On Silence and Solitude

In the New Testament little is said of silence as such. The examples that do exist, however, are striking and significant.

The people are reduced to awe-filled silence as they witness Christ’s ability to silence his adversaries (Lk 20:26). Jesus, in the presence of His disciples, displays the authority to still the waters and silence the thundering of the waves as a great storm threatens to swamp their boat. He rebukes the wind and the sea: “Peace! Be still!” And, St Mark continues, “the wind ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mk 4:39).

Whether on the open sea or in the human heart, peace requires stillness. In the midst of our own storms and turmoil, Jesus speaks these same words, “Peace, be still!” For those who have ears to hear, who can listen to this commandment and receive it as an invitation, the wind of noise, confusion and tumult ceases, and there comes a great calm.

As in the Old Testament, silence in a New Testament perspective possesses an eschatological quality. It describes the response of those in heaven to the promise of Christ’s final judgment and vindication of the righteous, together with creation’s ultimate and eternal glorification of God: “When the Lamb opened the seventh seal,” the Book of Revelation declares, “there was silence in heaven for about half an hour” (Rev 8:1). That brief moment of silence recalls the awe-filled silence to which Israel is called with the coming of the day of the Lord, a day which promises both judgment and salvation: “Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord,” exclaims the prophet Zechariah, “for He has roused Himself from His holy dwelling!” (Zech 2:13; cf. Isa 41:1; Zeph 1:7).

This admonition is repeated on Holy Saturday, but there its meaning is completely transformed. Then the Church sings, “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 that profound silence the eschatological warnings of judgment are transformed into a glad promise of salvation, as the Lord offers Himself as Eucharist “for the life of the world.”

God speaks out of the depths of His own silence, first to create the world, then to renew the world through the incarnation of His Son. Through the voice of the prophets, including the prophet John of the Book of Revelation, God calls us to silence as well. He invites us to go into our “room,” our chosen sacred space, and there to shut the door and pray to our Father who is in secret, assured that our Father who is in secret will answer our prayer (Mt 6:6). In that silence we contemplate the mystery of God’s creative and saving work, together with the promise of our eternal salvation. It is in that silence that we can listen to God, hear His voice, discern His will and purpose for our life, and, finally, come to know the truth of a precious insight offered by St Isaac of Nineveh: “Silence is the sacrament of the world to come” (Letter 3).

A catena of sayings, drawn at random from the desert ascetics of the early Christian centuries, well expresses the value and necessity of authentic silence, silence of the heart.

“A brother asked Abba Pambo if it is good to praise one’s neighbor, and the old man said to him, ‘It is better to be silent.’”

“A brother asked Abba Poemen, ‘Is it better to speak or to be silent?’ The old man said to him, ‘The man who speaks for God’s sake does well; but he who is silent for God’s sake also does well.”

“It was said of Abba Agatho that for three years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”

St Diodochos of Photiki, a fifth century anti-monophysite bishop well versed in the desert monastic tradition, explained the purpose and fruit of silence in these words. “Spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness and complete detachment….” And he adds, “when the soul’s incensive power is aroused against the passions, we should know that it is time for silence, since the hour of battle is at hand.”

Silence and stillness are essential to attain spiritual knowledge, to engage in spiritual warfare against the passions and against demonic powers, and to allow the voice of God to be heard. Silence and stillness nevertheless require a certain degree of solitude, a temporary withdrawing from the noise and busyness of the world that cause endless distractions and hinder us in our quest for God. “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.’”

Perhaps the greatest challenge to authentic Orthodox Christian life today, at least in the United States, is to transform the heart and mind, our inner being, into a place of silence and solitude. Silence enables us to hear ineffable speech, the words of God that touch, guide and heal, while solitude makes us aware of the discreet yet infinitely powerful presence of the One who is with us “until the end of the age.” These two virtues, silence and solitude, enable us to transcend the emptiness of our life. They open the way to a new state of being that to most people seems paradoxical and unattainable: “to be alone yet know no loneliness.”

In the noise and confusion of the world around us, apprenticeship in the virtues of silence and solitude transforms us at the deepest level of our being. By the grace of God, it creates of the heart of every person who seeks it, a sacred space, an interior monastic cell, a dwelling place for the Spirit of Truth, who teaches, guides, preserves and blesses us as we journey toward the Kingdom of Heaven.

1. Benedicta Ward, Sayings of the Desert Fathers (alphabetical collection), (London: Mowbray, 1975), p. 69.
2. Ibid., p. 158.
3. Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, (London: Sheldon Press, 1974), p. 30.
4. St. Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia, vol. 1, (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 255. “Incensive power” refers to an aspect of the soul (to thymikon) that manifests itself as anger or wrath: negatively, as those terms are generally used, but positively as a force to combat demonic influence, as the power behind our spiritual struggles.
5. Moses 6; B. Ward, Sayings, p. 118.