Orthodox Christian Use of Silence
In the Christian world, Orthodox Christianity was following its own way in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire for centuries, even earlier than the formal separation from the West was officially proclaimed in the eleventh century. Thus, it didn’t know much about Augustine, Thomas Aquinas nor scholasticism, preoccupied with its own, quite an eventful history, including a schism with Rome, the fall of the Byzantine Empire, almost five centuries of Turkish oppression (except for the Russian Church), the emergence of national orthodox churches, two World Wars, persecution by communist regimes and, to some extent, secularization. In parallel with all this momentous historic events, Orthodox Christianity has been developing its own cultural, spiritual and liturgical forms, based on the heritage of the Egyptian and Syrian fathers. Among the spiritual ones one is particularly relevant for our topic, and it is hesychasm.
The term “hesychasm”, in its main meaning, that of silence and solitude, traces its origins back to the beginnings of monastic life in the 3rd century. The word hesychia does occur frequently in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the label “hesychasts” has often been given in the Eastern Church to monks who, after spending long years in cenobitic monasteries and leading communal life, decided to live entirely or almost alone, giving themselves to contemplation and prayer.
Conceived in the deserts of Egypt and Sinai Peninsula, the movement would fully emerge much later, in the 14th century at Mt. Athos in Greece and become the centerpiece of the Orthodox spirituality. Further enriched with the help of the Russian theological thought, it is very much alive in the Christian East even today. Its practical part consists of the full-fledged program, succinctly described in the writings of St Gregory of Sinai (1260-1346). According to him, the initial step was developing five virtues, as a foundation on which to build: silence, self-control, vigilance, humility and patience. They are said to affect and consolidate each other. Equipped with these, a monk should further engage oneself into three practices “blessed by God”: psalmody, prayer and reading. In case of those of poor physical strength, manual work was recommended too. Here is how this engagement looks like:
From early morning the hesychast must devote himself to the remembrance of God through prayer and stillness of heart, praying diligently in the first hour, reading in the second, chanting psalms in the third, praying in the fourth, reading in the fifth, chanting psalms in the sixth, praying in the seventh, reading in the eighth, chanting psalms in the ninth, eating in the tenth, sleeping in the eleventh, if need be, and reciting vespers in the twelfth hour. Thus fruitfully spending the course of the day he gains God’s blessings.1
Through a diligent practice a monk gradually discovers that one comes to self-knowledge and knowledge of God through attentiveness and watchfulness (nepsis), but alsothrough stillness and silence (hesychia). Therefore, the hesychastic movement that by time emerged inside Orthodox Christianity put these two qualities in the forefront of the ascetic practice. In that respect, we could here identify an example of ascetic silence we discussed previously.
Hesychastic program also encompassed utilization of various psycho-physical practices, involving so-called Jesus Prayer, but also breathing and physical postures, based on the ancient Judeo-Christian conviction that human beings are created as a unity of body and spirit, put into conflict with each other only by sin itself. Besides Evagrius of Pontus, who is considered one of forefathers of the hesychastic movement, its theoretical underpinnings could also be found in the apophaticism or “negative theology” of such figures as St. Gregory of Nyssa and Dionysius the Areopagite. Their emphasis on saying what God is not was intended to a quieting of thought and a direct experience of God.
Thus, it seems that by the 7th century the word hesychia as a technical term was well established in the confines of the patristic literature, since John Climacus devoted a whole chapter to it in his famous treatise The Ladder of Divine Ascent. But already in the Sayings of a Desert Fathers there are ample references to the importance of a silence and the internal state of hesychia, similar to this short story which illustrates the use of pedagogical silence:
Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’2
Looking at the practice itself, one can discover three progressive steps on the path of a hesychast: catharsis (or purification), theoria (illumination, contemplation, being granted spiritual vision and insight), and theosis (divinization or union with God). The true spiritual goal of this internal journey consists of freeing the mind from its preoccupation with thoughts (logismoi) and desires, and restoring it to its true home in the heart, its natural equilibrium. Hesychastic prayer as a main vehicle of progress along the spiritual path is therefore often referred to as “the prayer of the heart,” being concentrated on some simple word or sentence to be silently and constantly repeated. Usually these are the following phrases, pronounced internally (or being merely a thought in various situations), slowly and with loving affection: “Lord have mercy” (Kyrie eleison), “Jesus,” or in the more formal form of a prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”.3
The effects of this practice are multiple and fundamental:
The name of Jesus, once it has become the center of our life, brings everything together. But let us not imagine that the invocation of the name is a “short-cut” that dispenses us from ascetic purification: The name of Jesus is itself an instrument of asceticism, a filter through which should pass only thoughts, words and acts compatible with the divine and living reality which this name symbolizes. The growth of the name in our soul implies a corresponding diminution of our separated self, a daily death to the self-centredness from which all sin is derived.4
Evagrius of Pontus and approaching Immaterial immaterially
Among the founders of the spiritual tradition within Eastern Christianity, including Hesychasm, the name of Evagrius of Pontus is particularly important for our topic. His approach to the religious life was at once theoretical and practical, with a great deal of attention placed on detailing the monk’s journey toward God. By focusing our research on him, we are trying to distill his ideas related to the role of silence, solitude and stillness in the framework of the ascetic practice and hopefully be able to relate these findings to the examples from the Buddha’s practice already presented.
Evagrius of Pontus (345-399), also known as Evagrius the Solitary, got his surname because he was a native of Pontus, a region in Asia Minor. His father was a bishop and young Evagrius was ordained and studied under the famous Saint Basil the Great in Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia. After Basil passed away in 379, he became a disciple of another great theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus. Under these Cappadocian fathers, Evagrius became a skilled exegete and when Gregory of Nazianzus moved to Constantinople to become a patriarch, Evagrius was invited along. There he participated in the Council of Constantinople (381), impressing many with his skill of debating. However, an affair with a married woman and its possible consequences soon forced Evagrius to leave the city and search for peace in a monastic life. Through Palestine, he found his way to the Egyptian desert of the Cells (a colony of about six hundred anchorites), where he stayed until the end of his life 15 years later.
Evagrius was a prolific writer on asceticism, church history, biblical commentaries and letters, who deeply influenced Orthodox Christian spirituality through the works of those who further developed his ideas, like Maximos the Confessor, Dionysius the Areopagite or John of Klimakos. He is also considered a forerunner of the hesychast movement of later Byzantium. Today we have preserved some fourteen authentic works by Evagrius, among which the central position is occupied by the trilogy of the Praktikos, the Gnostikos, and the Kefalaia gnostika. In the first of these, consisting of short chapters, he has expounded his ascetic philosophy intended for less experienced monks. This experienced exegete of the soul knew too well that in the stillness of the desert, memories well up and a young monk can spend long hours wrestling with one’s own thoughts and memories. The Praktikos is thus full of valuable instructions how to win in that battle. The second text is thematically a continuation of the previous work, but this time written for more experienced monks, as describes the practice in much more detail. Finally, in the third and the most important text, known also as the Problemata gnostika, Evagrius makes effort to fully develop his cosmological, anthropological and philosophical ideas. But he was also a master practitioner of the ascetic discipline and one of the famous teachers of the emerging discipline of contemplative prayer, a form of Christian meditation. Thus, he was among the first and the most successful Desert Fathers making an effort to connect ample fruits of Christian ascetic practice with the more metaphysical monk’s itinerary leading him back to the Creator.5
In the framework of Orthodox soteriology, there is a specific goal of restoring our likeness to God, by putting the mind (nous) illumined by God in charge of the whole person. The way to this likeness to God or we might say to becoming the same with the Truth leads, unsurprisingly, from external silence of the Egyptian desert, the silence of absence as we labeled it, to the silence of presence, the internal one, the silence about the ultimate reality inherent to a peaceful mind and heart mirroring the eternal light while facing it. In those moments Evagrius was intrigued by a vision of formless light that he, and probably monks he knew, enjoyed at certain peak experiences occurring during prayer. Where did this light come from? Does it come out of the purified mind itself (which implies that the mind’s primordial nature is luminous) or the light comes from God, illuminating the mind much the same as the sun illuminates the moon? To find the answer Evagrius had to dive deeper into the ascetic silence.
As mentioned, Evagrius was probably the first among Desert Fathers who expounded a full system of ascetic training and this from the angle of the careful study of the functioning of the human mind. In his version, this study consisted of three phases. The first of these is self-purification, cultivating virtues and learning to combat “evil thoughts” (logismoi). His Praktikos elaborates on strategies applied in learning the nature of the different concepts and ideas with which the mind is constantly fed. In this way it becomes able to distinguish between various logismoi, demonic tempting thoughts, as well as to appreciate the beneficial ideas/perceptions (noēmata)suggested by angels or those that arise from neutral sense-perceptions. These efforts are awarded with the birth of passionless love and gift of apatheia. In this process, for Evagrius, dispassion (apatheia) or freedom from control by the passions is more than purity (agnoteta), but less than the full restoration of the likeness to God (kath’homoiosin). This kind of emotional integration of a person marks the end of the first phase of the process by which Christian praktikos, a spiritual aspirant,can mature into a gnostikos, a contemplative and teacher capable of true knowing (gnosis) of existent things, the inner meanings and purposes of God within creation and history. The main path to this goal is also identical to the already mentioned „dispassion of soul“, i.e. calming the mind, liberating from irrational drives, which in their extreme forms would today be called obsessions, compulsions or addictions.
The second phase consists of natural contemplation (theōria physikē) of the existing things, those without a mind (like rocks, plants and animals) and those who possess it (like men and angels). For Evagrius, contemplation is the natural activity of the mind, noticing God’s presence in everything he had created, considering the whole world as a giant book written by God.
In the third phase an ascetic comes into the presence of and contemplates the God himself. This coming to the supreme form of gnosis may be taken as an intuitive knowledge attained through contemplation. It is not discursive theological knowledge in the sense of let say the Thomist theology of the Trinity, but knowledge of God in the philosophically intuitive and mystical sense. The Praktikos point out, right at the outset, that the ultimate goal of the path is an amalgam of the initial two phases:
„The Kingdom of the Heavens is dispassion of soul with true gnosis of existent things.“6
This pedagogy of the soul is complemented with a well-known scheme of eight thoughts (logismoi) that constitute the essence of all negative thoughts young monks tend to struggle with. In the Evagrian system these are thoughts of gluttony, lust, avarice, anger, sadness, accidie (listlessness), vainglory and pride. About two centuries later this list would be transformed by Pope Gregory I into the famous “seven deadly sins”. Relying on the old Stoic idea of the limited scope of our power, Evagrius makes here a very interesting observation, which also resonates some Buddha’s observations:
Whether all these thoughts trouble the soul or do not trouble the soul is among those things which are not within our power; for these to persist or not to persist, or to set passions in motion or not to set in motion, is among those things which are within our power.7
It is interesting where Evagrius sees the main reason for arising of these passions in the ascetic’s mind and if there is maybe something even more basic that initiates them. For him the first dilemma was whether passions are provoked by “conception” (ennoia, thought or notion in the mind) or the vice versa.
One must attend whether the conception sets the passions in motion; or the passions, the conception. For, on the one hand, some have the first opinion; on the other hand, some have the second opinion.8
And in the very next, 38th chapter he gives this decisive answer: “It is the nature of the passions to be set in motion by the senses”. What he seems to claim here is a psychological insight that mind (nous), fed by impressions provided through senses, excites the passion. After seeing some pleasant food, the passion of gluttony may be aroused in me. But what about the very nature of that passion? Does it have some deeper source? Here Evagrius introduces another important point and again quite close to the Buddha, the centrality of (the illusion of) ego in producing all other mental disturbances:
The first of all the thoughts is the thought of self-love (philautia), after which the eight.9
Here the “eight” refers to eight passions/thoughts and self-love, a form of the false conception of self, is designated as the root cause of all the mental pollution that arise. To combat that pollution, in the case of Evagrius, the whole variety of practical devices were prescribed. Reading, vigil and prayer are used to focus a wandering mind. Hunger, toil and the life in solitude contribute to cooling of an inflamed desire. Finally, “chanting of the psalms, long-suffering and mercy put a stop to temper aroused.” “Mercy” here relates to giving alms, caring for the sick and comforting the afflicted ones.But among all these practices there is one above them all that Evagrius highly recommends. That is a constant prayer: “We have not been commanded to work, to keep vigil and to fast continually, but it has been legislated for us that we ‘pray unceasingly’”10 Here he follows what St. Paul had advised in his Epistle to the Romans (12:12).
Once an ascetic has achieved a certain measure of apatheia and virtue through observing, understanding and distancing himself from logismoi caused by passions (or demons), he is ready to enter the state of sincere prayer. What Evagrius consider a prayer differs from the usual understanding of the word as a petition or a praise to God. For him, it is a “contemplative prayer” or “wordless prayer”, denoting more a state of mind, than an activity. Or defined in another way, as an internal journey, a long traveling without leaving a cell even for a moment:
“Prayer is the ascent of the mind towards God.”11
The Orthodox Christian theological tradition posited the mind (nous) as the highest element of the human person, as it actually represents the image of God within us, that which is most like its creator. Therefore, it is among our faculties the one most capable of knowing God. Relying on this line of reasoning, Evagrius acknowledges that for us as human beings nothing is more natural than praying: “Mind… is naturally constituted for prayer.”12
The silent prayer is thus, according to Evagrius, the main road towards achieving the supreme goal of the ascetic’s practice, the knowing of the God, or rather striving towards this goal and never fully achieving it. Also, being able to express that knowledge. And here we come to a long debated issue in the framework of Christian theology: In what respect if God knowable? Namely, even before Evagrius there was a well established line of reflections on the subject of the incomprehensible nature of God. It suffices to mention here Gregory of Nyssa and his Vita Moses or John Chrysostom’s five sermons in Antioch, where he affirms that God “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see”.13 For Evagrius too, the invisible, immortal and incomprehensible God is above all form and even imagination. In his Exhortation to Monks he writes: “You could not comprehend the nature of God, not even if you flew on wings. God is incomprehensible, just as he is also our creator.”14
Therefore, the best those who intend to meditate on the nature of God could do is to empty their minds of all images or even hypotheses through a process of negation later formalized as an apophatic theology. In his Chapters on Prayer Evagrius gives the following instruction of this silencing the mind:
“When you pray do not form images of the divine within yourself, nor allow your mind to be impressed with any form, but approach the Immaterial immaterially and you will come to understanding”.15
Approaching Immaterial immaterially as the highest experience of pure prayer. This traveling beyond forms and images into deeper dimensions of being, tells us Evagrius, brings us a vision of light without form. But it is also characterized by another parallel process, that of transformation of ascetic silence into a silence about the ultimate reality, as the “perfect silence alone proclaims Him”.16
1 Philokalia, Vol IV, p. 233.
2 Ward (1984), p. 81.
3 Kurian (2011), p.
4 Gillet (1987), p. 96.
5 In analyzing his texts, I’ll rely on translations made by Robert E. Sinkewicz in his book Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, Oxford University Press, 2003 as well as by Father Theophanes (Constantine) at the site http://timiosprodromos4.blogspot.com/.
6 Praktikos, 2.
7 Praktikos, 6.
8 Praktikos, 37.
10 Gnostikos, 49.
11 Chapters on Prayer, 35. In Sinkewicz, p. 196.
12 Praktikos, 49. In Sinkewicz, p. 106.
13 1 Tim 6:16.
14 Sinkewicz (), p. 222.
15 Chapters on Prayer, 66. In Sinkewicz, p. 196.
16 Maximos the Confessor. Philokalia, Vol 2, p. 271.