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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Silence


"Were men to learn the message
Silence always brings,
They'd learn to span Earth's bridges
To touch immortal things."


-- Sr. Elizabeth Loretto Triail, C.S.J.


By Father J. Guy Winfrey


Last week, I ended by pointing out that we need to develop silence so that we might begin reflecting. Silence is critically important for our spiritual lives. It is not as simple as turning off our televisions, radios, iPods, and the internet. Those little actions are only the first requisite step.

Once we have a lack of noise, what then? It is here that there may be some confusion, for a prayerful silence, a silence in which a Christian may enter is not simply a void or vacuum into which he moves or opens his heart.

Though it seems to have been lost on our generation, we need to understand that there is no such thing as a spiritual vacuum. There is always a presence. This is one of the great distinctions between Christian mysticism and far Eastern mysticism, most notably Buddhism. Christians believe in a personal God, or actually tri-personal. We strive to enter into communion with the Holy Trinity and not the great cosmic void. Silence, for the Christian, is therefore not simply an absence but a rushing into the community and presence of God. This is a critical point that will make all the difference in our continuing journey towards the great Feast of feasts: Pascha, or Easter.

When we move only into what we think is a void, we can easily be surprised by a presence. If we are fortunate, the presence is God himself. But there are also spirits who wish to remove us from the Holy Trinity and they offer great enticements and allurements, most notably blessing all that we do, asking us to amplify our current way of life, and requiring no change or struggle in our lives. It is not popular to speak of the angels of darkness these days, to remind us that we are in a spiritual war “against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places,” (Eph. 6:12) but we ignore them at our own peril.

I have met many people whom I fear have been led astray in their misguided prayer life (perhaps misguided is too strong, perhaps it has only been un-guided). Some begin to call evil good and good evil. There are many, many different Christian groups who now proclaim a new morality which the Church has condemned consistently for 2,000 years. Abortion is thought to be sometimes necessary—or even an active good. Homosexual activity is seen as a misunderstood lifestyle that is an expression of one’s unique being. The historic understanding of Christian marriage as being a fecund and fruitful community for the blessing of children, and the nurturing of a Christian family, and the sanctification of the members of the family has been almost entirely lost. Marriage is now simply for the pleasure of two persons; this is not marriage at all, but rather socially acceptable sex. This has produced catastrophic numbers of divorces, broken families and a dulling of our recognition of the tragedy.

Those who would say these are good changes have often claimed that it agrees with their prayer. But when it runs counter to the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel throughout her entire life, then one must ask about the validity of the person’s prayer. It is here that we come to realize that silence will always present to us a presence of either darkness disguised as light, or Light itself.

A Christian’s silence must be understood to be a thunderous silence in the presence of God. It is a silence in the heart where we sit in his presence and look upon his face. Icons are incredibly helpful in this. We may look into the eyes of Christ before us and move our hearts to him. Icons help us avoid distractions, or gods of our own imagination, or worse still, imitation gods with real personalities. You see once we have turned off the external distractions, the more difficult distractions to combat are those that are inside us. This is why we are so often distracted when we try to pray, or during church services, or sermons and the like.

Icons help us develop an interior silence without distraction. They direct us correctly because the image of the icon is that which is blessed by the Church as being authentic, so that we are not lead astray. They also help us to recover our sense of God’s presence when we become aware of our wandering thoughts.

This silence of palpable presence is the sort which is necessary for reflection and thought too, for our minds and intellects are not perfect. They too have participated in the Fall and they do not work correctly by themselves. It is only when we restore our minds and hearts in the presence of Christ that they can work properly as God designed them to do.

It is a difficult struggle to develop a sense of Christian silence. Try to do it in little steps at first, beginning with five minutes each morning for a month, then maybe seven minutes, and then ten. Say your morning prayers first before you enter into this silence. If it is helpful, follow your morning prayers with the lectio divina to launch you into the silence of God’s presence. I have suggested this to many of my spiritual children and they have all told me how it has changed their lives. If one persists in this over a period of years, it will be seen that one can remain in silence even when in the midst of a clamorous and cacophonous world.

Silence may be called “golden”, but when done correctly, it is the gold of the unending day of the Kingdom of God that we find and enter. May you find it so in your life, even today.


V. Rev. Fr. J. Guy Winfrey is an Archpriest in the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese and the pastor of St George Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

 
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