Tag Archives: silence

Let Us Meet Jesus in Silence

March 25, 2016: The Annunciation of the Most-Holy Theotokos

Epistle: Hebrews 2:11-18
Gospel: Luke 1:24-38

We call Christ our Lord, God, and Savior and are right to do so because He is. And because of Who is, we come before Him in “fear and trembling.”

But just as rightly, we must come to Jesus not simply as God but as our brother. As we hear in the epistle, “he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin.” Immediately after this we hear something extraordinary. The Second Person of the most Holy Trinity, He Who is God from all eternity “is not ashamed” to call us His brothers. This being so, how can we be hesitant to call Him our Brother? Because it is as our brother that Jesus proclaims the Father: “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.”

Jesus Christ, standing in our midst not simply as God but as our brother announces the Father’s great mercy for us.

We shouldn’t think that His humanity is merely instrumental, only a means to an end. What do we read in Hebrews? “Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” It is precisely by becoming human, by taking on our humanity and becoming our brother that Jesus is able to pour out God’s mercy on us and to lift from us the burden of sin.

We must balance Jesus ‘s transcendence with His imminence. Yes, as God  Jesus is greater than anything I can imagine Him to be; but as my creator and my brother He is closer to me than I am to myself as St Augustine says (Confessions, III, 6, 11). The irony, or maybe better, the paradox of the Christian faith is this: We only truly know God’s transcendence in and through the incarnation of the Son. It is in becoming like us in all things but sin (see Hebrews 4:15), that Jesus is able to communicate to us the supra-essential glory of God.

Turning to the Gospel and today’s feast, the Archangel Gabriel‘s announces to the Virgin Mary the great mystery of our faith. While our first parents were promised a redeemer (see Genesis 3:15),  the fulfillment of the promise is far beyond what they could have imagined. God becomes as we are, to paraphrase St Irenaeus, so that we could become as He is. Today is announced not simply the coming of the Redeemer, but God’s invitation to us to share in the life of the Holy Trinity. Today by God’s grace and the Virgin’s consent, we have become “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, NKJV) because He has taken on ours.

Let me offer at this point a caution.

As magnificent as is the Gospel, we can’t allow its beauty to blind us to the intimacy  we have with Jesus. Yes, we must worship Christ as “King and Lord” as we hear in the baptismal service. But to do know Him in this way, we must first know Him as our brother, as the Man Who all those yers ago walked among us and with us.

Too easily I can find myself swept away by the depth and breadth of Holy Tradition. The Church’s theology is rich and profound; the Liturgy of the Church is of unparalleled beauty, can soften even the hardest heart as it transport us from earth to heaven.

Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Jesus is not only our Lord but also our brother. And of the two of these, it is the latter —if I may dare to say such a thing—that matters most.

To know Jesus in His divinity as well as His humanity, to know Him as Lord and brother, we must imitate the obedience of the Theotokos. “As the human race was subject to death through the act of a virgin, so it was saved by a virgin.” Through Mary’s obedience “the wisdom of the serpent” is “conquered by the simplicity of the dove, and the chains were broken by which we were in bondage to death” (St Irenaeus,Against Heresies 5:20, in ACCS, NT vol III: Luke, pp. 19-20).

How do we practice such obedience?

Again, we must look to the Mother of God who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, NKJV). We must, in other words, learn to keep silence. St John Climacus says that “silence is the mother of prayer” and that “The friend of silence draws near to God and, by secretly conversing with Him, is enlightened by God” (The Ladder of Divine Ascent 11, trans. L.Moore, p.92).

My brothers and sisters in Christ, as we celebrate today the Feast of the Annunciation, let us commit ourselves “from this moment on” to set aside time to sit silently with our brother Jesus! And let us, through silence, come to know and love Him Who knows and loves us!

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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