necessary? What would happen if, the next time I’m on the train, I just sat in the quiet, listening to the road noise and hum of conversation but otherwise not filling my ears with words?
I know exactly what would happen. I would get out my smartphone and start scrolling. Words, words, words. Gotta have ’em in all their forms, at all times. As I’ve noted in previous posts, this battle is ongoing. I have to remind myself constantly not to look at my phone if I don’t really need to; otherwise it’s just automatic—an entrenched habit.
For those of us in cities and suburbs, any effort to minimize the noise in our lives, to pursue silence and stillness, takes real effort. Modern society is stacked against us, clamoring for our attention in multiple ways, with lots of knobs, buttons, and links to fill the quiet.
My past religious experience too was bathed in spoken words, and I rarely heard preaching and teaching about the value of silence and stillness. Sometimes I would hear teaching on Christian forms of meditation, but this wasn’t a regular occurrence. I heard sermons on the importance of making time in our lives for prayer and study to combat the busyness, as well as helpful advice about centering ourselves and being still before God during our personal time alone with Him. But when that “quiet time” was over, silence and stillness were not goals.
So, what is the goal of silence?
I experienced quite a bit of difficulty in putting together the material for this post. The previous blog post, “Too Many Words: What We Say” should naturally be followed by “Too Many Words: What We Hear” or “What We Take In.” But the Church’s emphasis on silence isn’t really about minimizing the noise around us, although that’s part of the equation. A quiet environment helps us cultivate inner quiet, which is far deeper than what comes into our ears.
When St. Anthony the Great and many others fled to the desert in the fourth century, they were definitely leaving behind the noise, bustle, and temptation of the city. But they weren’t seeking emptiness, or quiet for its own sake. They were seeking an inner stillness in Christ.
In his wonderful book, The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer, Bishop Irenei Steenberg wrote, “To unite the mind and heart in prayer . . . a discipline of interior quietude is required— for normally our mind and our heart reside distantly from one another, unwittingly content in their disassociation” (p.93).
That interior quietude is something I’ve been struggling toward, with limited success. I have a long way to go in this area, and I’m certainly not qualified to teach on the subject. I’m devoting a blog post to the topic as a result of my own struggle against those words, words, words—the words that come out of my mouth, the words in my environment, and the words inside my head, which are constant. As I said last time, I’m usually pretty good at not talking too much—a natural bent that is quite helpful—and as an empty nester working from home, in this season of life I actually experience a lot of external silence on a daily basis.
But that doesn’t necessarily translate to inner stillness. As Great Lent was approaching, I thought, “This is probably the area that I need to focus on this year.” Not that I have any illusions of taming my thoughts within forty days, then graduating to a blissful, inner quietude during Holy Week. This is a lifelong battle. A spiritual battle.
Saint John of Kronstadt, who knew a thing or two about spiritual battles, wrote,
Those who are trying to lead a spiritual life have to carry on a most skillful and difficult warfare, through their thoughts, every moment of their life—that is, a spiritual warfare; it is necessary that our whole soul should be every moment a clear eye, able to watch and notice the thoughts entering our heart from the evil one and repel them; the hearts of such men should be always burning with faith, humility and love. (My Life in Christ, p.7)
So, as I stumble toward cultivating a quiet heart, I become more and more aware of my unruly thoughts and their ceaseless interior babble. In brief moments I am able, as St. John worded it, “to watch and notice the thoughts entering our heart.”
Bishop Irenei explained,
A quiet heart shows up the noise and mayhem of the thoughts. When first we come to see this, we are too weak to combat the thoughts’ strange power and defeat it. At this stage, however, it is enough that we step out of the darkness of ignorance into the light of awareness, and acknowledge this power which previously had affected us unawares. (The Beginnings of a Life of Prayer, p.98)
So, now what? When we become aware of the constant stream of thoughts, called the logismoi, what can we do?
One bit of advice that the Fathers mention over and over is to seek solitude. For example, in the Philokalia, Evagrios the Solitary advised,
If you find yourself continually invited outside your cell, decline the invitations. For continual absence from your cell is harmful. It deprives you of the grace of stillness, darkens your mind, withers your longing for God. (Vol. 1, p.35)
To all the mothers of young children, if you aren’t laughing yet, go ahead. I’ll give you a moment.
And for parents of older children, many hours of your week are spent shuffling kids to lessons, practices, choir concerts, and games. You might be thrilled by the idea of declining invitations to leave your cell—that is, your home or place of quiet. But staying inside one’s cell is not an option for most of us. We can more easily relate to this quote found in the book, The Paradise of the Holy Fathers:
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.
Yep. Some days, a monastery road trip sounds awesoe. In the meantime, we’re surrounded by the noise and the busy–ness. How can we quiet our hearts?
Even though we don’t live in the desert, the saints always provide principles to apply to our lives. They simply need to be translated to our personal contexts. We can find snatches of solitude during a daily commute, after dropping off the kids somewhere, and by getting to bed earlier (note to self) so that we can wake up fifteen or thirty minutes early for some time alone before the household starts bustling.
Our circumstances, right here and now, are exactly where God has placed us. We can serve Him and know Him, in the midst of carpools and deadlines and dirty dishes. I find great encouragement when I remember this. I can’t work out someone else’s salvation or travel their journey. I have only what God has given me, here and now. And by His grace, I can learn and grow.
Interior Prayer, Everywhere
St. Tikhon of Zadonsk said,
Prayer does not consist merely in standing and bowing with your body or in reading written prayers: it is possible to pray at all times, in all places, by the mind and spirit. You can lift up your mind and heart to God while walking, sitting, working, in the crowd and in solitude. His door is always open, unlike man’s. We can always say to Him in our hearts: “Lord! Lord! Have mercy!”
Venerable Nikon the Confessor of Optina said, “All the time, no matter what you do, whether you are sitting, walking, or working, say with your heart, ‘Lord have mercy’!”
We can find literally dozens of Church Fathers and holy elders who refer to the Jesus Prayer. Here’s an interesting perspective from St. Silouan the Athonite: “When unceasing prayer settles in the depths of the heart, then the whole world is transformed into a church of God.”
I have many excuses for my inconsistent prayer life, and these holy elders have a way of brushing them away. If unceasing prayer (which refers to the Jesus prayer) is in the depths of my heart, then everywhere is a church.
That includes the carpool to the soccer field with that really loud kid who can’t sit still. It includes a kitchen full of dirty dishes. And a desk that is still piled with work at the end of the day.
It seems that all roads—crowded or solitary, noisy or quiet—lead back to the Jesus Prayer.
St. Hesychios of Sinai said, “If you truly wish to put your thoughts to shame, to be serenely silent, and to live in the effortless enjoyment of a sober and quiet heart, let the Jesus Prayer cleave to your breathing, and in a few days, you will see all this realized.”
That seems like a lofty promise, but the Jesus Prayer does change our inner worlds as we turn our hearts and thoughts to His holy name. I have seen this work in my own life, when reciting the Jesus Prayer dissipates anger or worry. Outer silence is helpful but not required.
Elder Philotheos Zervakos, a 20th-century elder and spiritual son of St. Nektarios, offers these words of encouragement:
I advise you, have patience and don’t abandon ceaseless noetic prayer, don’t allow God to depart from near you. Joseph was in Egypt, in the place of sin, and he did not sin because he recalled God, he had Him near him. Adam was in paradise, where sin did not exist, but because he forgot God, he disobeyed Him, he disobeyed Him and listened to the devil, and he lost paradise. So it is not the place, but the manner which saves man.
Some of our most precious saints spent many years in prison, for defending the icons in the eighth century or standing against an atheistic Soviet regime in the twentieth. Their days were filled with backbreaking labor, and they were surrounded by violence, profanity, and the noise of their cellmates, day and night. These saints had very little external quiet, no privacy, no solitude. Yet they had ceaseless inner prayer. They possessed an inner stillness, cultivated in their hearts through years of devotion to Christ and His Church.
I don’t think I will ever be holy like these saints of the prisons. They developed their inner quietude during years of suffering, choosing Christ above all. But I can try. We can try.
We can limit our words, and think before we speak. We can choose silence sometimes instead of tuning into newsradio or listening to music. We can recite the Jesus prayer while at the stove or the sink and make the sign of the cross more frequently, allowing our bodily actions to lead our hearts. We can follow the practical advice of the saints, such as these words of St. Paisios, who guided so many pilgrims:
You should carry the prayer rope, so that you might not forget the prayer, which should work internally, within the heart. When of course you exit your cell, you should remember that the enemy is ready to fight you. Thus, imitate the good soldier, who exits the barracks always with his automatic weapon “at hand.” The prayer rope has a great power, and is the weapon of the monk, and its knots are bullets, which (when fired at the feet of the demons) make their sandals dance.
So as we journey through Great Lent, let’s take our prayer ropes out of our drawers and use them. Let’s consider the words we speak, the words we read and hear, and the words in our hearts, cultivating silence however we can, in the midst of our imperfect and sometimes chaotic lives.
I will close with the words of Elder Ephraim of Arizona as we press onward together during Great Lent:
Let us now strive more, my children, and the benefits will be great. No one finds Grace without toil. If the farmer does not farm his field, he will not see the results. When our fasting coexists, is strengthened and is encompassed with prayer, with contemplation, with watchfulness, with church attendance, with Confession, with Holy Communion, with good works and charity giving, then is fulfilled the beauty of the soul’s preparation for the reception of Holy Week. Then we feel the Holy and Honorable Passion of Christ more profoundly, because our hearts will soften, and they will alter and recognize how boundless the love of God is for man. Then the Holy Resurrection will be alive within us with great strength; we will feast in a divinely fitting manner and celebrate together with the angels the Holy Pascha.
Good strength to all of us as we journey through Great Lent!
One of the distinctive features of the Lenten season is prostrations. Lots of them. Next time we will consider this practice—its biblical and historical roots, and the meaning of deliberately falling to the floor. I hope you can join me.