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A few nights ago, I started reading Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer by Catherine Doherty. Tired from a busy day, and not looking forward to my early-morning shift at the cafe the next day, I started crying when I read this passage:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces where there are constant demands on our whole person, we need silence.  If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding, and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, heart, body, and soul, we need silence. (p. 4)

Poustinia is the Russian word for desert or wilderness.  Following the pattern of the monastic saints of the early Church sought who communion with Christ in the desert, the Russian Church developed a tradition of the poustinik, a person who retreated to solitary and silent places in search of deep communion with God.  For the person seeking poustinia, the “desert” could be any secluded place to which one would retreat for a time, short or long.  Perhaps you build a hut or cabin in the wilderness, like the one pictured on the cover of the book. Perhaps it’s a corner of your home dedicated to prayer. Wherever your poustinia is, go there alone. Listen to God. Take only your Bible. Fast. Listen. Pray. Wait for God in solitude and silence

It was this sort of solitude and silence that I had in mind when I read the quote I shared above.  To be available to others, to witness faithfully in the midst of our crowded lives, we must have a rhythm of life that allows us to retreat periodically into silence and solitude. At least that’s what I thought she meant. And that’s what I wanted. But the further I read in the book, the more I realize that the quote above referred to what Doherty calls a “poustinia of the heart.” Not all of us can practically get away for solitary retreats as often as we’d like.  Nor would it be faithful for some of us to hide in solitude when we’ve been called elsewhere: I would have been like Jonah on the ship to Tarshish if I had awakened Tuesday morning and decided to take a solitary retreat that day instead of fulfilling my obligations to work the opening shift at the cafe.  Apparently I need a way to learn to listen to God in the midst of life just as I would in the midst of the desert. But how?

In the chapter “Poustinia in the Marketplace,” Doherty provides the image of a womb in which Christ is present within us. Like Mary, we have a poustinia within us, a place where we can internally commune with Christ in the midst of the world and from which we also bear Christ’s light and presence into the world. This poustinia within us doesn’t require us to hide in the desert to commune with Christ. Rather:

It means that within yourselves you have made a room, a cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer – the Jesus Prayer – or whatever prayer you have found profitable. You should be more aware of God than anyone else, because you are carrying within you this utterly quiet and silent chamber.  Because you are more aware of God, because you have been called to listen to him in your inner silence, you can bring him to the street, the party, the meeting, in a very special and powerful way (p. 64).

Notice that she says this inner desert has been built by prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.  She goes on the following pages to describe in different terms what the desert monks called watchfulness, the capacity to objectively observe our own thoughts and attentively respond to them.  In the midst of a crowded room, the watchful person can be non-anxiously aware of all that is happening within themselves and submit those internal operations to Christ. This requires the cultivation of an interior silence which quiets all voices but God’s. And how do we cultivate this? Doherty says, “The answer is simple: you pray more” (p. 65). 

She recommends other practices as well: attentiveness to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, occasional solitary retreats, fasting, vigiling, simplifying our schedules, and limiting our recreational activities.  But the goal of all these practices remains prayer. By praying, we learn to pray. By communing with Christ in prayer and worship and simplicity, we learn to commune with Christ in the inner desert of the soul. After listing examples of saints whom she thought achieved this, Doherty says, “The secret of all those people I am talking about is that they prayed continually, while all the time they served their people” (p. 69).

This is a difficult calling, but if Doherty was right that we really need silence in order to minister effectively today, then we have no choice but to accept the challenge.  So, I accept the call. I want to pray for my cafe customers while I make their drinks. I want to pray for my congregation in the midst of meetings about budgets and the expansion of our space.  I want to pray while leading a wedding rehearsal tonight and officiating a wedding tomorrow. I’m not there yet; I’m a long way away. But I want the poustinia of the heart. Lord have mercy on your servants, and grant us the gift of unceasing prayer.

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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.

I’m nearly finished reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent.  This week’s reflection covers only two steps: (26) On Discernment, and (27) On Stillness. The theme which ties Steps 26 and 27 together is Truth.  Discernment is the ability to distinguish between falsehood and truth, between what is of darkness and what is of light, between what is less-than-good and what is truly good. Stillness, in turn, is the fruit of internal discernment, beginning with truthful awareness of one’s own thoughts. They are related, but differ in their external and internal applications.

Step 26, On Discernment, is one of the longest chapters of The Ladder, but one lengthy quote provides enough material to summarize here:

Among beginners, discernment is real self-knowledge; among those midway along the road to perfection, it is a spiritual capacity to distinguish unfailingly between what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good; among the perfect, it is a knowledge resulting from divine illumination, which with its lamp can light up what is dark in others.  To put the matter generally, discernment is – and is recognized to be – a solid understanding of the will of God in all times, in all places, in all things; and it is found only among those who are pure in heart, in body, and in speech (page 229).

Here Climacus presents three kinds of discernment, depending upon where one is in their spiritual journey.  Beginners learn discernment through accurate self-knowledge. This is like taking the log out of your own eye (Matthew 7:5) in order to see clearly.  Discernment begins by recognizing the truth about oneself, otherwise one’s vision will be clouded by pride and other sin. Those “midway along” their journey practice discernment through distinguishing between “what is truly good and what in nature is opposed to the good”. This means seeing clearly to recognize God’s moral will or natural law. It’s like having a sanctified common sense and conscience in order to rightly identify what actually is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, excellent, and praise-worthy (Phil. 4:8). Expert discernment, discernment among the “perfect” is “knowledge resulting from divine illumination.” This is the sort of clairvoyance attributed to some mystics or startsy.  Extremely rare though this gift may be, it remains something which should inspire us and give us a goal to strive toward:  “A mind disposed to the things of the spirit is certainly endowed with spiritual perception and this is something that, whether we possess it or not, we should always seek to have” (page 233).

As I tried to translate this step it into application for my life as a married pastor living in the world, I realized that most of the people I hear talking about “discernment” in the Church today want this third stage of mystical divine discernment, but want it without learning the first two forms of discernment. I think of times when I’ve prayed with people who just wanted to know what “the will of God” was for them in a specific situation, but they weren’t opening to considering that self-knowledge or their conscience or sanctified common sense could be accurate guides. Sometimes we want a direct word from the Lord, but we ignore the tools God had given us to practice basic discernment.  As a pastor, I find this immensely helpful for counseling people: we should lead people into the will of God through first leading them to accurate self-knowledge and then to consideration of what is true, right, and good. This should be sufficient for the sort of decision-making which most people are dealing with when they say they’re seeking “discernment.” To attempt discernment beyond these levels is to attempt to pry into divine mysteries which are not for us to understand yet.  Questions like: Did God cause my suffering? or Why did ___ happen to ___? may not be the right questions to ask.  John Climacus says “what God has decided for us is hard to penetrate.  In His providence, He often conceals His will from us, for He knows that even if we knew about it, we would disobey it” (pages 245-246).

Step 27, On Stillness describes a kind of prayer that requires the inward use of discernment. Climacus is using “stillness” in a technical sense, as in the practice of Hesychasm, to describe the mental practice of wordless prayer.  He writes, “Stillness of the body is the accurate knowledge and management of one’s feelings and perceptions.  Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts and is an unassailable mind” (pages 261-262). Once having achieved accurate knowledge of one’s thoughts, one can begin to distinguish between what thoughts are true and untrue, what thoughts are inspired by God and what thoughts are demonic temptations.  To achieve this discipline, one had to learn to distance oneself from one’s own thoughts and learn to look objectively at each thought that comes into the mind. Climacus describe it as playing cat-and-mouse with your thoughts: “The cat keeps hold of the mouse.  The thought of the hesychast keeps hold of his spiritual mouse” (p. 262). Grab your thoughts like they are prey, “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5), and reject all thoughts that do not lead you closer to Christ. For the one seeking intimate communion with God, even thoughts which may be good in and of themselves  can serve as distractions from prayer.  Have you ever sat down to pray and found that a dozen things immediately pop into your mind to add to your to-do list? That’s an occasion to reject such thoughts and seek stillness. Climacus writes, “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 even reasonable cares. . . . The man who wishes to offer a pure mind to God but who is troubled by cares is like a man who expects to walk quickly even though his legs are tied together” (page 269).

The best explanation of this practice to non-monks that I’ve heard was presented by Lisa Sayre at this year’s House of St. Michael the Archangel Devotional Conference.  The text of it is available here: Prayer Without Thoughts. As Lisa shows there, the Jesus Prayer is the key to practicing stillness for us in the world today, just as it was for monks through the history of the Hesychast tradition. Climacus alludes to this practice when he says “Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath” (page 270). Breath in the name of Jesus. Let meditation on His Name become as natural and constant within you as breathing.  As Lisa wrote, “Pray then . . .  the name of the Lord Jesus, that He might come to dwell before all in your heart and all your thoughts might be subject to Him.” Then you will be on the path to perfect discernment and the knowledge of truth in stillness.