Witnesses to Silence and Stillness

To close this series of reflections on silence, solitude and inner stillness, it seems most appropriate to share a few very modest, personal experiences that I have been blessed to undergo over the years. These involve encounters with unpretentious yet holy persons whose example can guide all of us who long to acquire these virtues or qualities for ourselves.

In the early 1970s a community of French Roman Catholic contemplative sisters invited our family to live among them as we made our entry into the Orthodox Church. These sisters were deeply imbued with Orthodox liturgical and ascetic tradition, to the point that many longed to become Orthodox themselves. My fondest memory of the three years we spent in their midst is of the evening Vespers services. A half hour or more before the office began, sisters and their guests began to enter the chapel. They venerated icons, then knelt on the rug and sat back on their heels to pray in the evening stillness. After the service, those who could do so remained. Again they knelt on the rough hemp rug, settled back on their heels, bowed their heads and prayed. The silence in that place was palpable.

I often wondered why it is that silence is so much deeper when it is shared with others. Why is our prayer so much more focused, so much more intense yet totally simple, when we join together in silent worship before the God of infinite love and compassion? How is it that in that silence our prayer encompasses one another in a unique way, so that, in unspoken harmony, we intercede for each other, give thanks for each other, and make offering of each other to the God whose presence and love we sense almost physically, God who is ever Emmanuel, God with us?

This kind of experience is a blessed gift, realized through the presence of the Spirit, who unites us before our Lord in thanksgiving, in supplication and in love. These sisters, and the group of brothers who later joined with them, blessed our lives beyond measure. Yet as I look back, I realize we hardly ever spoke to one another. We passed each other in that wilderness area where the community was located; we nodded and smiled; but we kept quiet, unless there was some specific need to speak. In the silence of the pathway, or of the refectory, or of the chapel, we heard the voice of God, as it were, through the silence of the other person. In that silence we exchanged the unspoken assurance that we were praying for one another. And in that silence I came to realize that holiness exists everywhere, that the “ecumenical problem” can be fully resolved there where people, who love Christ and offer Him their unceasing adoration, gather in stillness, to worship together and to listen together for the voice of God.

In the village of Taizé in south-central France there is an ecumenical community of monks who receive thousands of pilgrims each year. More significant for me on our visits there has been the small village church, a Romanesque structure that dates in part to the eleven hundreds. The stone walls are permeated with centuries of prayer. The hard wood benches oblige concentration, and one can spend hours in that place, listening to the silence, hearing the muted voices of the thousands of villagers who, over the ages, have gathered there to pray.

A small Orthodox monastery on the island of Crete was home to a community of monks until they were slaughtered by invading Axis forces during the Second World War. Now a group of sisters lives and prays there. The grounds are filled with fruit trees and the natural beauty provides an ideal setting for shared words and shared silence. The tragic history of this community somehow enhances the sense of God’s presence, of His merciful providence that has created in this place of violence and death a haven of stillness and contemplative prayer. “Agathos ho Theos!” a sister calls out to me, “God is good!”

In a hospital room a number of years ago, a close friend lay dying. For years he had rebelled against God and against his Orthodox faith, expressing that rebellion by indifference to everything connected with the Church. In the last years of his life he had come home. With the simplicity and openness of a child he now turned his face to God and prayed. You could see in his eyes that God replied.

One day, shortly before he died, we spoke about the need for total surrender in the Christian life. Surrender of our being, our values, our hopes and ambitions, all into the loving hands of our merciful Lord. He was quiet for a while. Then he took a scrap of paper and slowly wrote on it the word “surrender.” We stayed together a while longer, saying nothing. There, too, was silence, a silence filled with mutual longing for “the one thing needful.” In that silence, our friendship, our love for one another, enabled both of us to know stillness, and in that stillness, to know the presence of God and the unfathomable depths of His love.

Repentance, coupled with inner warfare against the passions, is essential if we are to acquire the gifts of silence and stillness, and from there learn to listen to the voice of God. One weapon that proves especially effective in that warfare is the Prayer of Jesus: frequent, quiet repetition of the Name of the Son of God. That Name, which “upholds the universe,” constitutes the heart and soul of hesychia, the stillness from which flows “prayer of the heart.” The Name of Jesus has the power to lift us from spiritual death to a new life of “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” which the apostle Paul identifies with the Kingdom of God (Rom 14:17). It is a Name that possesses such power and grace that it can sustain a person even in the face of physical death. Let me close with another incident that illustrates what I mean.

A sister of the Catholic contemplative community I just mentioned was involved in a near-fatal automobile accident. She was transported to the hospital, and for days she hovered between life and death, comatose and maintained on life-support. Her sisters were by her side day and night, gradually losing hope as she failed to regain consciousness. As the medical team was deciding whether to continue life-sustaining treatment, she stirred and made a sound. The sisters gathered close to her and watched as her lips began to move. While she was still in a state of semi-consciousness, they recognized the words she was forming. Out of the depths of her darkness she was speaking words that, as she later recounted it, preserved her and virtually saved her life: “Seigneur Jésus-Christ, Fils de Dieu, aie pitié de moi!” “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!”

Out of a seemingly impenetrable silence and stillness, she found in the “Name above every name” a strength that sustained her in her struggle from near death to complete recovery. Her experience is a spiritual metaphor for the struggle each of us is called to assume: to speak out of inner stillness the sacred Name of Jesus, and to find there the only true healing of soul and body.

But as we speak out of that stillness, we also listen. We listen for ineffable words of love and compassion, of healing and life. These are words God addresses to each of us, without exception. And He does so in the silence of the heart. There He makes known the infinite depths of His love for us, His passionate concern to lead us from brokenness to wholeness and from death to life.

This is the experience of the saints, and it can be our experience as well. All that is required is that we make our own the confession of the Psalmist that foreshadows and informs the entire hesychast tradition: “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from Him comes my salvation.”