Spend Some Time in Silence Each Day
Today’s topic is a tough one for many of us. As Fr. Richard Andrews, one of my seminary classmates, points out in his sermon from this past Sunday that practicing silence is at one and the same time the hardest thing for many of us, but also the most crucial. It IS the path toward God, which is why Fr. Thomas Hopko listed “Spend some time in silence every day” as Number 9 in his 55 Maxims for Christian Life. I encourage all of us to be open to Fr. Richard’s words, and to increase–or perhaps introduce–silence in our lives. [CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE SERMON INSTEAD OF READING IT]
Let’s try a little experiment today. I would like all of us to be silent for 30 seconds starting now (please stop reading, set a timer for 30 seconds and stay silent during this time). Now it should not have been relatively easy to not talk at this time because we’re used listening to the sermon. However, reflect for a moment on what was going through your mind? Were you thinking, “What is Fr. Rick doing?” Were you looking around thinking, “What is everyone else thinking?” Maybe you were putting together a to-do list for the day. My guess is everyone was thinking about something. The point is that while we can be silent and not talking, even in an environment where no one else is talking, and there can still be a lot of noise.
Today is the Second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent. Every year on this day we commemorate our Venerable Father Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonike. He lived in the 14th century and is well known for his writings in defense of the Hesychasts. Hesychasts were monks who regularly practiced a life of silence, especially during prayer. The word hesychast comes from the Greek word hesychia meaning “silence.” This practice of hesychia was based on the fact that God is not impressed with our many words in prayer for He knows what we are thinking anyways. Think of today’s gospel reading from Mark 2:1-12, when Jesus tells the paralytic, “Son, you sins are forgiven you” (v.5). When Jesus said this, the scribes who heard were thinking He was blaspheming because only God can forgive sins (vv.6-7). Then it says that, “Jesus perceived in His spirit that they reasoned thus within themselves” (v.8). In addition, in the Gospel of the Saturday before Cheesefare Sunday (Mt.6:1-13), Christ tells us, “When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him” (vv.7-8).
So, the question might be what are we supposed to be thinking when we prayerfully stand or sit silently in the presence of our Lord. Well, the hesychasts would say we shouldn’t be thinking of anything. We should attempt to put all thoughts out of our mind, especially the negative ones, and only concentrate on the presence, grace, and mercy of God. In our Lenten retreat this weekend, Dr. Harry Boosalis, shared with us the teachings of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos and many other saints. One of the teachings was about the logismoi or “thoughts”, often understood as “negative/evil thoughts”. These logismoi are dangerous because as they come into our minds, they can plant the seed for sin, which then takes root and leads to sinful words and actions. We should be very mindful of what thoughts are coming into our mind. We need to screen out thoughts that are envious, angry, lustful, prideful, and the like. However, it’s very difficult to do this if we do not practice hesychia/silence. Let me come back to this in a moment.
So, when we pray silently, we should go into the secret room of our heart and shut the door (Mt.6:6). As we stand there silently we will quickly become aware of all sorts of thoughts, even mundane ones. They will distract us from the presence and power of God. So, we must quickly put them out of our mind. Now, we may have legitimate worries and concerns in our lives about people we love who are suffering, including ourselves. These thoughts we must quickly offer up to God as prayers, letting go of them, knowing that ultimately, everything is in His hands. This practice of rejecting negative/evil thoughts and offering up legitimate concerns is like cleaning the house of our heart and mind. Then, without all the clutter, “the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
So, if any of us have even tried to practice real, true silence, why is it so difficult? The fact of the matter is that we are not very comfortable with silence. We spend most of our lives avoiding silence. Or we could say our lives are so busy, we don’t know how to be in silence. Even our idea of silence is not silent. We come home to quiet, and we turn on the radio or the TV or go on the internet. We do something to avoid true silence. This is our idea of relaxing. Why do we do this? One reason may be to avoid facing the things that live deep down within us including pain, sadness, anger, and the like. Perhaps we even wish to avoid God Himself because of guilt and pride.
Try to remain in silence for a period of time each day. This does not mean being silent in front of the TV or reading the newspaper. This means removing all distractions around us. Don’t answer the phone. Don’t start a to-do list. Stand in front of the icons in the altar of your home and remember you are standing before the altar of your heart. It could be for a minute, five minutes, ten minutes or more. Metropolitan Anthony, of blessed memory, says in his book Beginning to Pray, that silence is foundational to the life of prayer. As we noted before, sometimes even our prayers can be noise before God.
The journey towards God must eventually take its path directly through your own heart and mind. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). In addition, during the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5), Jesus taught about the inner life necessary for salvation. During the Prayer before the Gospel during the Divine Liturgy, we pray “Shine within in our hearts, Loving Master, the pure light of Your divine knowledge.” We cannot take a shortcut or a detour to avoid going through our own heart and mind. While there may be many things we do not want to face deep down in our secret room, but that is where God is also, where He sees us and rewards and blesses us if we are willing to sacrifice all our passions on the secret altar of our heart. Amen!