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.

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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 all...love 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."

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at Tuesday, October 30, 2012 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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