Orthodox America

Embracing Stillness

An acquaintance who had taken to scanning the Internet commented with some dismay  on the contentious tone that marks many of the Orthodox postings. As a still insecure convert to Orthodoxy, he found it to be very dispiriting. The Internet is a convenient means of communication and a useful resource, and its popularity is understandable. It has also proved to be a missionary tool, allowing seekers to discover that greatest of all spiritual treasures - our holy Orthodox Faith. For this reason alone, we should be very careful in our Internet communications, lest we become a school for scandal.

We must not only refrain from generating what is unedifying, but likewise avoid absorbing that which is unprofitable for our souls. Years before the Internet could be blamed for facilitating the spread of rumors, Hiero-monk Seraphim (Rose) wrote in a letter of counsel to Fr. Alexey Young, then a convert of not many years:

A good part of what has caused your confusion is, to speak bluntly, gossip, rumor, tales.  Shame on you!  This is that very "grapevine" that has so disturbed you - but don't let yourself get mixed up in it.  It's all smoke with little if any substance.  We could tell you fantastic tales which were confided to us as virtual certainties.  If you're going to be upset, let it be from something you hear first-hand, and which concerns you.  Everything else discount at least 99% or forget entirely, or you will never have peace of mind. ... Some things, it is true, which aren't directly our business we should be aware of so we won't be paralyzed if they are suddenly used to scandalize us (with exaggerations and half-truths which we might not see through).  But this knowledge can only be to make us more prudent and sober, not to begin spreading them, writing to bishops about them, filing complaints, or anything of that sort. If we did that, we would justifiably be branded as meddlesome troublemakers.

For some people the Internet serves as a kind of Speaker's Corner, an agora or forum where they can air their opinions before a ready-made audience. One finds people jumping into discussions, ostensibly to contribute something of import, when in fact, consciously or unconsciously, they simply want to make themselves heard. And who among us, if we examine ourselves honestly, is free from such tendency - whether on the Internet or off. Whether we are engaged in serious discussions or casual conversations, much of what comes from our mouth is unnecessary or simply idle talk. If we reflect upon the fact that in the day of Judgment we shall have to give an account for every idle word we speak (cf. Matt. 12:36), it should prompt us to make a greater effort to bridle our tongue. The Holy Fathers write at length about the need to control the tongue, and we can reinforce our determination to do so by periodically reading their counsels. Saint Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain, in his spiritual classic, Unseen Warfare, writes incisively:

Loquacity mostly comes from a certain vainglory, which makes us think that we know a great deal and imagine our opinion on the subject of conversation to be the most satisfactory of all. So we experience an irresistible urge to speak out and in a stream of words, with many repetitions, to impress the same opinion in the hearts of others, thus foisting ourselves upon them as unbidden teachers...

...In most cases loquacity is a synonym of empty talk, and then there are no words to express the many evils, which arise from this ugly habit. ... Empty talk is the door to criticism and slander, the spreader of false rumors ... When wordy talk is over, and the fog of self-complacency lifts, it always leaves behind a sense of frustration and indolence. Is it not proof of the fact that, even involuntarily, the soul feels itself robbed? Even if we are able to steer clear of gossip and acrimonious debate, we must ask ourselves if, in our communications - on the Internet, on the telephone, or face to face - we are not merely contributing more noise to an already saturated environment. Our culture does not allow for silence, for stillness. We lead busy lives, we have hectic schedules; our minds churn with managers' reports, children's chatter, the morning news, dinner menus... The inaudible noise of our thoughts is often louder than what comes through our ears; we are less able to tune it out. No wonder we often feel so frazzled, so fatigued. No wonder we have trouble connecting with our inner selves. No wonder we have trouble hearing the "still, small voice" of God.

People are increasingly seeking relief from the frenetic pace dictated by our modern culture. Stress is acknowledged to be a catalyst for many ailments of soul and body, and there is growing appreciation of the restorative power of stillness. Through stillness we come to know ourselves as we really are.

This is one of the lessons poet Kathleen Norris learned from the vast solitude and awesome barrenness of the Great Plains, which she compelling describes in her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (Ticknor & Fields, NY 1993). Transplanted from New York City to her ancestral home in an isolated town in America's "empty quarter," she comes to value the isolation, the silence. The landscape is harsh, inimical; it strips away all pretense. Some people find this unsettling, but for those who are pursuing a spiritual life, it is of great advantage. A community of Benedictines living there on the plains confirms Norris' discovery that, "The willingly embraced desert fosters realism, not despair."

Even in seemingly insignificant doses, the "desert" can yield fruit. At a writing workshop, Norris leads six high school students - three shy Indians and three precociously verbal white girls - in an exercise in silence: "we kept the silence for over a minute. By the time we finished ... we were better able to listen to one another ... We liked the way it made a space for us in the midst of noise, the way it allowed friendships to develop. We began to talk about our real lives..."

Even those of us who do not have the benefit of physical solitude must strive to embrace the desert, which is to cultivate stillness. In the context of spiritual life, stillness (in Greek, hesychia) is defined as "a state of inner tranquility or mental quietude and concentration." According to the Holy Fathers, stillness is "the mother of all virtues," "the basis of the soul's purification." It is essential to prayer. To cultivate stillness is to shun vain speaking, and to silence vain thoughts. Lest our efforts be overcome by despair at so difficult a task, let us place all our hope in the Lord, for it is He that will lead us beside the still waters and restore our souls.

- Editor