Tag Archives: inner stillness

Privacy, Silence and Prayer

As we saw in an earlier post, a spirit of inner stillness requires something from me. Simply put, I need to begin. But what, concretely, do I need to do?

To grow in alife of inner stillness I need to cultivate three basic spiritual disciplines that are both foundational to life in Christ and human flourishing more generally. The absence, indeed the general cultural indifference and hostility to them, makes beginning the spiritual life difficult.

While the life of inner stillness has always been hard, the lack of appreciation for key human values means that even Orthodox Christians are likely to misunderstand the spiritual life. This is why so many of us equate life if Christ with moralism (whether conservative or progressive) or social activity (sometimes philanthropic, sometimes liturgical).

Without inner stillness and the disciplines that support it, my life becomes superficial. I am at the mercy of ever-changing fashions and desires—my own as much as those of the people around me. So what are the disciples we need to foster? There are three:

  1. Privacy
  2. Silence
  3. Prayer

And we mustn’t forget that, important as they are, these are all in the service of something far greater: Love.

Stillness requires prayer and prayer requires silence, but silence requires privacy. So we begin by cultivating a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—of being alone with God. And with solitude comes a sense of atonement a state of “at one”-ment or of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.

But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions, can be hard. When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. Very quickly though they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbor’s—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated

And so Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.”

Because I am always tempted to remember and ruminate on past sins (again, mine or my neighbor’s) in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “he sinner, much less the only sinner. I am a sinner; I am a sinner surrounded by sinners and all of whom are forgiven by the mercy of God.

And so, love is right there at the very beginning of the Jesus Prayer and of our journey to inner stillness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Silence. We all have all known someone who speaks so quickly as to be incomprehensible. There are no gaps between the person’s words and so we can’t understand what’s being said. The philosopher Max Picard noticed this and drew from this experience the insight that silence isn’t the absence of speech. It is rather the gaps between words that make speech meaningful.

Or take another example, this one from history.

Like other written works at the time, the first copies of the New Testament were written in a style called “scriptura continua.” This is “a style of writing without spaces or other marks between the words or sentences.” In addition, all the words are written in all upper-case or capital letters. As you might imagine, reading these early copies of the New Testament was a chore.

So like gaps between words in a book, silence is essential for understanding.

In the spiritual life silence isn’t so much the absence of noise but the absence of fear. Fear is noisy. 

The Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian tell us that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, NKJV). As an aside, understanding what Apostle’s words mean in my own life is why I need a spiritual director.

The perfect love that drives our fear is not my love for God but His love for me. The great risk of the spiritual life—delusion—is imagining that my love, if not greater that God’s, is in some way equal or comparable to His when it it isn’t.

God’s love is the source from which all good things flow in silence. The fathers of the Church tell “us that the mysteries of Christ all involve silence. Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence” (Verbum Domini n. 21).” St Augustine says that “When the Word of God increases, the words of men fail” (cf. Sermon 288; 5: PL 38, 1307; Sermon 120,2: PL 38,677).

Or as we hear in the Akathist, we can only stand “mute as fish before” the mystery of God’s love for us (Stanza 17).

But, as I said a moment ago, silence isn’t negative but fruitful. Silence is what helps us understand that we are loved by God. For example at the Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday, we sing

Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand; for the King of kings and Lord of lords comes forth, to be slain, to give Himself as food to the faithful.

In silence, as Fr John Breck, the “warnings of judgment are transformed into a ringing promise of salvation, as the Lord offers Himself as eucharist ‘for the life of the world.'”

Prayer. And so as privacy is transformed into solitude, and solitude gives birth to silence, silence leads us to prayer and we become able to hear God.

“Prayer,” says St Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgivings.” 

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have our struggles. It doesn’t mean that I don’t fail or aren’t at times treated unjustly. I do struggle against sin—though not as much as I should—and I am treated unfairly—though not as much as I imagine.

We need to remember the words of St Porphryios:

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

This means that sin—my own or my neighbor’s—doesn’t have the last word. No, the last word is the first word and that word is LOVE.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next: Love is the Goal

Why Cultivate Inner Stillness?

What do we mean when, like in the last post, we talked about inner stillness? And why do we need to cultivate stillness in our spiritual lives? Let’s see I can answer the second of these questions first.

Stillness, the Orthodox theologian Fr John Breck writes, is important for a number reasons. We need stillness if we are “to attain spiritual knowledge.” It also is essential as we “engage in spiritual warfare against the passions and against demonic powers.” Finally, in stillness we are able to hear “the voice of God.”

Fr John recounts a saying from the Desert Father. “A brother came to Scetis to visit Abba Moses and asked him for a word.  The old man said to him, ‘Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'” If we want to acquire inner stillness and the wholeness of being that comes through the Jesus Prayer, we need to practice “solitude.” Real inner peace is the fruit not only of divine grace but also of adopting a certain attitude toward the world of persons, events and things.

Specifically, we need to undertake “a temporary withdrawing from the noise and busyness of the world that cause endless distractions and hinder us in our quest for God.” This is more than not being around people or not talking to people. No, what’s necessary is that we “transform the heart and mind, our inner being, into a place of silence and solitude, an interior monastic cell in which the Spirit of Truth dwells, to teach us everything we need for our journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. John 16:13-15).”

It is this same Spirit Who inspired the authors of Sacred Scripture, Who leads the Church in every generation, raised up the Church fathers to defend the faith and preach the Gospel. Above all else, it is this same Spirit that caused the Son to come and dwell in the womb of the Most Holy Theotokos.

It is the Holy Spirit Who together with the Father and the Son comes to dwell in our hearts at Holy Baptism. When we turn inwards, we do so not to flee from our neighbor but to find the Holy Trinity. When we find the Holy Trinity, we also find our neighbor.

Together with physical silence, inner stillness allows us to hear the God Who dwells in our hearts. This is why, as I said earlier, prayer isn’t so much talking to God but listening to Him. By stopping my inner monolog, or, at least, slowing it down, and by stilling my heart, the Jesus Prayer helps me listen to God as He speaks to me in the depths of my heart. Stillness, says St Isaac the Syrian, “brings fruits that no tongue can speak of, neither can it be explained.”

Unfortunately, some misinformation has developed around the Jesus Prayer. Our prayer life should be sober and regular, not prone to emotionalism or erratic. And while guidance from our spiritual father or confessor is important, we don’t need to be afraid to start praying even if that guidance doesn’t seem available. Remember, we a have guide in the Holy Spirit and as long as we don’t deviate from the moral or dogmatic tradition of the Church—the same tradition that the Spirit inspires—we are on safe ground.

Remember the same God Who inspires us to pray, also inspires those who offer us guidance in prayer and He will bring us that guidance when, and how, it is needed.

So the first rule of cultivating inner stillness so we can hear God speaking to us is this: Begin. And beginning is easy.

St Porphyrios says that

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer.

It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me’.

Gently, without pressure, without pushing.

When I talk with people about their spiritual lives I often come away with the impression that they don’t think praying counts unless it hurts. So many of us think we need to stand at attention to pray; so many of us undermine our own spiritual lives because we act like a soldier on guard duty and not like a small child on our Father’s lap.

So, to cultivate inner stillness we need to begin. But how, concretely, should we begin?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next post: How to Cultivate Inner Silence

I’ve Got a Thinking Problem

As I mentioned in the last post, the goal of the Jesus Prayer—indeed a central goal of our spiritual life—is to come to a place of inner stillness. Unlike Buddhism, for the Christian tradition stillness isn’t an end in itself but in the service of charity. I need to still my heart before I can discern the will of God for my life and for the lives of those entrusted to my care.

We often hear that love isn’t a feeling but a decision. True enough but it begs the question. What is it we decide when we decide to love? 

To love my neighbor doesn’t mean I have warm feelings about him. It doesn’t mean that I like my neighbor. Sometimes my neighbor is rather unlikable. But so what? God doesn’t call us to like each other but to love each other.

God doesn’t love me because I’m good; if I’m good at all it is because God loves me and because I return His love for me.

Love then is objective—it is determined by God. To love my neighbor means that I unite my will to God’s will for him. I love you if I want what God wants for you. And this is where things get complicated.

Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy, writes that how “we think determines to a large extent whether we will succeed and enjoy life, or even survive.” This isn’t “positive thinking” or of keeping an upbeat attitude so everything will work out. Rather my thinking needs to conform to reality, to the truth of my situation. And so

If our thinking is straightforward and clear, we are better equipped to reach these goals. If it is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning, and erroneous interpretations, we become in effect deaf and blind. Stumbling along without a clear sense of where we are going or what we are doing, we are destined to hurt ourselves and others. As we misjudge and miscommunicate, we inflict pain on both ourselves and our mates and, in turn, bear the brunt of painful retaliations (Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding, 2).

Beck says we are suffering from a “thinking problem.” The Apostle James says the same thing.

Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures (James 4:1-3, NKJV).

Recall the last argument you had with someone.

While sometimes you know it’s coming, as often as not we don’t. We don’t even realize we disagree with someone until the argument breaks out. Usually I’m just chatting with someone when—seemingly out of nowhere, it becomes clear that while the other person and I are using the same words, we’re not speaking the same language.

The problem is that I’m not listening to the person but to my own, internal monologue. Basically, I’m talking to myself in the presence of another person. This doesn’t just happen with my neighbor but with God as well.

Actually, I got that backwards. I don’t listen to my neighbor because I don’t listen to God. Yes, I might talk to God—indeed I might talk to God a great deal, constantly even—but how often do I listen to God?

In a fallen world, listening to God is more difficult than I imagine. The neptic fathers in their outline of the process of how I come to commit a sin help us understand why it is so hard to listen to God.

Well before a sin, there is the image/ikon, an abstraction sensory experience. Images arise from any/all of the following:

  • the physical world
  • other human beings
  • my own intraspsychic processes (memory/imagination/anticipation)
  • the demonic

Next comes the thought/logismos or my evaluation of the image. This judgment is typically self-referential (what it means for me) and involves an increased level of abstraction. Like images, thoughts arises from any/all of the following:

  • other human beings
  • my own intraspsychic processes (memory/imagination/anticipation)
  • the demonic

Over time, I develop a desire for the object represented by the image. This is what the fathers mean by the passion/pathosA passion is “that which happens to a person . . . , an experience undergone passively” (“Glossary” in Philokalia, vol. I, 362). It is often an involuntary movement toward pleasure or away from pain. In more popular language it is my desire for the image and/or what the image represents to me.

Finally, there is action/synkatathesis or my surrender to desire or desire enacted and rewarded. We can also think about this as my assent to the passion. My actions are both the fruit of the passions and serve to reinforce my passions.

Over time my actions become habitual. Vice are those habits of thought and action undermine human flourishing and Christian holiness; virtues are those habits that foster flourishing and holiness. Typically when we read about the passions, we are concerned with vice rather than virtue.

The goal of the spiritual life is to grow more practiced in stilling the process of vice formation and to be less prone to the distractions that come from our internal monologue.  Another word for stillness is sobriety.

As this happens we discover, underneath if you will, a deeper, more primordial process—that of the heart and its ability to illumine the world of persons, events and things. In other words, as I still the passions and that internal monologue that sweeps me away, I discover that I am more and more able, and more importantly, willing, to love God with all my heart and soul and to love my neighbor as (and not instead of) myself.

So how does the Jesus Prayer help us to do this? How does the Jesus Prayer help us to listen to God and so help us come “to love one another”? How, in other words, to be cultivate a life of inner stillness and active charity?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Next: Cultivating Inner Stillness.