The Silence of the Heart

Be Still and Know

In its very last paragraph, Norris J. Chumley describes Be Still and Know, his new book on contemplative silence (hesychia), as a “research study.” And therein lies what is both wonderful and frustrating about this book.

First, the frustration: the book reads like someone’s PhD dissertation. While Chumley provides a concise historical survey of the development of hesychasm, or the practice of meditative silence through the Orthodox Jesus Prayer (Prayer of the Heart), and follows up the history lesson with a number of insightful quotations from contemporary hesychasts, mostly nuns and monks of a variety of Orthodox monasteries, the book never seems to rise above a certain kind of prosaic discussion of its topic. What’s missing, I think, is Chumley’s own story: how hesychia has made enough of a difference in his life, so that he would devote tremendous time and effort to the “research study” and field work necessary to put together a document such as this. The author maintains a kind of scholarly distance from his subject, which of course may be necessary if you’re writing for a group of skeptical academics. But I have no reason to believe that is this book’s intended audience, and even if it were, the book lacks any real persuasive fire. Chumley comes across more as a scientist striving to retain a type of objective distance, than someone who is passionate about the beauty, power, and relevance of this ancient spiritual practice.

Okay, I’ll stop griping about that particular point. Because if we simply accept the book as it is, then certainly it does what it sets out to do: it introduces the reader, in a concise and general way, to the history and continued relevance of a beautiful contemplative  practice, hesychia — a Greek word which literally means “silence” but really points to a more specific kind of silence, the interior silence that we find when we rest securely in our body (particularly in our breath), and turn our attention away from the noisy chatter of the mind to the vast silence that is always present within us (but is usually obscured by the unending drama of our distracting thoughts and feelings). For centuries now, Orthodox monastics have sought hesychia through the repeated recitation of the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me” is one of several iterations of this prayer), which can in turn be prayed in a synchronized way with one’s breath to foster a particularly rich encounter with interior stillness — hence the book’s title, a reference of course to Psalm 46:10.

Be Still and Know is written as a kind of “second companion book” to the movie Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer which Chumley co-narrated along with the Orthodox scholar John McGuckin; I say “second” because a previous companion book to the movie more closely follows the film’s travelogue-meets-pilgrimage celebration of the Prayer of the Heart. In this book, Chumley appears to be trying to provide a more historical and theologically contextual overview of the Orthodox quest for interior silence.

The first half of the book is the “history lesson,” in which the reader is introduced to the Desert Fathers and Mothers (particularly John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus), the Cappadocian theologians, and later proponents of hesychastic prayer including St. Simeon the New Theologian (11th century) and St. Gregory Palamas (14th century). For readers whose knowledge of the Jesus Prayer may be limited to the charming Russian novel The Way of a Pilgrim, this history lesson can be helpful in understanding how the culture of the Jesus Prayer as a Christian spiritual practice evolved over the centuries.

The second half of the book is more user-friendly, in that the author seeks to show how hesychasts still can be found in Orthodox monasteries, and how their spiritual practice could be relevant to the ordinary reader. So at times he does engage in a bit of useful advice-giving, such as the following comment on the ordinary bugaboo of dealing with distracting thoughts (in Greek, logismoi).

It is to be expected that when beginning a practice of the search for peace in silence and stillness, the logismoi will enter in by default. Learning to tame the “demons” of mental and physical distraction is itself the practice. The exercise of returning again and again to God inside the self, ignoring the fears and distracting desires, is what it means to practice hesychia. (page 75)

Thankfully he avoids the temptation to describe the “search for peace in silence and stillness” in terms of emptying the mind. Rather, he correctly points out that contemplative prayer involves “learning to tame” the unruly distractions that continually dance across the theater of consciousness; barring that, we simply settle for “ignoring” the mental-emotional static while seeking to be available to the hidden presence of God.

The last chapter of the book, along with the conclusion, may be the most helpful part, for here he offers a few pointers for those of us who may wish to taste the splendor of the Jesus Prayer in our own, uncloistered lives. Key elements, such as finding a spiritual guide or director, seeking to obey the traditional precepts of the Christian faith, and fostering a regular routine of prayer, are all given due emphasis. He carefully seeks to avoid how some of the language associated with the Jesus Prayer can tend to make it inaccessible, as if it were a prayer only for those who are especially holy. He even goes so far as to suggest that

Thinking of God, saying the Jesus Prayer for five to ten minutes in the morning, afternoon and evening and tying it to inhalation and exhalation is a form of hesychasm. (page 119)

Maybe he’s even making it a bit too accessible: I think we have a tendency here in America to want to make spirituality admirably egalitarian, but in doing so we run the risk of stripping these life-transfiguring practices of their teeth and claws. If, over time, you devote thirty minutes a day to the Jesus Prayer, immerse yourself in a meaningful effort to wrestle with the mysteries and teachings of the Christian tradition, seek to cultivate not only “religious experience” but — and far more importantly — holiness, and work with a wise spiritual guide who will both support and challenge you, then this kind of prayer really is like entering the cave of a lion. Give yourself to it, and it will transform you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.


Disclosure: A complimentary copy of this book was supplied to me by the publisher for the purpose of reviewing it. If you follow the link of a title mentioned in this post and purchase it or other products from Amazon.com, I receives a small commission from Amazon. Thank you for doing so — your support keeps this blog going.

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