An Invitation to Stillness: Book Review of Be Still and Know by Norris J. Chumley
No one can dispute the 21st North-American need to encounter silence with as much noise as most of us live with and in today. In his book Be Still and Know: God’s Presence in Silence, Norris Chumley investigates one slice of Christian contemplative tradition, hesychasm, a practice of prayerful silence, in its historical and present day Eastern European practice in the Orthodox tradition.
This book is undertaken as a research project, and the historical background to this tradition is clearly laid out chronologically and thematically. For those unfamiliar with the early prayer traditions of the Church, this is a helpful outline to the ideas and practices that developed in this stream of the Church. I was particularly pleased to see the careful inclusion of some of the women in this tradition, their leadership and their insights. Chumley’s contemporary inquiry for his book, and for his attendant ethnographic film and feature documentary, are in Egypt and the Sinai, Greece and Romania, all sites of historic and present day practice of hesychasm. While he attests to the fact that he is not either a practitioner or member of these communities that seek and provide silence, he clearly admires the intent of the practice and senses its contribution to the Spirit in the world.
I found the contemporary application section of the book to be incomplete in its contemporary application section, both as to ways for a seeker to learn the disciplines of silence and hesychasm, and as to the place of these forms of prayer in the larger community of Christian faith, even in the wider Orthodox tradition. There are North American communities of Orthodox faith and well-known writers from them that could have made the practice accessible, both practically and culturally, had they been included in the research. Their exclusion seems like a missed opportunity.
Every lens that a reader is given with which to understand and to pursue the spiritual practice of silence can be a gift with which she can discern her practices of prayer. This book will be another one of those lenses.