Privacy, Silence and Prayer

Fr. Gregory Jensen continues on prayer and thoughts.

Photo by Archbishop Maximilian (Lazarenko) Photo by Archbishop Maximilian (Lazarenko)
    

As we saw in an earlier post, a spirit of inner stillness requires something from me. Simply put, I need to begin. But what, concretely, do I need to do?

To grow in a life of inner stillness I need to cultivate three basic spiritual disciplines that are both foundational to life in Christ and human flourishing more generally. The absence, indeed the general cultural indifference and hostility to them, makes beginning the spiritual life difficult.

While the life of inner stillness has always been hard, the lack of appreciation for key human values means that even Orthodox Christians are likely to misunderstand the spiritual life. This is why so many of us equate life if Christ with moralism (whether conservative or progressive) or social activity (sometimes philanthropic, sometimes liturgical).

Without inner stillness and the disciplines that support it, my life becomes superficial. I am at the mercy of ever-changing fashions and desires—my own as much as those of the people around me. So what are the disciplines we need to foster? There are three:

  • Privacy

  • Silence

  • Prayer

And we mustn’t forget that, important as they are, these are all in the service of something far greater: Love.

Privacy

Stillness requires prayer and prayer requires silence, but silence requires privacy. So we begin by cultivating a healthy sense of privacy, of being alone. In time, and by God’s grace, privacy grows into solitude—being alone with God. And with solitude comes a sense of atonement, a state of “at one”-ment, or of being reconciled with God in and through the Person of Jesus Christ.

But being alone, and especially being alone without distractions, can be hard. When I’m alone my thoughts tend to intrude. At first, my thoughts are pleasant, or at least not unwelcome. Very quickly, though, they turn morbid. I recall past sins—mine or my neighbor’s—and I’m tempted to forget that God is man befriending and easy to be entreated

And so, the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.”

Because I am always tempted to remember and ruminate on past sins (again, mine or my neighbor’s) in the Jesus Prayer I ask Christ for mercy BEFORE I confess my sinfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

It is in that last phrase, “a sinner” that my solitude opens up to embrace all humanity. I’m not “the sinner,” much less the only sinner. I am a sinner; I am a sinner surrounded by sinners and all of whom are forgiven by the mercy of God.

And so, love is right there at the very beginning of the Jesus Prayer and of our journey to inner stillness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Silence.

We all have all known someone who speaks so quickly as to be incomprehensible. There are no gaps between the person’s words and so we can’t understand what’s being said. The philosopher Max Picard noticed this and drew from this experience the insight that silence isn’t the absence of speech. It is rather the gaps between words that make speech meaningful.

Or take another example, this one from history.

Like other written works at the time, the first copies of the New Testament were written in a style called “scriptura continua.” This is “a style of writing without spaces or other marks between the words or sentences.” In addition, all the words are written in all upper-case or capital letters. As you might imagine, reading these early copies of the New Testament was a chore.

So like gaps between words in a book, silence is essential for understanding.

In the spiritual life, silence isn’t so much the absence of noise but the absence of fear. Fear is noisy.

The Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian tells us, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18, NKJV). As an aside, understanding what the Apostle’s words mean in my own life is why I need a spiritual director.

The perfect love that drives out fear is not my love for God but His love for me. The great risk in the spiritual life—delusion—is imagining that my love, if not greater than God’s, is in some way equal or comparable to His—when it isn’t.

God’s love is the source from which all good things flow in silence. The fathers of the Church tell us, “The mysteries of Christ all involve silence. Only in silence can the word of God find a home in us, as it did in Mary, woman of the word and, inseparably, woman of silence”1. St Augustine says, “When the Word of God increases, the words of men fail.”2

Or as we hear in the Akathist prayer to the Mother of God, we can only stand “mute as fish” before the mystery of God’s love for us.3

But, as I said a moment ago, silence isn’t negative but fruitful. Silence is what helps us understand that we are loved by God. For example at the Divine Liturgy on Holy Saturday, we sing:

“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 silence, as Fr. John Breck writes, the “warnings of judgment are transformed into a ringing promise of salvation, as the Lord offers Himself as Eucharist ‘for the life of the world.'”

Prayer.

And so, as privacy is transformed into solitude, and solitude gives birth to silence, silence leads us to prayer, and we become able to hear God.

“Prayer,” says St. Isaac the Syrian, “is a joy that gives way to thanksgiving.”

This doesn’t mean that I don’t have my struggles. It doesn’t mean that I don’t fail or am not at times treated unjustly. I do struggle against sin—though not as much as I should—and I am treated unfairly—though not as much as I imagine.

We need to remember the words of St. Porphryios:

There’s no need for any special concentration in order to say the Jesus Prayer. It doesn’t require any effort if you have love of God. Wherever you are, on a stool, a chair, in a car, anywhere, on the road, at school, in the office, at work, you can say the prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy upon me.”

This means that sin—my own or my neighbor’s—doesn’t have the last word. No, the last word is the first word, and that word is LOVE.

1 Verbum Domini n. 21.

2 Cf. Sermon 288; 5: PL 38, 1307; Sermon 120,2: PL 38,677.

3 Stanza 17.

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