We’ve all no doubt heard endless chatter about how our world has become busy and noisy with nary a minute of silence to be found. No need to search far to find someone or some study telling us that we should turn down our iPhones, watch fewer channels on cable and try to escape to nature to distress ourselves. It all sounds good. After all, things can get pretty hectic even for the most monkish amongst us.
Well, religion can be a lot like that too. What with podcasts, websites, newsletters, sermons (yes, you might as well include this article), we seem to have become inundated with, dare I say, too much of a good thing. Not a day goes by without some church dispute hotly debated on a blog or some “expert” dispensing insight on how we should live our life. Really, it’s all become just too much. Sure, we rush from website to podcast trying to absorb as much as possible, but we never have any time to actually live it all out. With all the resources at our disposal, you would think that our faith in God would grow by leaps and bounds. But I am more convinced than ever that the opposite is true. I think we have to admit that all this wisdom and knowledge has not lead us to “progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with Him, perceiving and recognizing and understanding the wonders of His Person more strongly and more clearly” (Philippians 3:10 AMP). In our hurried quest for knowledge we’ve left no time to taste that the Lord is good.
God created us for His glory. St Paul says that all things were created through Jesus and for Him (Colossians 1:16). So if we’re going to start savoring Christ in order to become more and more like Him, we need to stop filling every moment with something, even if that something is religious. In Psalm 46 we read: “Cease striving and know that I am God” (v.10). The key word in this short but powerful line is the command to “cease.” It is translated alternatively as: Stop! Calm down! Be still!
We need more than just moments of quiet. We need whole periods of time when we aren’t searching to debate church issues or solve ethical dilemmas. We need silence from striving to learn how to be better Christians. In short, we need hesychia—to keep stillness. St Gregory the Theologian wrote, “it is necessary to be still in order to have clear conversation with God and gradually bring the mind back from its wanderings.” If everything we do is supposed to bring us closer to God and make us more like Him, then striving after a quiet mind, St Gregory says, is the first step towards our sanctification.
Stillness as Communion
St Basil the Great said that it is in silence that we return to our true selves by slowly moving towards God. It is in these periods of quiet solitude that the essence of who we are and the mystery of our relationship with God is truly felt. After all, is this not the same call that Jesus heard time and time again as he retreated to the deserts of Judea, to be still and to be with God?
The early Christians also felt this desire for a place of quiet – even stillness from the busyness of church life, to find communion with God, true communion. Because as St John of the Ladder wrote it is in stillness that we worship God.
Even in this age where knowledge can be had and discarded so easily, God still listens to us in silence. It is in silence that we get to know who God is and it is also where we discover who we are. When we “go away by ourselves to a quiet place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31 NLT) in the stillness of God, that is when God speaks to us the loudest.
A Gentle and Quiet Whisper
So, how can silence and stillness do so much? It’s hard to say. You can chalk it up as one of the mysteries of godliness. But there is a wonderful story in the Old Testament about the prophet Elijah that perhaps explains it best.
Elijah was one of the greatest prophets of God. He was strong, faithful, and determined to do God’s bidding with a people who lost their way more often than not. In one compelling instance, Elijah was called upon by God to defeat the false prophets of a phony god by the name of Baal. Elijah did just that. But as a result, his life was soon threatened and running for his life, he escaped to the desert. Exhausted and despairing, Elijah asked God to take his life! He bemoaned how the people of Israel had turned away from God, destroyed the places of worship, murdered the true prophets and now were out to get him as well. Then, in Elijah’s moment of silence and solitude, it all made sense: “Go, stand on the mountain at attention before God. God will pass by. A hurricane ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind, an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake; and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper. When Elijah heard the quiet voice, he muffled his face with his great cloak, went to the mouth of the cave, and stood there” (1 Kings 19:11-14 MSG).
God didn’t speak to Elijah in the thunderous noise of an earthquake or fire but rather in the quiet of a gentle whisper. It is in these quiet moments, kneeling in silence, that we hear God. And it is also in those repeated moments, with our ear constantly to God that we become able to, as St John of the Ladder said, “live outwardly with men but inwardly with God.”
I know we tend to like a different way of doing things—more engaging and provoking—perhaps prodding others to move towards God. But even Jesus gave us a very different example. Remember, how He alone slept (on a pillow no less!) in the boat with the disciples during a violent storm? It was Christ’s stillness that calmed the waters (Mark 4:35-41). When we learn to also be still and silent, face to face with God, then I believe we too will be calm in the presence of the demands and expectations of this hurried life; we too will project our own inner stillness to a confused and noisy world.
John Kapsalis is a graduate of Holy Cross Seminary.