When Abba Arsenius was still at the palace, he prayed the Lord saying: “Lord, show me the way to salvation.” And a voice came to him: “Arsenius, run from men and you shall be saved.” He went to become a monk, and again prayed in the same words. And he heard a voice saying: “Arsenius, be solitary: be silent: be at rest. These are the roots of a life without sin.”
Abba Arsenius may not have been the Roman Emperor, but he worked “at the palace” and likely enjoyed a very high quality of life for his time. Yet he finds that material comforts are not enough, and he prays, “Lord, show me the way to salvation.” The answer: “run from men and you shall be saved,” for him this meant becoming a monk, a hermit even. However, solitude, silence, and rest are not the exclusive property of hermits, even if they have much more abundant supply. A “life without sin” may be hard to come by in the world, but its roots can still grow in that soil.
The voice Arsenius hears identifies three roots in particular: solitude, silence, and rest. I have written about all of these in the past, but it is worthwhile to review what they are and explore how they are related.
First, solitude: On the literal side, solitude is the absence of others. However, the literal does not really capture the true essence of the term as the fathers understood it. Sometimes they recommended literally fleeing the company of all other human beings, and indeed some time alone is certainly necessary, but beyond that they believed its spiritual meaning to be far more important.
The tagline for this blog is: “Living in the world. Longing for the desert.” The fathers emphasize that a person alone on a mountain top can yet not have achieved true solitude if one’s mind and heart are polluted by concerns over what others may think of them. In such a case people give up the blessing of community but fail to gain the solitude they desire.
No, true solitude is an inner state. It is not merely the negation of a good (community) but the acquisition of something good in itself: an inner stillness, a continual dwelling in the presence of God. Time alone is necessary to cultivate this, but it is a mistake to equate the two.
Second, silence: Like solitude, silence has a literal and a spiritual meaning too. The literal is the negation of something else: speech. Such silence is a good discipline and control of one’s tongue is a virtue worth pursuing, but again, true silence is more than this.
Understood spiritually, silence is an inner quiet. It is the result of taming the tongue, not so that we never speak, but so that we never speak carelessly. Most people know at least one person whose words always seem deliberate and calm. This is the sign of true silence.
Third, rest: Once again, there is a literal rest and a spiritual rest. Ceasing from work can be a good thing, which is one reason why Israel was given the Sabbath (Saturday) and Christians the Lord’s day (Sunday) in addition.
But rest, true rest, is not a mere negation. It is a resting from evil, a resting in God by embracing what is good. It is true peace.
Stillness, quiet, peace: these are “the roots of a life without sin.” Put in this way repentance from sin does not sound burdensome at all. In fact, it is precisely the opposite: sin is the burden, righteousness is freedom. And if one can acquire spiritual stillness, quiet, and peace, the joy of righteousness will surely not be absent either.
This is something that I love about reading the fathers of the Church. All of this is in the Scriptures, but often I need them to point it out to me to really notice it. In this light, the command to “repent and believe” need not be portrayed in the sort terrifying imagery of Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon.
Rather, God, who is passionless (and therefore never truly angry), calls us to that same stillness, quiet, and peace that characterize a divine and sinless life. Certainly warnings about the sad consequences of evil can be helpful—the fathers are not opposed to this (though, again, they always cautioned that God could only be said to be angry by analogy). But why not focus at least as much energy on the good toward which we all ought to turn, rather than so often on the ill effects of the evil we too often embrace?
Repent! Change the course of your life to one patterned on the practices of the kingdom of heaven, and true stillness, quiet, and peace of soul will be your reward. Then, too, the words of God to Abram will apply to us as well: “I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward” (Genesis 15:1). No wonder Christ himself has said, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).
Abba Arsenius knew that such salvation was far more valuable than all the rewards of an earthly palace: that in righteousness, there is freedom. Do I really believe that too? Well, so long as I’m not a hermit, the best I can do is to treasure the little solitude, silence, and rest that I’m given—if only a small taste of the divine life now—and let them take root in my heart for the salvation of my soul.