Stillness is Not a Threat  

Posted by Joe Rawls

An Episcopal priest of my acquaintance--whom I actually respect a great deal--once went to a monastic retreat house planning to stay for a week.  She left after two days because she could not deal with the silence.  And the monastery was not a Trappist place located in the middle of nowhere. 

Greek Orthodox deacon and theologian John Chryssavgis has some insightful things to say about silence, stillness, and related matters in his essay "Solitude, Silence, and Stillness:  Light from the Palestinian Desert."  It is the final chapter in the excellent and highly-recommended The Philokalia:  a classic text of Orthodox spirituality, ed Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, Oxford, 2012, pp 262-276.  The Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual texts compiled over two centuries ago by two monks of Mt Athos.  It pretty much underpins all contemporary Orthodox spiritual writing, and in the past few decades it has come to the attention of ever-increasing numbers of Western Christians.  It is, however, a difficult read and the above book is an invaluable introduction.


Nevertheless, stillness is not merely something frightening; it is, above all, something sacred.  Stillness is closely associated with the desire for "life in abundance" (Jn 10:  10), beyond "mere survival".  Most of us tend to deny the relation between death and stillness by entering a whirl of activity that makes death either improbable or else impossible.  Stillness is like waiting respectfully and reverently.  It is a renewing sense of anticipation, an overture to heavenly resurrection.  In stillness, we are aware of being alive, and not dead--of having needs and temptations and of being able to face and embrace these without turning elsewhere.  In  stillness we are not empty; we are not alone; we are not afraid.  "In stillness we know that God is" (Ps 46:  11)--an experience that may occur in a split instant or develop over an entire lifetime.

Finally, stillness introduces an apophatic element to the way of intimacy and love.  This is why Gregory of Sinai claims:  "Stillness requires above with all one's heart and strength and might".  Citing Isaac the Syrian, Peter of Damascus links "the state of stillness" with "freedom from discursive thought."  In this regard, silence and stillness become greater than love itself.  In the Philokalia, Thalassius the Libyan closely links "stillness and intense longing for God."  Indeed, through stillness comes the refreshing suggestion of approaching God and others by "not knowing" them.  If we are fixed to our preconceptions about God or our fears of people, then we may never enjoy perfect stillness.  When we "know" someone, we have already shut our eyes to that person's constant process of change and growth.  We limit ourselves by rooting others only in the past and not rejoicing in their potential.  In the isolation of solitude, we can risk being who we are; in the echo of silence, we can risk facing the other person as he is; and in the intimacy of stillness, we can embrace the other person in his entirety, in his eternal dimension--beyond what we can ever comprehend, tolerate, or merely find useful.  For, then, we are--to adopt the phrase of Nicephoros the Monk--"wounded by love."

Franciscan Avian Homiletics  

Posted by Joe Rawls

It has been the fate of Francis of Assisi, whom we commemorate today, to end up as the ornament in innumerable bird-baths.  There is of course much more substance to him than that, but even this banality is a sign of the near-universal love he inspires, a love transcending time, culture, and even religious bickering.  As the church makes a genuine if belated effort to address our ongoing ecological crisis, Francis stands out as a primary stimulus to a theology of the environment, both by his words and his deeds. 

An iconic moment of Francis' life--made literally so by Giotto--was the time he preached to a flock of birds.  Close interaction between contemplative humans and animals is by no means rare in Christian spirituality--the example of Seraphim of Sarov feeding the bears near his forest hermitage leaps to mind--but Francis talking to birds is probably what many people think of when his name is mentioned.  I think it would be helpful to look at the origins of this legend.  It is found in the writings of Thomas of Celano, one of Francis' brother friars.  An English version is in Regis J Armstrong, OFM Cap, et al, The Francis Trilogy of Thomas of Celano (Hyde Park, New City Press, 2004).  It and other animal stories can be found here, quite appropriately on the site of the American Humane Society. 


One time as [Francis] was passing through the Spoleto valley, he came upon a place near Bevagna, in which a great multitude of birds of various kinds has assembled.  When the holy one of God saw them, because of the outstanding love of the Creator with which he loved all creatures, he ran swiftly to the place.  He greeted them in his usual way, as if they shared in reason.  As the birds did not take flight, he went to them, going to and fro among them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic. 

Meanwhile his joy and wonder increased as he carefully admonished them to listen to the Word of God.  "My brother birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love him always.  He clothed you with feathers and gave you wings for flying.  Among all His creatures He made you free and gave you the purity of the air.  You neither sow nor reap; He nevertheless governs you without your least care."

At these words, the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way.  They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks and looked at him.  They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.  On returning to the brothers he began to accuse himself of negligence because he had not preached to the birds before.  From that day on, he carefully exhorted birds and beasts and even insensible creatures to praise and love the Creator.