“Be still and know that I am God!” is the first part of Psalm 46:10.
The command to “be still” comes from the stem of the verb (רפה) rapha (meaning to be weak, to let go, to release), which might better be translated as, “cause yourselves to let go” or “let yourselves become weak.” But to what end are we to “be still,” “let go,” “surrender,” and even to “die to ourselves?” We surrender in order to know that God is in control as Ribbono Shel Olam – the Master of the Universe. We “let go” in order to objectively know the saving power of God in our lives. We give up trusting in ourselves and our own designs in order to experience the glory of God’s all-sufficiency (Exodus 14:14).
Christ teaches us in the Gospel of Matthew, “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father Who is in secret; and your Father Who sees in secret will reward you. And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask them.”(St. Matthew 6: 6-8). In this short article I want to focus on silence in two areas. First, silence as part of one’s prayer life and second, silence in relationship to one’s liturgical life.
Metropolitan Hilarion says; “It is not out of words that prayer is born: prayer is not merely the sum of our requests addressed to God. Before being pronounced, prayer must be heard within one’s heart. All true masterpieces of music and poetry were not simply composed out of disconnected letters or sounds: they were first born in the depths of their authors’ heart, and were then incarnate in words or musical tones. Prayer is also creative work, born out of a deep stillness, out of concentrated and devoted silence. Before embarking upon the path of prayer, one must inwardly fall silent and renounce human words and thoughts.” In prayer we encounter the personal God Who hears us and responds to us, Who is always ready to come to our assistance, Who never betrays us, even if we betray Him many times. We know God only through an intimate relationship with Him. That does not come from knowing about God, but rather getting to personally know Him by what He says in His Holy Word, the Bible, recognizing the things He does in our lives, and by way of His Holy Spirit who comes to guide and comfort us. Saint Isaac of Nineveh said, “More than all things love silence: it brings you a fruit that tongue cannot describe. In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then there is born something that draws us to silence. May God give you an experience of this “something” that is born of silence. If only you practice this, untold light will dawn on you in consequence . . . after a while a certain sweetness is born in the heart of this exercise and the body is drawn almost by force to remain in silence.” It is in the womb of silence that we can grow ideas for the best course of action to take. Abba Joseph said to Abba Nisterus, “What should I do about my tongue, for I cannot control it?” The old man said to him, “When you speak, do you find peace?” He replied, “No.” The old man said, “If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent and when a conversation takes place, it is better to listen than to speak.”
St. John of the Cross wrote, “The Father spoke one word from all eternity and he spoke it in silence, and it is in silence that we hear it.” This suggests that silence is God’s first language. One of the problems we have in our society today is that we don’t value silence. Our lives now tend to be so busy that we have become accustomed to a constant barrage of tasks, inputs, and general noise. It’s not just an American thing; it’s a global phenomenon. Silence often makes us feel uncomfortable in our personal relationships. We always believe we should be saying something so as to avoid that “awkward moment of silence.” Sometimes we talk constantly because forcing conversation means we won’t be required to confront other issues in our relationships.
When did we begin to believe that moments of silence in our lives are a bad thing? When did we begin to believe that silence was good for monks, but not applicable to the lives of everyday folks? Silence is of particular importance for us Christians and our spirituality. Silence is probably the most important aspect of our spiritual lives. Silence is our admission that we are in communication with God, willing to listen. In our prayer life we are often so busy asking God for things, thanking Him for things, or praising Him, we forget that He wants to say something to us, too. We think that prayer means we must say something, but a prayer relationship with God is a dialogue, a conversation. We talk to Him, but we need to listen, too. We frequently are so busy talking to God that we forget to listen…sometimes we should just be quiet and let Him do the talking.
The purity of silence before God is profound. It is the most difficult, yet the most rewarding form of prayer. Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia says: “To achieve silence: this is of all things the hardest and the most decisive in the art of prayer. Silence is not merely negative — a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech — but, properly understood, it is highly positive: and attitude of
attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.” It’s much easier to read prayers, or to try and pray extemporaneously. The ability to be silent is almost trained out of us by today’s society. Silence has a significant part to play in the spirituality of Orthodox Christian Churches. Silent prayer or contemplative prayer must be taught. It’s not something we ordinarily would naturally do. It must also be practiced. Like any other relationship, silence with God takes some work and time. We cannot expect to just sit or kneel and be quiet for a little bit and all of a sudden have amazing moments of insight and a quick connection with God. It takes learning some personal control and techniques that will facilitate the experience.
Silent prayer also takes commitment. It is not something that you can do one day and then pick up a few days later. You must work at it daily for it to be effective in your prayer life. The best way would be to set aside a specific period in the day when you will choose to pray in silence and stick to that if possible. Focus on the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Say it over and over until you find that you are praying it without saying it. Saying the Jesus Prayer does not disturb your inner silence, but rather it sustains and nourishes it.
Silence is not only a question for our personal prayer lives, but also for our liturgical experiences as well. We do not often consider the importance of silence in the liturgy, but it is a very key consideration. Since the word “liturgy” comes from a Greek word “leitourgia” which means “public work” and has also been translated as “people’s work,” it seems logical that liturgy should be busy, full of people working; and it is. The congregation has their part, the priest has his part, and it builds from the beginning with something constantly happening. You may ask how anyone can experience any silence at all with all that is going on. That is one of the beautiful characteristics of the liturgy. Even though there is usually something happening all the time, there are moments where we can all experience a bit of silence. In fact, the celebrant is often engaged in prayers silently during the Holy Qurbono. Silent prayer in one’s private prayer life and silence in the liturgy can be, and often are, two different things. They should be appreciated and experienced as such.
For an Orthodox Christian the Liturgy is ‘Heaven on Earth’ and as one participates in the Eucharistic liturgy one experiences a profound peace; a true silence in the soul. In silence, we journey toward God, becoming aware of His presence, leaving behind all the cares of this world. In silence we prepare the gifts, and encounter God in communion. The beauty of the Holy Qurbono is that it lifts us up out of our narrow sphere and lets us have a glimpse of the glory of God.
The Eucharistic liturgy allows us to participate in that greater world that is God’s Kingdom. And what do you do when you come before a king? You become silent. That is why we hear in the divine liturgy the deacon asking the congregation at various times to attend in silence and reverence, to stand well and in awe at the Liturgy. During the Liturgy, we need to be able to “tune out” everything else that is going on and feel as though it’s just us alone with Christ in this Holy Mystery. If we choose to experience silence in the liturgy, it provides a profound spiritual connection with Christ that will grow in us.
Silence is the perfect statement of faith. It is the perfect prayer. Silence allows a connection to God beyond what words can express. It is a special gift to us if we will only cultivate it and use it. Silence allows us to allow God to reach out to us and hold us in His arms. Silence is that perfect path to peace in Him. “For God is silence, and in silence is he sung by means of that psalmody which is worthy of Him. I am not speaking of the silence of the tongue, for if someone merely keeps his tongue silent, without knowing how to sing in mind and spirit, then he is simply unoccupied and becomes filled with evil thoughts: … There is a silence of the tongue, there is a silence of the whole body, there is a silence of the soul, there is the silence of the mind, and there is the silence of the spirit.” It is in profound silence that we truly experience God and it is in silence that our hearts become attentive to the voice of God.
1. Esther Stern, Just One Word, (New York, 2004), pp. 16 – 24.
2. Metropolitan Hilarion, “Prayer and Silence” in http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles-2009/Hilarion-Prayer-And-Silence.php.
3. Sebastian Brock, The Wisdom of Isaac of Nineveh, (New Jersey, 2003), pp. 54 – 59.
4. Sr. Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, (Cistercian Studies 59, Kalamazoo, 1975), pp. 153-155.
5. St. John of the Cross, Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, (Washington, DC, 1991), pp. 45 – 50.
7. Catherine Doherty, Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude and Prayer, (Madonna Publishing House, 2000).
8. Kyriacos Markides, The Mountain of Silence, (New York, 2002), pp. 35 – 40.
9. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name, The Jesus Prayer in Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford, 1991), p.1.
10. Igumen Hariton of Valamo, The Art of Prayer: An Anthology, (London, 1997), pp. 25 – 28.
11. Lawrence Farley, Let Us Attend, A Journey Through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, (California, 1997).
12. John the Solitary, The Syrian Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life, (Cistercian Studies 101; Kalamazoo, 1987).