On Silence and Stillness

Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “silence” and “stillness” are not synonymous. Silence implies in part an absence of ambient noise, together with an inner state or attitude that enables us to focus, to “center” on the presence of God and to hear His “still, small voice.”

To silence, the virtue of stillness adds both tranquility and concentration. Stillness implies a state of bodily rest coupled with the creative tension that enables a person to commune with God in the midst of a crowd. It means openness to the divine presence and to prayer: prayer understood as a divine work accomplished by God Himself. As the apostle Paul insists, it is not we who pray, but the Spirit who prays within us (Rom 8:26).

This kind and quality of stillness is termed in Greek hesychia. It underlies the practice of Prayer of the Heart that focuses on the Name of Jesus: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Most of us are familiar with the 19th century account entitled “The Way of a Pilgrim,” and “The Pilgrim Continues His Way.” Here an anonymous Russian pilgrim, physically handicapped and with only the most rudimentary education, undertakes a voyage of the heart that will lead him step by step toward the heavenly Jerusalem. His journey is marked by numerous encounters with all sorts of people, several of whom initiate him into the practice of the Jesus Prayer. In the Church’s ascetic tradition, that prayer is progressively purified, becoming, in rare and privileged cases, “pure prayer” (kathera proseuchê) or “prayer of the heart.” As many within that tradition have described it, repetition of the name of Jesus begins with the lips, gradually passes to the mind in a spontaneous outpouring, and finally descends with the mind into the heart, the spiritual center of our being. The hesychast tradition therefore invites us to “stand before God with the mind in the heart,” to offer Him intercession, thanksgiving, praise and glorification day and night, without ceasing.

The terms used in this context need to be carefully defined. The word “mind” refers not only to our rational capacity, discursive reasoning and analysis, that is, to the activity of the brain as it is usually understood. “Mind” or “intellect” translates the Greek term nous, a notion well described by Bishop Kallistos Ware as “the power of apprehending religious truth through direct insight and contemplative vision.” The “heart” he goes on to define as “the deep self; it is the seat of wisdom and understanding, the place where our moral decisions are made, the inner shrine in which we experience divine grace and the indwelling of the Holy Trinity.” The heart, he adds, “indicates the human person as a ‘spiritual subject,’ created in God’s image and likeness.”

Silence fosters stillness; it is indispensable for stillness. Inner stillness, however, goes beyond silence insofar as its aim is to purify the heart and issue in pure prayer. That purification involves the body in its entirety, because body and soul, like mind and heart, are ultimately inseparable. In the words of St Mark the Ascetic, “The intellect cannot be still unless the body is still also; and the wall between them cannot be demolished without stillness and prayer.”

Silence is the prerequisite for inner stillness, and only inner stillness enables us truly to listen to God, to hear His voice, and to commune with Him in the depths of our being. Yet silence and stillness are, like prayer itself, gifts that God can and wants to bestow upon us. The greatest truth about us is that God has created us with a profound longing, a burning thirst for communion with Himself. We can easily pervert that longing into an idolatrous quest for something other than God. Yet God remains faithful even in our times of apostasy. Like the father of the Prodigal Son, he always awaits our return. Once we begin that journey homeward, through repentance and an ongoing struggle against our most destructive passions, God reaches out to embrace, to forgive and to heal all that is broken, wounded and wasted. He reaches into the very fabric of our life, to restore within us the sublime image in which we were made.

For many people, the virtues of silence and solitude, virtues that lead to stillness or hesychia, should remain the concern only of monastics. With the usual demands on our time and the level of noise pollution we all have to deal with at home, in the streets or at our place of work, these virtues seem to be a luxury we can little afford. Even if we really want to reshape our lives to introduce moments of “sacred time” and “sacred space,” the effort seems to be too much. We are too rushed in the morning, too tired at night, and too busy in between, even to say a few prayers or read a few lines of Scripture. How can we be expected to cultivate silence, solitude and an enduring stillness under such conditions?

The question, unfortunately, is usually rhetorical. It represents an objection and a refusal. Nevertheless, for those who desire it, cultivating those virtues, at least to a modest extent, is very possible. It requires a certain discipline and, at first, a good deal of patience. But little by little, the experience of inner stillness creates a longing for God that is self-perpetuating. Gradually it becomes a necessity in our life, like eating, sleeping or breathing. We cannot exist without it.

That stillness, however, is a gift of grace. We cannot fabricate it, but we can take small steps to open ourselves to it. And to those small steps the Spirit responds in abundance.

Each of us will have to discover our own most effective means to acquire a measure of quiet and a disposition toward prayer. For many people, it is enough to select a certain space—an icon corner in the bedroom or study, for example—and to set as far as possible a fixed time each day. Alone, away from phones and other distractions, we can light a candle before an icon, then stand, sit or kneel for a few moments until the inner static dies down. Make a conscious effort to relax muscles and limbs, and breathe deeply and slowly. (This is not yoga and these are not “techniques”; they are means of reestablishing a natural harmony between mind and body that is too easily lost with the frenetic pace of our daily routine.)

In the quiet of that place, bring your mind and heart to focus on God’s presence. Then allow the Holy Spirit to direct your prayer in whatever way is most appropriate, most necessary. Make supplication for your own needs; ask forgiveness for those who have offended you; offer intercession for those you love, for the poor, the sick and the suffering; and in all things, give thanks and praise to the One who shares to the full the world’s pain and grief, including your own. Allow prayers of the Church, including the Psalms, to come to mind insofar as you have been able to commit them to memory. Read a few lines of Scripture and meditate on the message they offer to you personally, in that particular moment. Then close with a brief period of “emptiness,” a stillness free of words, free of thoughts, and conscious only of His Presence.

The Masoretic or Hebrew version of Psalm 46 speaks of the peace and harmony that will accompany the establishment of God’s Kingdom, His final reign over all the earth. Verse 11 begins with the familiar exhortation, “Be still and know that I am God!”

That stillness, acquired by simple yet faithful discipline, is both the precondition for prayer and the answer to prayer. On the one hand, it charts a way, a movement, a pilgrimage into the depths of the “secret heart.” But once established in that sacred space, it reveals the presence of God and makes Him known in all His power, majesty and love.

[1] K. Ware, “The Theology of Worship,” in The Inner Kingdom, (New York: SVS Press, 2000), p. 61-62.

[2] St Mark the Ascetic (early 5th c., also known as Mark the Monk or Ascetic), “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous By Works,” The Philokalia, vol. 1, (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 128.