By : Fr. Eusebios Vittis
Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries (photo from here)
Translated by: K. N.
Today's man is afraid of loneliness; he cannot be alone. He is afraid, even in overpopulated cities, in villages and in the countryside. A strange fact: if you are going to head for the forest, my brother, why don’t you “forsake” your cell phone, radio or TV? Go there, to savour solitude! Focus on the sounds of rustling leaves, the songs of birds, the babbling brook... you will hear the sounds of the wind whistling through the trees, cleansing and refreshing them, and making them sing as it passes through their branches (provided it is not a storm or a hurricane, but a gentle breeze that reminds us of God).
Man is afraid of remaining alone, because he doesn’t have Christ with him. Even the greatest hermit is not literally alone. Many people ask: “How do you get along, without any TV?” Well, I ask them: “How do you get along, without any solitude? Without any peace and quiet?”
Let's take a moment to ponder isolation, stillness, calm, and silence, where there is a huge lesson to be learnt…
We simply cannot remain calm In the world, without a river of utterances beginning to gush forth. Even in places of (respectful) quiet such as Churches, we cannot stay silent; one will inevitably hear a steady droning of churchgoers’ voices, as if they are in a public square (naturally before the commencement of the Liturgy and not during!)
Silence is the opposite of utterance. Man is a rational being; inner utterances can also form articulated utterances, that is, speech. But oftentimes, speaking becomes an unstoppable flow of utterances - sheer chatter that can be very tiring. It is a vacuous utterance, not constructive, lacking in content, and not an enriched utterance “irrigated” by the divine Spirit.
Utterance is a gift. But at times it becomes a torment, making others say: “Doesn’t that person ever stop? There is a time for speaking and a time to remain silent.” What time would that be? Difficult to determine. Let’s see how the holy Fathers describe this in their homilies – themselves having lived in noiselessness, in silence – and let’s learn from them. Let’s find ways to learn in silence the things that the Lord wants from us.
However, we don’t imply the cases where some people become silent when they are offended, when they quarrel, when they’re angry, when they’re jealous and bitter, when they’re in a lot of pain, when they’re afraid, when they dislike, when they secretly prepare malevolent intentions and do not speak. These cases of silence (“silent treatment”) are not representative of virtue.
We... “don’t have time” to focus on our deeper self, which is why, during confession when we prostrate ourselves before the Lord with our Spiritual Father as witness, our confession is sadly deficient; it doesn’t bear fruit, because we have never learnt how to practice inner silence.
“Virtue is silence in words”, as the fathers say. Silence is spiritual; it is that which begins from within, then moves outwards. If the inside is not silent - the inner man, the inner world - if there is dizziness on account of passions such as self indulgence, avarice, envy, greed etc – then you can’t remain calm. Your inside will gnaw at you…
When there is revengefulness, when you believe that you have been misunderstood, that you have been slandered by others, then you are inclined to talk continuously, to get involved in everything around you and eventually become boisterous. Spiritual silence is a virtue that helps us in the balanced use of articulated utterances and in non-spoken quietude.
Silence is an opportunity to talk with oneself. We are not given this opportunity, my brethren, and we also do not seek the opportunity to discover who we are: “this is me... this is how I am...”. But this can only be done in quietude and not hurriedly.
Silence presupposes ascesis. Ascesis presupposes insulation. But where can we find insulation, when in the cities that we live in, noise never ceases? Well, even if we are unable to have uninterrupted silence like a hermit, we can establish zones of silence: we can dedicate 15 to 20 minutes in our daily schedule, telling ourselves: “Now, I can remain silent”. When our children are away we should also seek silence by switching off the TVs that are nothing more than invaders in our homes - which also display a lack of respect for man. So, let's establish zones of silence, as much as we possibly can, at least an elementary degree thereof.
Let's now see what the Holy Fathers say on this matter:
The blessed Nikitas Stethatos writes:
“Non-preoccupation with human events and things is spiritual quietude”.
This quietude frees the soul from the shackles of the senses and the passions; by converting the powers of the soul, it recalls it to its natural state - that is, we return to the way the Lord had made us.
We are currently living unnaturally; we are inclined towards the natural, in order to reach the supra-natural by the grace of God, which transcends what we currently are.
Another saint says:
“Quietude is a state of mind; it is the peace of inner freedom, a rejoicing soul, a soul that is not perturbed by anything. It is the deeper knowledge of the mystery of God, it is companionship with God, it is conversing with God - the union and the close bond with God '.
If this doesn’t exist, then we are doing nothing; in other words, quietude is not merely an external display, it is also an internal function. Lacking that, we will have a vacant space in us that will need to be filled. When there is no internal bond with the Lord, quietude probably sounds like something foolish to many.
Saint Thalassios says:
“Enclose your senses inside the fortress of quietude, so that they don’t create distractions because of your desires”, in other words, a cessation of our unceasing desires.
Saint Basil says:
“In life, I abandoned my relations with the world because they were an occasion for myriad evils; but, it was not possible to abandon myself.”
Indeed, when we find ourselves in a marketplace that is very noisy, even when we return home, the noise still resonates in our ears, which is why the effort for quietude must be an ongoing one.
Saint John Chrysostom says:
“There are cases when silence benefits more than words – and vice-versa. That is, there will be an instance when you will speak: for example, when you are about to save someone, you will break the silence”.
“Proper silence produces proper offspring: temperance, love, clean prayer.”
What is a “clean prayer”? It is a prayer without any musings, without distractions. For example, when I begin to say the Lord’s Prayer... 'Our Father...' and my thought drifts to the rent I must pay; then, 'Who are in heaven...” and my thought goes to the electricity bill... or, what the neighbour said the other day, making me tremble in anger etc…. well, my prayer is demolished! Gone is “Our Father”! Quietude is gone! One must not pray after being upset about something; one must first calm down. When entering a house, we do not burst into its private quarters (i.e. the bedroom) directly; we normally pass through an entrance hall first, then a corridor... Everything presupposes some preparation - especially in prayer. If I am not calm and prepared, I should read from a spiritual book, prepare myself, and then talk to God.
“Quietude and prayer, love and temperance comprise the four-wheeled chariot that leads to the heavens”, that is, a chariot with four wheels that lifts the mind heavenward.
Says St. John Chrysostom, “Many were the things that could have held back Pilate and the Jews: miracles, Christ’s tolerance; but above all, it was His ineffable silence.”
If only we could be silent like the Lord! “Jesus remained silent” – even during the most difficult moments! Thus, the long-suffering, the forgiving, and those who know how to be silent will be safe when walking steadily on their path, and also be pleasant to everyone.