Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.1
Once a brother came to visit one of the great desert fathers, Abba Moses, and asked him for a word. Moses replied, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”2 Moses’ instruction was not unusual. Moses believed that only in the silence of the cell would a monk acquire the virtues and attitudes necessary for a life of constant prayer and communion with God.
Solitude and silence are differentiated in English, but in many instances, the same word, a form of the Greek hesychia, is translated as either silence (stillness) or solitude. In its philosophical usage it typically refers to a state of serenity, which can be characterized by an elimination of external distraction or a lack of inner disturbance. It also was utilized to refer to private retreat or solitude.
In the Septuagint,3 the above definition of hesychia is typically followed. In some cases, its use refers to abstaining from the unnecessary use of words.4 In the New Testament, it is used quite often, but it retains the meaning of silence and/or quiet.5See Luke 14:4; 23:56; 1 Thess. 4:11; 2 Thess. 3:12, etc. Hesychia translates as stillness, and one who practices stillness is a hesychast. Stillness is a deep inner peace attained by those who practice the constant remembrance of God. Stillness may be acquired by monks living in community, but living in seclusion is much more favorable for its development.
An equally important term for understanding the early Christian teaching on solitude and silence is the Greek word amerimnia,6 or freedom from care. For stillness of heart to be acquired, a loosening of attachments must occur. In Evagrian spirituality,7 this state is usually referred to as apatheia or dispassion, but for the desert solitaries it meant freedom from care. This was not an unhealthy inability to connect emotionally or attach, but a healthy non-concern for the things of the world. As John Climacus writes, “The first task of stillness (hesychia) is disengagement (amerimnia) from every affair good and bad.” Why is such a difficult command required? First, because “the former leads on to the latter.” And second, “A small hair disturbs the eye. A minor concern interferes with stillness, for, after all, stillness means the expulsion of thoughts and the rejection of reasonable cares.”8 Solitude and inner silence are means to the desert goal: union with God. As Isaac of Nineveh writes, “If you love truth, then you must love silence … for silence will even unite you with God.” The life of the hesychast is a difficult calling. Disengagement from worldly affairs is necessary for a monk to achieve the goal of silence and solitude … union with God. John Climacus writes, “There are not many outstanding experts in worldly philosophy. But I would claim that rarer still are those who are truly expert in the philosophy of stillness.”9
Words may be used to heal or inflict harm. Words spoken carelessly may cause much damage to a community. Because of the ambiguous nature of speech, words were to be used sparingly. Silence, in most circumstances, was to be encouraged. As Abba Poemen said, “If a man remembered that it is written: ‘By your words you will be justified and by your words you would be condemned,’10 he would choose to remain silent.”11 Yet words spoken from a pure heart may be a means for healing or restoration. So in other circumstances a monk might be encouraged to speak. To the query, “Is it better to speak or to be silent?” Abba Poemen replied, “The man who speaks for God’s sake does well; but he who is silent for God’s sake also does well.”12
Gregory the Great writes
The tongue should be discreetly curbed, not tied up fast. For it is written, “A wise man will hold his tongue until the time” in order, assuredly, that when he considers it opportune, he may relinquish the censorship of silence and apply himself to the service of utility by speaking such things as are fit. And again it is written, “A time to keep silence and a time to speak.” For, indeed, the times for changes should be discreetly weighed, lest either, when the tongue ought to be restrained, it run loose to no profit in words, or, when it might speak with profit, it slothfully restrain itself. Considering which thing well, the psalmist says, “Set a watch, O Lord, on my mouth, and a door round about my lips.”13 (Pastoral Care 3.14.)14
The ambiguity of the spoken word requires that a person learn to control his or her speech in order to create the space needed to speak profitably in the circumstances at hand.
Beyond simply the restraint of words, silence serves as a school in the cultivation of integrity. Jerome, commenting on Ecclesiastes 3:7 (“There is a time to be silent and a time to speak”), writes
I believe that the Pythagoreans, whose discipline it was to remain silent for five years and to speak with erudition afterwards, drew their practice from this principle. We too should learn to be silent before opening our mouths to speak. Let us remain still for an established time, meditating on the words of the Teacher, for nothing should seem right to us except what we have learned. In this way, only after much silence will we be made teachers from the disciples.15
By the persistent meditation on the teachings of Jesus, the expositor of scripture becomes what she or he learns, taking on the qualities of the disciples. In other words, the practice of silence creates the setting for the Word to be integrated into the life of the teacher, protecting the teacher from practicing the things she or he warns others not to do.
Flee Into Silence
While Anthony was called the “The Father of all Monks,” for those drawn towards a life of silence, it was Arsenius. Arsenius (360-449 CE), of Roman birth, was appointed by Emperor Theodosius I to be a tutor to the princes. While living in the palace, “Abba Arsenius prayed to God in these words, ‘Lord, lead me in the way of salvation.’” A voice came saying to him, “Arsenius, flee from man and you will be saved.}16 In 394, he secretly left the palace and sailed to Alexandria, Egypt. He traveled further into Egypt and settled near Scetis and sought the guidance of Abba John the Dwarf.
Once settled into the life of the solitary, he made the same prayer, and he heard a voice say to him, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the sources of sinlessness.”17
Following these two commands to flee and to be silent, Arsenius created the setting necessary for the interior work of unceasing prayer.
Why flee? Simply, to cultivate a pure heart that wills only the will of God. Once when Abba Mark asked Abba Arsenius, “Why do you avoid us?” Arsenius said to him, “God knows that I love you, but I cannot live with God and with men. The thousands and ten thousands of heavenly hosts have but one will, while men have many. So I cannot leave God to be with men.”18
Why silence? To acquire the peace that only comes from God:
One day Abba Arsenius came to a place where there were reeds blowing in the wind. The old man said to the brothers, “What is this movement?” They said, “Some reeds.” Then the old man said to them, “When one who is living in silent prayer hears the song of a little sparrow, his heart no longer experiences the same peace. How much worse it is when you hear the movement of those reeds.19
The behavior of the solitary might seem rather odd or excessive to our modern sensibilities, but it was performed for a purpose. We have already seen that silence was considered necessary for acquiring purity of heart and integrity of life. The solitude of the cell was a place of agonizing loneliness, monotony, and temptation. Yet it was out of these difficult circumstances the monks learned humility and long-suffering, two characteristics of those who have gained knowledge that comes from living in the presence of God.
Knowledge Born of Silence
I would like to conclude this brief glimpse into early teachings on silence and solitude with two quotes, one from Abba Sisoes and another from Isaac of Nineveh, which capture the essence of the discipline of silence.
As mentioned earlier, silence was preferred over conversation because it protected the community from the unnecessary damage caused by careless words. But silence was viewed as a means to fulfilling Jesus’ command “to love one another as I have loved you.” Here is Saying 30 of Abba Sisoes:
A brother asked Abba Sisoes, “If we are walking along the road and our guide leads us astray, ought we not to tell him so?” The old man answered, “No.” Then the brother said, “Should we let him lead us astray?” The old man said to him, “What else? Will you take a stick to beat him? I know some brethren who were walking and the guide misled them the whole night. There were twelve of them and they all knew they were lost and each struggled not to say so. When the day came and the guide realized that they had lost their way and said to them, “Forgive me, but I am lost,” they all said to him, “We knew that but we kept silence.” Hearing this, he was filled with wonder and said, “Even to the point of death, the brothers control themselves not to speak,” and gave glory to God. The length of the road on which they had gone astray was twelve miles.20
As I was reading through the various sayings on silence by the desert fathers, I came across this one attributed to Abba Sisoes. Much to my chagrin, I quickly dismissed it as too impractical. It was only later I began to realize that maybe in its “impracticality” there was something important I needed to learn. As Douglas Burton-Christie suggests, this passage illustrates “the lengths to which the monks were willing to go to keep from injuring another person.” He continues, “Silence, in such cases, was expression of tenderness.”21 It is very easy for me to value the utility of silence, to appreciate what I gain from silence: knowledge of God, patience, and peace. But to view silence as an act of love or an expression of tenderness requires a change of heart that may be acquired only through the grace of silence.
Finally, Isaac of Nineveh writes
Love silence above all things. It brings you near the fruit which the tongue is too weak to interpret. At first we compel ourselves to be silent. Then from our silence something is born which draws us towards silence. May God grant you to perceive that which is born from silence. If you begin with this discipline, I do not know how much light will dawn in you through it. Concerning what is said about the admirable Arsenius: that Fathers and brethren came to see him, but that he sat with them in silence and dismissed them in silence—do not think, my brother, that this happened by action of his will alone, though in the beginning he had to compel himself. After some time delight is born in the heart from the exercise of this service and by force it draws the body towards remaining in silence.
For many of us the practice of silence is difficult and feels like an unfruitful endeavor, but as Isaac explains, this will not always be the case. There is knowledge of God born in silence that cannot be experienced through words. This knowledge found in silence draws us deeper into silence. Isaac describes it as a compulsion of delight. Finally, knowledge gained from silence is best communicated through the example of a life steeped in silence. The wisdom of the desert teaches that the essence of silence is taught only through a patient and humble example of silence.