Monastic Tips for Self-isolation
The entire world is experiencing the impact of COVID-19, the Novel Corona Virus pandemic. It is commonly said that one of the Chinese words for crisis can be interpreted as opportunity. With the limiting of so many being able to go out, we invite you to discover the opportunity to go in. To go in to the place of the heart. Over the coming days, we will be posting wisdom from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Church regarding the values to be found from times of silence, solitude, and reflection.
One of the most immediate things we start to experience when we are alone is silence. Often, at first, it can be destabilizing. We are used to noise. The noise of Youtube or Spotify, the noise of news about COVID-19, the noise of a podcast, the noise of the beeps of friends contacting us via Twitter, Whatsapp, or texts. This becomes normal. Yet, while alone, if we turn it all off and listen, something deeper begins to happen.
In the seventh century, St. Isaac of Syria wrote:
"First of all we force ourselves to be silent, but then from out of the silence something else is born that draws us into silence itself. May God grant you to perceive that which is born of silence! If you begin in this discipline I do not doubt how much light will dawn in you from it. After a time a certain delight is born in the heart as a result of the practice of this labour, and it forcibly draws the body on to persevere in stillness."
Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria, p. 46
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, an Oxford scholar and translator of the Philokalia into English, has been a modern bridge for many to the writings of the ancient Church on the Prayer of the Heart. In a talk on prayer, he shared the following:
“If I were a doctor,” says Søren Kierkegaard, “and were asked for my advice, I should reply, ‘Create silence.’” Surely our world today is greatly in need of precisely such a doctor. Silence is a very precious quality. It is one of the profound sources of our being. Without silence we are not truly human. The great Roman Catholic spiritual teacher, Baron Friederich VanHugo says, “As persons we are what we do with our silence.” So, what do you, what do I do with our silence? Do we really know what silence is? Our problem, today perhaps more than ever before is, “How can I enter into silence, genuine deep silence, silence of the heart?” How can I enter into the dimension of silence that is already present within me. So, the Jesus Prayer, more specifically when recited as part of our prayer time, is a way of entry into true silence. But this brings me to another question. What do we mean by silence? Is it merely negative, an absence of sound, a pause between words, or is it rather positive and affirmative? May we say of true silence that it is not an absence but a presence, not a void, not an emptiness, but a fullness? Silence in the proper sense is awareness of another.
Let us think of the psalms, Psalm 45:10 (or in the other numbering, 46:10): "Be still and know that I am God." It does not just say in the Psalms, “Be still, shut up, keep quiet,” but it says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Stillness means in the true sense, God-awareness. So, we might say, “Silence is a presence. At the heart of it is God.” So, true silence doesn’t mean isolation, but relationship. It means receptivity, openness, awareness of the other, encounter.
If we want an image of what silence really means, we can look at the figure that we so often see in the apse of an Orthodox church, the figure of the Mother of God with her hands raised to heaven - the icon sometimes known as Orans, “the Mother of God praying,” but also as Platytera, “broader than the heavens,” because very often the Christ Child, Christ our God, is shown in a circle, in a mandola within the breast of the Mother of God. Now this ancient attitude of prayer with the hands raised to heaven, to me expresses exactly one aspect of silence. Silence is waiting on God, silence means listening, creative listening. So the Jesus Prayer, as a prayer that leads us into silence, is best of all described as a prayer of listening.
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, A talk on the Jesus Prayer
"We are what we do with our silence." What an opportunity to go deeper! A hidden gift emerges from this global pandemic - the discovery once again of the value of silence!