If you look closely, near the center of the picture, underneath the leaf, you’ll see a little brown spider. He appeared while I was weeding a week ago, probably annoyed that I was uprooting his little green canopy. Once he spotted me, he froze, and he remained still for several more minutes while I continued weeding. I wasn’t out to hurt him, but he, of course, perceived me as a threat. And what makes this little spider worthy of a blog post is his response to a perceived threat: stillness.
In the early Church, the spider was a favorite image of the desert monks for the pursuit of stillness. For example, St. Hesychios the Priest, whose name means stillness, wrote this:
If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare, let that little animal, the spider, always be your example of stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be as still in your intellect as you should be. The spider hunts small flies; but you will continually slay ‘the children of Babylon (cf. Ps. 137:9) if during your struggle you as are still in your soul as is the spider; and, in the course of this slaughter, you will be blessed by the Holy Spirit. (no. 27, p. 166, of “On Watchfulness and Holiness” in volume 1 of The Philokalia)
Here stillness refers to a peacefulness of mind through which one can objectively analyze one’s own thoughts. “Children of Babylon” refers to evil thoughts or temptations. The violent imagery of the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament was reinterpreted by these monks and applied to the unseen spiritual battle waged in our minds. Our enemies are not flesh and blood, and we fight against them by taking our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Through meditating on the name of Jesus and choosing to reject all distracting thoughts, the person pursuing stillness acquires a purity and clarity of mind which allows one to recognize an untrue, tempting, or harmful thought and reject it.
As one grows in stillness, stillness can be both a defensive and offensive posture. When we are attacked by temptations or disturbing thoughts, a response, we can defend ourselves by stepping back, slowing down, and patiently waiting. The spider in the picture above was not deciding how to respond; stillness was his response. This is the idea behind John Climacus’ advice for fighting off anger: “The first step toward freedom from anger is to keep the lips silent when the heart is stirred” (p. 146 of The Ladder of Divine Ascent). Stop. Be silent. Wait. Call upon Christ in stillness of heart and allow whatever is attacking you to pass by.
The offensive side of stillness is the deliberate practice of it through which we learn to catch, or “take captive” our own thoughts. Hesychios says the spider “hunts” flies; stillness is an active offensive pursuit. When we withdraw into stillness on a regular basis, even without a direct threat, we can cultivate a life of prayer and watchfulness enables us to actively pursue purity of mind. Here the spider imagery would focus on the web a spider uses to catch its prey. The spider spins the web, sets the trap and then it waits. By clearing our minds of unnecessary thoughts through practices like repeating the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) we spin a web in which we take our other thoughts captive.
The monks who pioneered this practice all believed the name of Jesus was essential to the pursuit of stillness. Climacus wrote, “Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness” (p. 270, Ladder of Divine Ascent). Hesychios wrote “The name of Jesus should be repeated over and over in the heart as flashes of lightning are repeated over and over in the sky before rain” (no. 105, p. 108). By calling on the name of Jesus, we both replace the unwanted thoughts in our minds with thought of Christ, but we also invoke his help and assistance. He is faithful to come to the aid of those who call upon him. For more on how calling upon the name of Jesus works to cultivate stillness, read “Prayer Without Thoughts” by Lisa Sayre. This habit takes time and discipline to develop, but its rewards are purity of heart and sure defense against temptation.