It’s a little after midnight and nine of us with a guide are taking our first steps as we ascend Mount Sinai. We’ve passed the Monastery of St. Katherine and begin our ascent. Even though we’ve taken a few breaks to rest, be it on a rock or in a Bedouin shelter, we reached the Church of the Trinity on top of Mount at 3:30am. With a common sigh of relief, we offered a prayer and sat…in silence.
After resting atop the Mount, I’m convinced that few of us have really ever experienced silence. I only had one like experience, that being at the Skete of Saint Anna on Mount Athos. Sadly, in the city, the low hum of appliances, the ticking of a clock, the sound of a plane or an automobile in the distance, it’s difficult, if not impossible to escape noise.
Below the Church of the Holy Trinity is the cave of Moses, a photo has been posted on the website. Here Moses rested, fasted, prayed and waited for God. In silence, 900 meters above sea level, completely removed from his people, he waited. In silence, he encountered God, received the Law and was forever illumed by the Uncreated Light.
Following the Lord’s baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Forerunner, Jesus sought silence in wilderness of Jericho. Fasting, praying, and remaining in silence for forty days, the Lord ascended what is now called the Mount of Temptation. Here, He confronted the devil three times, each time remaining steadfast as both God and man.
In the fourth century, St. Anthony the Great fled to the Egyptian Desert seeking a deeper relationship with God in silence. Entering the desert, he fasted, he prayed, he lived in an empty tomb to confront demons. Only after great struggle, being spiritually, physically, and emotionally fatigued, he heard the voice of the Lord who affirmed the merit of his struggle and granted St. Antony every blessing unto his salvation as well as to those who would seek his spiritual counsel and prayers.
In the fifth century, St Saba fled the noise of the world and entered the Judean Desert. He inhabited a cave on the side of a mountain, praying, fasting, sitting in silence, and perfecting his relationship with God. In silence, he too was able to hear God, finding a church that was hewn out of a cave that he would use for services, finding a water source in a barren desert, and creating a discipline of askesis that would nurture numerous saints of Christendom.
Although most of us are unable to withdrawal to the Egyptian desert, the wilderness of Jericho, the Judean Desert, Mount Athos, the Arizona desert or even the Sierra Nevada Mountains for physical silence, especially for any great length of time, we are fortunate, we are blessed to retreat to a place of inner silence, the inner desert of the heart.
Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, of blessed memory, wrote in Beginning to Pray, that inner silence in the heart is the greatest of spiritual gifts. He recounted a story of an individual who came to him for spiritual counsel. She questioned why she couldn’t hear God, especially assayed so frequently. The response was simple…find time to sit in silence and listen for the voice of God. In the word of St. John Climacus, the mother of prayer is intelligent silence.
Metropolitan Kalistos Ware, in Prayer and Silence explains: ‘When you pray,’ it has been wisely said by an Orthodox writer in Finland, ‘you yourself must be silent . . .. You yourself must be silent; let the prayer speak.’ To achieve silence: this is of all things the hardest and the most decisive in the art of prayer. Silence is not merely negative — a pause between words, a temporary cessation of speech — but, properly understood, it is highly positive: an attitude of attentive alertness, of vigilance, and above all of listening.”
“Silence”, in the words of St. Isaac the Syrian, “is a mystery of the age to come…” Christians have therefore attempted to enter this mystery through silent and contemplative prayer; within the Orthodox Christian East this is referred to as hesychasim. With the head bowed and the eyes directed to the chest, the Christian attempts to void his or her mind of all thoughts and every image, instead filling this space with only the silent words of the Jesus Prayer, “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner,” over and over. Metropolitan Kalistos continues, “The hesychast, the person who has attained hesychia, inner stillness or silence, is par excellence the one who listens. He listens to the voice of prayer in his own heart, and he understands that this voice is not his own but that of Another speaking within him.”
When faithfully prayed within the total life of the Church, the Jesus Prayer brings the experience of the uncreated divine light of God and unspeakable joy to the soul. It’s worth repeating though that outside of a life lived within the Church - confessing, attending Divine Services, receiving the Eucharist, Holy Unction, fasting, tithing, giving alms, reading Scripture and the lives of the saints – achieving hysichia, silence in the desert of the heart is impossible. Moreover, if one lacks spiritual guidance, is in genuine, and prideful, ignorant of the Faith or in turmoil, the desert of the heart, like the desert or wilderness of the world will remain a distant, foreign and inaccessible destination.
Sadly, as Bishop Hillarion writes in an article on silence and prayer, “The lack of taste for solitude and silence is one of the most common illnesses of the modern person. Many are even scared of remaining in stillness, being alone or having free time: they feel more comfortable being constantly occupied; they need words, impressions; they always hasten in order to have the illusion of an abundant and saturated life. But life in God begins when words and thoughts fall silent, when worldly cares are forgotten, and when a place within the human soul is freed to be filled by Him.”
Regardless of your familial and filial relationships, or the distractions you may encounter in the workplace and the marketplace, you have the ability, you have the responsibility of retreating into the desert of the heart to silently wait and listen for God. Thankfully, countless men and women before us have found silence and stillness; they have found God in a noisy world. May those who have withdrawn to the Sinai, the wilderness of Jericho, and the Egyptian and the Judean deserts inspire us by their pursuits for God and may they ever intercede on our behalf with silent fortitude before the Throne of our Heavenly Father. Amen.