Category: Silence


Meditations on Meditation

An old man said: “Take care to be silent. Empty the mind. Attend to your meditation, in the fear of God, whether you are resting in bed or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the assaults of demons.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.47

A distinctively Christian meditation is not so easy to come by these days, certainly not in the United States, at least. However, meditation has been a Judeo-Christian practice for as far back as we know. I offer here a few meditations on the subject from my own studies and experience.

The very first psalm contrasts the way of the righteous with the way of the impious and sinners. Of the righteous man, we are told, “His will is in the Law of the Lord, and in it he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:2). The Lord, in fact, commanded the people of Israel to order their whole lives around meditating on the Law, putting commandments on their doorposts, talking about them whether walking or resting, standing or sleeping. It was always to be on their hearts, minds, and tongues.

For Christians, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Law. Thus meditation on the Law (though not neglected) is transcended by meditation on Christ himself. Eventually this developed into a very specific tradition known as the Jesus Prayer, the repetition of the name of Jesus, particularly through some variant of the following: “Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Continue reading

Abba Ammon said [to Abba Poemen]: “If I need to talk with my neighbour, do you think I should talk to him about the Scriptures, or about the sayings and judgments of the elders?” And the old man said to him: “If you cannot keep silence, it is much better to talk about the sayings of the elders than about the Scriptures. For the danger is no small one.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 11.20

It may be a curiosity to some why my reflections, which focus on Christian spiritual practice, almost entirely consist of musings on the sayings of the fathers and mothers of the Church rather than the Scriptures. To be sure, the Scriptures are not absent in my reflections, but on the other hand they are always only referenced in the context of seeking to understand one of “the sayings and judgments of the elders.” The reason is quite simple, as Abba Poemen puts it: “the danger is no small one.” Continue reading

A Living Flame

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?” The the old man rose, and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten candles: and he said: “If you will, you could become a living flame.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 12.8

Sometimes, in the midst of all the challenges of life; sometimes, when I feel that every endeavor is never enough; sometimes, I when just can’t take the tyranny of the ordinary … I wish that I too “could become a living flame.” I am no Abba Joseph, nor would I compare myself to Abba Lot. But something about this saying speaks to somewhere deep within my heart. I too try to “keep a moderate rule”—what more can I accomplish in the world? And yet, sometimes it isn’t enough for me. Not in the sense of despair, but more a zeal, I think, a realization that what I am, even at my best, is far short of what I can and ought to be. And I want to be more. I want to be “a living flame.” Continue reading

It is through the Holy Spirit that there will be a universal resurrection. I do not mean the resurrection of the bodies at the end (Heb. 9:26), for then the angel will blow the trumpet and the dead bodies will rise (1 Cor. 15:52), but I mean the spiritual regeneration and resurrection of the dead souls that takes place in a spiritual manner every day. This [resurrection] He gives who has died once [for all] and risen (Rom. 6:9f.), and through all and for all those who live in a worthy manner He causes the souls to rise who have died with Him in will and faith and raises them up. This He grants through His all-holy Spirit as He even now bestows on them from henceforth the kingdom of heaven.

~ St. Symeon the New Theologian, The Example and Spirit of Symeon the Pious

Christ is risen! For Orthodox Christians like myself, Pascha (Easter) is more than just a day, it is also a forty day season. For the first week (this past one) we don’t even fast at all! Having just finished with this Renewal Week (or Bright Week), I have been reflecting on a common motif of the Christian spiritual life and how perfectly it describes Christian asceticism: dying and rising with Christ. Continue reading

Nothing to Say

Some days—more than I typically realize at the time—there are simply no words to be said.

Abba Poemen said: “Abba Moses asked the monk Zacharias, who was dying: ‘What can you see?’ And he said: ‘Nothing better than keeping silent, Father.’ And Abba Moses said: ‘Truth, my son: keep silent.'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 15.18

Easier Said Than Done

798px-1-Green_peasOnce Abba Agatho was going on a journey with his disciples. And one of them found a tiny bag of green peas on the road, and said to the old man: “Father, if you command, I will take it.” The old man gazed at him in astonishment, and said: “Did you put it there?” The brother replied: “No.” And the old man said: “How is it that you want to take something that you did not put there?”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 4.8

The conventional wisdom in the above situation, or at least my own first impulse, would be that if someone finds something that is not his/hers in the road, the proper thing to do is to take it and seek out the rightful owner. If no owner can be found, then finder’s keepers. There is an important lesson here, however. Continue reading

Christ is Born!

447px-Intesa_nativityNow, Mary’s virginity and her giving birth escaped the notice of the prince of this world, as did the Lord’s death—those three secrets crying to be told, but wrought in God’s silence. How, then, were they revealed to the ages? A star shone in heaven brighter than all the stars. Its light was indescribable and its novelty caused amazement. The rest of the stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a ring around it; yet it outshone them all, and there was bewilderment whence this unique novelty had arisen. As a result all magic lost its power and all witchcraft ceased. Ignorance was done away with, and the ancient kingdom [of evil] was utterly destroyed, for God was revealing himself as a man, to bring newness of eternal life. What God had prepared was now beginning. Hence everything was in confusion as the destruction of death was being taken in hand.

~ St. Ignatius, To the Ephesians 19.1-3

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. circa 110 A.D.) gives, perhaps, a bit more dramatic picture of the Nativity of Christ—Christmas—than what we find in the Gospels of the New Testament. There, we actually only find two accounts, one in Matthew and one in Luke. Neither of them are without their own excitement, but I’ve always liked St. Ignatius’s focus since I first encountered it. It is a bit more overtly theological and highlights some interesting points relevant to the praxis of the spiritual life as well. Continue reading

A pilgrim to the Holy Mountain of Athos asked an old hermit, “Father, how can I attain my salvation?” The venerated holy man replied, “Every day at dusk go to the cemetery and for an hour hurl insults to the dead. Do that for a month and pay attention to everything that happens around you. Then come and report to me.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I have done what you told me but nothing happened!” The hermit then said, “Go to the cemetery again for another month and sing praises to the dead. Then come and tell me what happened.” After a month the pilgrim returned. “Father, I did what you told me but nothing happened!” The holy father then said, “My son, if you wish to attain your salvation, be like the dead, indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.”

~ From Inner River, vii
(the epithet on the inside before the TOC)

Ah yes. In the unique manner of monks, we have the recommendation, in addition to always keeping the day of one’s death on one’s mind, to live like the dead, “indifferent to insults and indifferent to praise.” I have written previously on the dangers of praise and the avoidable nature of anger when provoked, and while these are both themes that deserve continued reflection, I would like to primarily focus on something else for this post. Continue reading

To Speak Like Silence

Once when Abba Macarius was praying in his cell, he heard a voice which said: “Macarius, you have not yet reached the standard of two women in that city.” On his arrival, he found the house and knocked at the door. A woman opened it, and welcomed him to her house. He sat down, and called them to sit down with him. Then he said to them: “It is for you that I have taken this long journey. Tell me how you live a religious life.” They said: “Indeed, how can we lead a religious life? We were with our husbands last night.” But the old man persuaded them to tell him their way of life.

Then they said: “We are both foreigners, in the world’s eyes. But we accepted in marriage two brothers. Today we have been sharing this house for fifteen years. We do not know whether we have quarrelled or said rude words to each other; but the whole of this time we have lived peaceably together. We thought we would enter a convent, and asked our husbands for permission, but they refused it. So since we could not get this permission, we have made a covenant between ourselves and God that a worldly word shall not pass our lips during the rest of our lives.”

When Macarius heard it, he said: “Truly, it is not whether you are a virgin or a married woman, a monk or a man in the world: God gives his Holy Spirit to everyone, according to their earnestness of purpose.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 20.17

People of true sincerity and purity, like the two women in this story, are rare. It seems that careless words are far too common, and sincere people are often pariahs, never feeling that they fit. It can be disarming to meet a person who does not laugh at all the same snarky comments as everyone else. And living peaceably is rare too. How often do people prefer to one-up each other? How often do we, in seeking our own victory, forfeit our opportunity for virtue? Continue reading

The Spirit of the Desert

Said the Abbess Matrona: “Many people living secluded lives on the mountain have perished by living like people in the world. It is better to live in a crowd and want to live a solitary life than to live a solitary life but all the time be longing for company.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers 2.14

If I am not mistaken, I adapted this saying for my tagline: “Living in the world. Longing for the desert.” I am married to a wonderful woman, and we have a wonderful son who is the cutest baby (possibly cutest creature) that the world has ever seen. I am very blessed and would not really prefer to be in the desert as a hermit. It is the spirit of the desert that I want. I want the stillness, the discipline, the peace that comes from an inner flight away from “the world”—all that is transient—and to a place free from those things, a place of clearer spiritual vision: the desert. Continue reading