It was said of Abba Agathon that for three years he lived with a stone in his mouth, until he had learnt to keep silence. (Agathon 15)
The silence of the desert elders is called hesychia, which means stillness, silence, inner quiet. However, it is much deeper than just an external quiet. A person can live alone and still experience much noise within and a person can live in the midst of a crowd and have a true sense of stillness in their heart.
There is always a shadow side to silence—the kind of silence that keeps hidden secrets and abuses. This is not the life-giving silence the desert elders seek. Silence can be poisonous, as when someone’s voice is being silenced or when we silence ourselves out of resentment or anger. Think of times when you have engaged silence as a weapon in a relationship. There is also the silence of hopelessness or giving up, feeling overwhelmed by life. Or silence that comes when we feel another has all the answers and our voice doesn’t matter.
The desert monks are talking about silence that is life-giving. They urge us to seek a particular quality of silence that is attentive and emerges from a place of calm and peace. Our freedom to be silent in this way indicates our freedom from resentment and its power over us. Authentic silence is very challenging to achieve.
Meister Eckhart wrote, “There is nothing so much like God as silence.” When we experience moments when we find ourselves releasing words and simply entering into an experience of wonder and beholding, this is the silence of God, moments when we are arrested by life’s beauty.
Silence is challenging. We create all kinds of distractions and noise in our lives so we can avoid it. Thomas Merton writes about people who go to church and lead good lives but struggle with quiet:
Interior solitude is impossible for them. They fear it. They do everything they can to escape it. What is worse, they try to draw everyone else into activities as senseless and as devouring as their own. They are great promoters of useless work. They love to organize meetings and banquets and conferences and lectures. They print circulars, write letters, talk for hours on the telephone in order that they may gather a hundred people together in a large room where they will all fill the air with smoke and make a great deal of noise and roar at one another and clap their hands and stagger home at last patting one another on the back with the assurance that they have all done great things to spread the Kingdom of God.
Merton is fierce in his critique of all the ways we cling to words to feel productive, while never making space to surrender into the unknowing of silence and experience silence as beyond all of our good words and intentions. Silence is what makes our actions meaningful, not the other way around.
Silence encourages us to release our desire to control the outcomes of everything and enter into the organic stillness from which new fruit can arise. When we rush and spread ourselves between too many commitments, and saturate our lives with noise, it becomes impossible to truly hear.
When I am immersed in planning my life, writing list after list of things to do, and always trying to meet the next deadline, I am called to pause from these things. For Lent I will fast for a while from my endless desire to control the direction of my life. I will open myself to the grace of silence, in which beauty comes alive and there are things already ripening and unfolding. From this space a garden can flourish.
Photo is copyright Christine Valters Paintner
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