The Gift of Silence

The second-century Latin theologian Tertullian declared that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. This remains true to our day, as witnessed most poignantly by the martyrdom of bishops, priests and lay people during the Communist era, in Russia, Romania and elsewhere, and in the ongoing persecution of Christians at the hands of Muslim extremists in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

Toward the end of the third century, however, with increasing tolerance shown to Christians and their faith, literal martyrdom began to wane. The witness it represented (martyr means “witness”) increasingly took the form of ascetic struggle—spiritual combat against the demons and our most destructive passions—that would constitute the impetus behind the growth of monasticism. Gradually, the monk, the monochos or “unified one,” became the true “martyr,” the true witness to the “unseen warfare,” which is indispensable for pursuing the “narrow way” that leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Authentic monasticism thus became the new “seed of the Church.” Over the centuries it has served as the foundation of Orthodox spiritual and liturgical life, and has thereby proven itself to be an essential element in Christian existence and for the overall witness of the Church in and to the world.

The growing numbers of monastic communities in the United States and Canada have the potential to continue the centuries-old witness to the need within Christian life to acquire certain virtues commonly associated with the hesychast tradition of prayer: “prayer of the heart,” grounded in silence and inner stillness, which can, by a gift of pure grace, lead one—monk or lay person—into a deep and abiding communion with the God of love.

If there is one element of traditional monastic experience that is more difficult than any other to acquire in our culture, it is surely the element of silence. Silence lies at the heart of ascetic, and particularly hesychast, tradition and experience. Yet it is all too often misunderstood and neglected, not only by our busy lay people, but even by monastics, those who have dedicated themselves to a life of witness and prayer.

In the next few “Life in Christ” columns, therefore, I would like to speak, in very modest and inadequate ways, about the virtue—the divine gift—of silence. This, unfortunately, is no “personal testimony.” I make no claim at all to understand the mystery of silence, much less to practice it. The following few sets of reflections are drawn, rather, from the Church’s scriptural and ascetic tradition, and from the witness of spiritual elders whose lives have been shaped and blessed by genuine silence. Since silence is so important in the whole of Christian existence, I offer these thoughts in the hope that they might be of some use to “Life in Christ” readers. We begin with the experience of silence as it was known in ancient Israel.

There is an obvious and deep irony in any attempt to talk about silence. It’s like trying to describe the ineffable or depict the invisible. The task itself is inherently impossible. Silence can only speak for itself: not through words, but through experience. The best way to begin, therefore, is not by any definition or analysis, but by a story.

There is a familiar little account in the alphabetical collection of traditions that have come down to us from the desert fathers of the early Christian centuries. It is said that one day Abba Theophilus, who was an archbishop, came to Scetis, a desert wasteland and spiritual paradise, where great numbers of monks carried on their unseen spiritual warfare.

Archbishop Theophilus made his way to the cell of Abba Pambo, a man recognized and acclaimed for his humility and wisdom. The brethren who accompanied Theophilus said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.” Abba Pambo replied: “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.” [1]

There is really little more that can or should be said. If people are not edified by our silence, then they will not be edified by our words.

In the beginning there was absolute silence. Through His Word, God spoke into this silence, to create the heavens and the earth. Then, on the cosmic Sabbath known as “the seventh day,” God rested. His Word, however, has continued its creative activity throughout human history. As God declares through the prophet Isaiah, “My Word that goes forth from my mouth will not return to me empty; it shall accomplish that which I purpose and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isa 55:11). To affirm that God creates ex nihilo is to say that He speaks out of silence, to bring all things into existence by the power of His creative Word. Word and silence, then, complement each other. Silence, in the most positive sense, is the environment and atmosphere, the sacred space, into which God speaks His Word, both to create the world and to save it from death and corruption.

Further on in Old Testament tradition, silence becomes the medium for divine revelation. In a terrifying epiphany recounted in the first Book of Kings, God appeared on a mountain to the prophet Elijah. As the Lord passed by, there came a mighty wind, so strong it split the mountain and shattered the rocks in pieces. But, the narrative tells us, “the Lord was not in the wind.” After the wind there came an earthquake, then a fire; but the Lord was in neither. Then, the passage concludes, “after the fire a still, small voice” (1 Ki 19:12). The New Revised Standard Version renders this more forcefully: “after the fire the sound of sheer silence.” Through this paradoxical image—“the sound of sheer silence”—God reveals both His presence and His purpose.

From the time of Elijah through the period of classical prophecy, God continued to reveal Himself through His Word of blessing and judgment. At the same time, silence was increasingly perceived as something negative: the absence of God’s voice and thus of His presence. “The land of silence” became synonymous with Sheol, the place of the dead where, by definition, the life-giving God is not to be found (Ps 88:11-13; 93:17, LXX). God’s judgment pronounced against the nations includes the withering command: “Sit in silence, and go into darkness, daughter Chaldea!” (Isa 47:5). Silence is darkness, and that darkness is death.

Finally, Israel itself experiences such a judgment, when the tongues of prophets fall silent as God withdraws His prophetic Word from the people’s midst. (The post-Exilic Psalm 73:9 laments, “We do not see our signs; there is no longer any prophet…”; cf. 1 Macc 14:41, 2 Baruch 85:3, for whom “the prophets are sleeping.”)

Yet even in the Old Testament silence is recognized to have a profoundly spiritual value. “Be angry but do not sin,” the psalmist admonishes, “commune with your own hearts on your bed, and be silent” (Ps 4:4). The Septuagint (LXX) or Greek version of the Hebrew Bible expresses the deeper meaning of this verse by slightly modifying the translation: “Be angry, and do not sin; for what you say in your hearts feel compunction on your beds” (4:5). Genuine compunction arises out of the silence and solitude of one’s own bed, where, as St Augustine declares, the heart opens to the outpouring of divine love through the Holy Spirit.

The final word on silence, as it was experienced in ancient Israel, is that of the prophet Zephaniah: “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is at hand” (Zeph 1:7). Silence possesses an eschatological quality insofar as it prepares both heart and mind to receive God in His final coming. The day of the Lord is a day of judgment, symbolized by thunder and fury. But it is also a day of vindication, blessing and the bestowal of everlasting peace. These are qualities both given and received in silence.

Israel perceived the silence of the prophets to be a sign of God’s judgment upon the people’s rebellion and faithlessness. For early Christians, on the other hand, the falling silent of Israel’s prophets presaged a new creation and a new revelation. As St Ignatius of Antioch expressed it some eighty years after our Lord’s death and resurrection, “There is one God who manifested Himself through Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, proceeding from silence…” (Mag 8:2).

God speaks out of silence at the original creation; He does the same with the new creation in Jesus Christ. The Word of God, whose creative power brought all things from non-existence into being, brings about the new creation of the Church, the universal Body of Christ. From this point on, the Church will be the primary locus of God’s creative activity and self-revelation. It is there that the heart can acquire the gift of silence. And it is there that silence resolves into the inner stillness that allows us truly to hear—and thus to obey—the voice of God.

[1] Benedicta Ward, Sayings of the Desert Fathers (alphabetical collection), (London: Mowbray, 1975), p. 69).