Monday, December 3, 2012

An Introduction to Eastern Monastic Spirituality: Silence/Stillness

Requested by a reader.

[I apologize for the long span of time between my last post in this series and the present post.  Life has intervened, as it does among those of us who are not monastics.  I once again apologize for my excessive tardiness.]

This is my second in a series of three posts on the major themes of Eastern Christian monastic spirituality.  In my earlier posts you can learn about the sources of Eastern Christian monasticism and the first major theme: solitude.  I apologize if I misrepresent any part of monastic spirituality.  I just hope that this is in some extent helpful.


St. Diadochos of Photiki

"Flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness," said the Lord to Abba Arsenios (AP, Arsenios #2).  Having covered the theme of solitude in my first post, now it is time to move on to silence.

As with solitude, there is definitely a literal aspect to how to live out silence.  "To live without speaking is better than to speak without living" (AP, Isidore of Pelusia #1).  Silence allows one to focus solely on God without being distracted.  As is generally the case even today, monasteries generally discourage any speech except for select times (although sometimes other types of communication are allowed: some medieval monks even created their own forms of sign language).

Talkativeness in oneself "dissipates [the soul's] remembrance of God through the door of speech," like an open door allows heat to escape a steam bath; thus, "timely precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts" (St. Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge and Discrimination §70; PK I.276).  However, this does not mean speaking in itself is evil: instead, the silence must be "timely."  "A sense of the right moment and a sense of proportion go hand in hand with an intelligent silence" (Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology §I.26; PK III.37).  Silence, then, should be used in moderation to combat the vice of excessive talkativeness and to support the spiritual life of both oneself and others.  In the famous words of Abba Pambo, "If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech" (qtd. in AP, Theophilus the Archbishop #2).

 This ideal of silence is not meant to be solely something exterior, though, but also something interior.  This interior silence is best exemplified by the concept of stillness, ἡσυχία.  A short definition is "living a life without distraction, far from all worldly care" (St. Peter of Damaskos, Book I, A Treasury of Divine Knowledge, The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline; PK III.89).  A slightly longer is "a state of inner tranquillity or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure and the guarding of heart and attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him" (PK, Glossary).  A definition at great length is as follows:

"Stillness is an undisturbed state of the intellect, the clam of a free and joyful soul, the tranquil unwavering stability of the heart in God, the contemplation of light, the knowledge of the mysteries of God, consciousness of wisdom by virtue of a pure mind, the abyss of divine intellections, the rapture of the intellect, intercourse with God, an unsleeping watchfulness, spiritual prayer, untroubled repose in the midst of great hardship and, finally, solidarity and union with God" (Nikitas Stithatos, On the Inner Nature of Things and on the Purification of the Intellect §64; PK IV.125).

In a sense, stillness is a silence inside the soul.  It is the quieting of all passions and turbulent thoughts in order to focus solely on the Lord.  As David writes in His voice, "Devote yourselves to stillness and know that I am God" (Ps 46:10).  The entire goal of the solitude discussed in the previous post is to prepare oneself to more easily achieve both exterior and interior silence, that is, silence of speech and silence of thoughts (stillness).

 As with my last post, I feel woefully inadequate in writing on these topics, especially because I am so recently introduced to them.  Therefore, I will again refer to our holy predecessors, the God-Bearing Fathers.  May their words (and the words of a few other spiritual writers) teach you more than I ever could.

"The beginning of purity of the soul is silence."--St. Basil the Great

 Sts. Barsanuphius and John

"First, if a person does not enter deeply into himself and does not have complete mastery over himself, silence begets only an exaggeration opinion of oneself.  But if one does master himself, he will excel in humility."--St. Barsanuphius

"All my days have I grown up among the Sages and I have found naught better for a man than silence; and not the expounding [of the Law] is the chief thing but the doing [of it]; and he that multiplies words occasions sin."--Simeon bar-Gamaliel, The Mishnah, Aboth 1:17 [Jewish spiritual writer].

"Expel from yourself the spirit of talkativeness. For in it lurk the most dreadful passions: lying, loose speech, absurd chatter, buffoonery, obscenity. To put the matter succintly, 'through talkativeness you will not escape sin' (Prv 10:19 LXX), whereas a silent man 'is a throne of perceptiveness' (Prv 12:23 LXX). Moreover, the Lord has said that we shall have to give an account of every idle word (cf. Mt 12:36). Thus silence is most necessary and profitable."--St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic, A Century of Spiritual Texts §79 (PK II.31)

"For those newly engaged in spiritual warfare the swift path to the recovery of virtue consists in the silencing of the lips, the closure of the eyes and the stopping of the ears; for once the intellect has achieved this kind of intermission and has sealed off the external entrances to itself, it begins to understand itself and its own activities."--Nikitas Stithatos, On the Practice of the Virtues §26 (PK IV.85)

"Purity of heart constitutes prayer more than do all the prayers that are uttered out aloud, and silence united to a mind that is sincere is better than the loud voice of someone crying out."--Aphrahat, Demonstration IV.1

"Anyone coming into the land of silence must always bear in mind the end to which it gives access, so that his heart may never stray."--Seraphim of Sarov [Russian Orthodox saint]

"It is necessary to strive to reach silence of spirit, because there can be nothing good in a stormy soul."--Seraphim of Sarov

 St. Gregory of Sinai

"Nothing so fills the heart with contrition and humbles the soul as solitude embraced with self-awareness, and utter silence."--St. Gregory of Sinai, On Commandments and Doctrines, Warnings and Promises; on Thoughts, Passions and Virtues, and also on Stillness and Prayer §104 (PK IV.235)

"When you allow any distraction to disturb the mind, such draws the mind away from silence.  For silence is had only in peace and tranquility, since God is peace and is beyond all agitation and noise."--Nil Sorsky [Russian Orthodox saint], The Monastic Rule [Ustav] II

"You should refresh yourself...with conversation about the life of virtue when you relax from silence."--Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology §III.17 (PK III.49)

"Spiritual conversation is silver, but silence is golden."--A Holy Father, qtd. in Father John, Christ is in Our Midst: Letters From a Russian Monk, Letter #55

"I have often repented of having spoken, but never of having been silent."--AP, Arsenios #40

"Stillness and prayer are the greatest weapons of virtue, for they purify the intellect and confer on it spiritual insight."--St. Thalassios the Libyan, On Love, Self-control and Life in accordance with the Intellect §I.67 (PK II.311)

 St. Ephraim the Syrian (15th c. Armenian icon)

"In luminous silence within the mind let prayer recollect itself, so as not to stray."--St. Ephraim the Syrian, Hymns on the Faith XX.5

"It is stillness, full of wisdom and benediction, that leads us to this holy and godlike state of perfection."--Nikitas Stithatos, On Spiritual Knowledge, Love and the Perfection of Living §25 (PK IV.146)

I hope this collection of extracts has not proven too long for you, and I hope that it, along with the short reflections above, have helped you to begin to grasp this concept of silence and stillness.  I apologize for any failures or misteachings on my part.  Thank you for reading, and God Bless.

Ἀββᾶς Ἀντώνιος, πρέσβευε ὑπέρ ἡμών!
Abba Antonios, pray for us!

Nota Bene: Abbreviations for this post are as follows: AP = Apophegmata Patrum, PK = The Philokalia.

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