To Know God, Silence Yourself Before Him

To Know God, Silence Yourself Before Him August 2, 2016

Saint Anne by Anonymous (Faras) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Anne by Anonymous (Faras) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him” (Heb. 2:20 RSV). When we are before God, the proper response is to bring ourselves to total silence. We are to wait upon God, to let God be God and act as God without any imposition from our expectations. “For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him” (Ps. 62:5 RSV). This silence is not merely about the absence of spoken words. We should come to God silencing all our thoughts, so that we truly come to him empty, ready to be filled by him in that emptiness.

“For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men” (1. Ptr. 2:15 RSV). When placed next to the incomprehensible nature of God, are we not ignorant? When we speak, when we try to declare our thoughts to God, are we not being foolish, using our thoughts as a barrier to keep away the full presence of God in our life? We must consider what Peter said and apply it first to ourselves.

True wisdom, the wisdom of God, is only had when we silence ourselves from the foolishness of our thoughts, from all our pretense of knowledge. It is a wisdom beyond knowing, and so beyond all humanistic pursuits, though it will inspire and help establish the development of such pursuits. Thus, in a work attributed to St. Antony the Great, we read: “Through silence you come to understanding; having understood, you give expression. It is in silence that the intellect gives birth to the intelligence; and the thankful intelligence is offered to God is man’s salvation.”[1]This appears as a paradox to us. How can we have understanding when we have silenced ourselves and have put aside all our thoughts? Because our thoughts come to us through our fallen, dualistic mode of intellectual activity. They cover and hide the truth and prevent us from knowing what lies beyond them. This is why it is important we bring ourselves to total silence, especially in our mind. In this fashion, we put to an end our normal way of thinking with its dualistic forms of interpreting the world. Thanks to the grace of God, the silencing of our thoughts does not become sub-rational but supra-rational, as we learn and experience the truth and know it in a way beyond all such thought. “So it is right,” St. Diadochos of Photoki explained, “always to wait, with a faith energized by love, for the illumination which will enable us to speak. For nothing is so destitute to a mind philosophizing about God when it is without Him.”[2]

How, then, do we experience this silence? We watch ourselves, slowly clearing our mind from the thoughts which otherwise emerge within it. We ignore them, we let them pass on through, no longer holding on to them, attaching ourselves to them. By doing so, we will find ourselves becoming more natural in activity, and so, more virtuous – for this is one of the ways by which we cleanse ourselves from the impurities of sin. “Watchfulness is a way of embracing every virtue, every commandment. It is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect.”[3] We cleanse our mind of all thoughts as a way to free the intellect from its dualistic way of thinking and interacting with the world; while it would seem to be a path of ignorance and unknowing, it leads to wisdom and true knowledge, knowledge which knows from experience of the truth and not from the words of others or speculation. It is a way of knowledge which, when embraced, will lead us to a position where we are no longer trapped by dualistic deliberation, confused as to what we should do by our ignorance, and rather, we will act with true insight, without second thought, doing what is right and good.

This, then, is a part of our goal. To find the silence which allows us to be transformed by grace in our encounter with God. We move forward with this silence in and through our faith, hope and love, where we have faith that God is good, hope that by God’s goodness we will be led to him for our eternal rest, and so seek after him in love where we divest ourselves of all things, including our thoughts, which separate us from God, as St. Maximus the Confessor declared:

Until our minds in purity have transcended our own being and that of all things sequent to God, we have not yet acquired a permanent state of holiness. When this noble state has, by means of love, been established in us, we shall know the power of the divine promise. For we must believe that where the intellect, taking the lead, has by means of love rooted its power, there the saints will find a changeless abode. He who has not transcended himself and all that in in away way subject to intellection, and has not come to abide in the silence beyond intellection, cannot be entirely free from change.[4]

While God’s grace is necessary for this to be possible, we must also cooperate with that grace as it transforms us, lifting us up from our fallen mode of being, purifying us from the very modality of thought which we have as a result of the fall. We discipline ourselves in fasting, prayer, vigils, worship of God, and the like in part to help stop the base forms of activity, habits of mind and body, which have developed as a result of sin; we pray and enter into silence to slowly experience a new way of life, a new way of being, to realize in and through such experience that we truly can know without thought, indeed, we can thrive in such non-dualistic mode of being.

By U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe (United States Air Force) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By U.S. Air Force photo by Larry McTighe (United States Air Force) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
We already have various forms of this experience in our day to day activity, when we act and react without thought – when we know what to do and find ourselves doing it in freedom, all the while without such knowledge being translated into thoughts and words as we act. Indeed, in many such situations, we would find that if we had to transpose our knowledge into thoughts, the time it would take would hinder our activity and often put us in harm’s way. Take, for example, how we drive our cars. Yes, we often have thoughts entering our heads as we drive, but there are times we act out of pure nature, without second thought, when such action is necessary and we do not have time for a thought to arise, such as when we see some car on the road suddenly swerve on an icy road and come straight at us. We act and react and only later do thoughts emerge. If we started shouting and swearing and focusing on what we see and condemning the other coming toward us, we would likely be hit and hurt. And so it can be said that “The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools” (Eccl. 9:17 RSV). This state of being shows we can and do come beyond our normal way of thought in our daily lives – and this is what we must embrace, not just in emergency situations, but as the norm. This is what silencing our thoughts is about –  we do not lose our minds, but rather, we find our mind at work in a way which transcends what happens when we follow our fallen mode of experience and intellection.

Through grace, we can and must find a way to rise above our normal mode of existence. We must silence our loud minds if we want true wisdom and knowledge. There are many ways which various saints show us as to how we can go about this. A typical fashion is found in prayer where we learn how to slowly close ourselves off from distractions by focusing on the words of a particular meditative prayer which has been handed down to us. For example, this can be done with the Jesus Prayer, where we focus our mind and thoughts on the words, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me a sinner.” Focusing on the words, and the words alone, we slow find the way to gather our thoughts in and hold only to the words, letting all other thoughts which come into our head disappear as quickly as they came in without any attachment. This begins the training we need in order to learn how to ignore our thoughts, for once we do that, we can then learn how to enter true silence. Over time, we should be able to shorten the prayer and our focus, until we focus only on one word – the name of Jesus, and then afterwards, we can even stop using the name and just open up to God in silence. We then wait in that silence, at the temple of God which is within ourselves. It is not, of course, definite we will experience God in a particular mediation – we must not think of meditation as a technique which puts us in control of God, but rather, its purpose is to open us up and keeps us ready in a natural, transcendent state, ready for what God shall do with us next.[5] What we learn in this meditative prayer we can then bring to us in other situations –in liturgy, where we open ourselves to God in communion, in our day to day lives with others, as we should act and react solely in the natural basis of love without second thought.

We might also find ourselves developing this spirit in the way we interact with others. We must learn to silence our thoughts which point to us the pain and sorrow we feel when we encounter someone who is hostile to us. This is not easy, indeed, it is extremely difficult for most of us, but it is the same silence, the same transformation, the same transcendence which opens us up to our true, natural form – and so for many, the training in silence is found not in meditative prayer, because they find mental distractions which come to them are hard to overcome – but in and through life in the real world, where they learn to die to the self and become like the dead in relation to the impositions others place on them. There is as Jeremiah wrote hope if we find ourselves able to get to such a holy purity. We can slow slowly find grace is taking us over when we return loving silence after we have experienced such hostility; it shapes and reshapes us and our way of being in the world, moving us beyond the dualistic reactionary we are used to being: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone in silence when he has laid it on him; let him put his mouth in the dust — there may yet be hope; let him give his cheek to the smiter, and be filled with insults” (Lam. 3:27-30 RSV).  If this is to be our path, we are likely to start it in our youth, and see, at least at the beginning, progress is slow and hard, but over time, the change will be discernable. And so we will likely find that from such abuse, at the start of our journey, we will feel angry. The goal is to overcome such a reaction. Normally this means learning how to overcome those thoughts, to letting them go before we rest at the end of the day, which is why the Psalms tell us, “Be angry, but sin not; commune with your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah” (Ps. 4:4 RSV). If we, then, can learn to control ourselves in such situations, however difficult it is, we will discover the process of silencing such hostile thoughts, making it faster and faster until at last, we dismiss them as they come into our mind, making sure we really achieve silence and find ourselves coming to be blessed by it:  “Having united simplicity with self-control, you will experience the blessing which their union produces.”[6]

Other fights against other inordinate passions can also give us the same experience, and will also provide the same insight as to how to fight off the dualistic way of thought which we have as a result of original sin and concupiscence. All sins give to us thoughts which suggest themselves to us as to why we should partake of them, and all of them should be responded by finding a way to clear our mind, to silence all our thoughts. Then the temptations will no longer be.

Victory is had once we found the way for ourselves to embrace such silence, overcoming the thoughts which distract us from true knowledge. We will likely achieve a foretaste of this for short periods of time before we find it as our norm, and then we will find it as our whole way of being. Then we will truly have made ourselves ready for our union with God. It is this silence, no matter how God directs us to achieve it, which makes us ready for him. “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19 RSV). This is why it is a great and holy thing to pursue: wisdom tells us that the way to achieve God is to silence ourselves, to learn how to be silent in word, and then in mind. Transgressions will constantly come at us until we find such silence. But once we do – oh, once we do!



[1] St. Antony the Great, “On the Characteristics of Men and On the Virtuous Life: One Hundred and Seventy Texts,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983),345-6. Although the attribution of this text to Antony is questionable, I believe that there probably is a connection between it and a root text or collection of sayings made by Antony (perhaps, and likely added to and complemented by many others before it came down to us in this final form). There are passages which read as something we would expect from Antony, and certainly follow in his spirit, while others seem questionable. Whoever the author of the text actually is, its place in the Philokalia is valid thanks to the wisdom contained within it.

[2] St. Diadochos of Photoki,”On Spiritual Knowledge,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 254.

[3] St. Hesychios the Priest, “On Watchfulness and Holiness,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983),162-3.

[4] St. Maximos the Confessor, “First Century on Theology” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 131.

[5] And of course, it opens us up to a way of being which we can and should take with us as a part of our continual form of prayer to God. Our whole walk with God should be with this interior silence, which then will manifest itself not only in and through our experience of God, but with a new, and pure, experience of the world. The world will reveal its true God-given splendor to us. Likewise, we will find our day to day walk, our actions, will manifest themselves differently, as all our action will be in the transcendent way of knowing which we only now experience in part (such as when we drive). When we have found this silence at all times, then all our actions will be of the supra-rational activity of the one who truly knows God.

[6] Ilias the Presbyter, “Gnomic Anthology I,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Three. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 41.


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