Catching Fireflies: Learning the Way of Stillness

Being silent or still was never my strong suit.  I was the kid to run with scissors or make a scene.  I am pretty sure I spent more time in the hall in third grade than I did in class.  My decade in youth ministry probably got a lot those tendencies out but every now and again, especially when the moon is just right, I can go toe-to-toe with my two teenagers for having the loudest laugh and being the most obnoxious.

Even so, I have also found myself responding for a number of years to a different yearning.  I will tell you it has been hard to hear or catch sight of many times.  The best I can describe it is like chasing a lightning bug at night, a flash, and it is gone.  A buzz at your ear, you turn, and it goes silent.  This yearning has always been just beyond my reach.

In the journey through the "Valley of Suck" as my wife's caregiver, something changed.  Whether it was in me or around me, I do not know.  Was it being hand in hand with my best friend, in the thin space between life and death and connected by love?  I still don't know but something did change.  The "flash" didn't leave.  The "buzz" stayed beside me.  Did they stay or did I finally become still enough to take it in?

This is what the practice of Stillness is really about, becoming aware enough of the flash, the buzz, "the still small voice."  As I indicated in my last blog, there are practices of the Christian faith which are quite ancient but sadly, quite ignored or dismissed for various reasons.  I think one of those reasons, which is a bit uncomfortable, is the reality that the spiritual realm, and thus spirituality, is out of our control.  I would agree, it is, the spiritual is the realm of the Spirit of God.  Thankfully, God has not left us without guidance!  God's instruction to us in regards to spirituality is simple: becoming more like Jesus Christ - learning to love.

The writer of the Psalms speaks of a call to "stillness."  The writer notes we are to be still in order to know God (Ps 4:4, 46:10).  This is primary to our understanding this spiritual practice.  But the Psalmist looks too at God's living example and so recognizes the example of God who stills all of creation (Ps. 65:7, 89:9, 107:29).  Things get out of control in the world.  Things get out of control within us.  In both cases, there is a need to be still and there is practical, Christian ways by which we can live so we might live a life of love.

We must keep this in mind when examining any claims on a spiritual practice.  If it does not lead to nurturing perfect love in us, we must question the intentions and practice.  Abba Philimon (a Christian teacher from the 6th or 7th century), emphasized that Stillness is the foundational practice on our journey toward loving as Jesus Christ taught us.  In his teaching (it ought to be noted, many of the words here are not to be understood as equivalent to their 21st century counterpart in translation) he observed conforming to God's love was not possible without stillness, for "...stillness gives birth to ascetic effort, ascetic effort to tears, tears to awe, awe to humility, humility to foresight, foresight to love. (173, Philokalia)."  Gregory of Sinai also notes stillness as the foundational practice in learning theology.

Five Simple Steps Toward Stillness
After studying, practicing, and reflecting, these are what I have found to be five of the most influential elements of the practice of Stillness. There are other aspects to Stillness than the five below.  This is true for most any spiritual practice.  There are different ways to pray, to read Scripture or to practice fasting.

1. Still Your Body. 
The desert fathers and mothers understood our bodies can provide us with many distractions.  One must recognize and plan for a certain amount of comfort in learning stillness.  But the body and spirit are not separate. The body IS the temple of God's Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).  St. Mark the Ascetic observed, "the intellect cannot be still unless the body is still also (165, ibid).:  Find a position or location where you can be comfortable. A good chair maybe all you need.

2. Still Your Thoughts.
Again and again and again in my life and spiritual journey, I have found my thoughts to be the hardest thing to handle.  From thinking of my to-do list for the day, week, or month, worrying about my kids, to wandering to the next sermon to prepare, I have struggled to still my thinking.  St. Hesychios' words provide a great image, "...lash the enemy with the name of Jesus and, as a certain wise man has said, let the name of Jesus adhere to your breath, and then you will know the blessing of stillness (167, ibid). To practice Stillness, focus on the name of Jesus Christ.  I have found the Jesus Prayer the best way to start.

3. Watch for Irritation.
When you have kids in your home, there is ALWAYS going to be interruptions.  My cats run a close second on many mornings.  The point is, something or someone is going to interrupt - what does that lead to for you?  St. Theodoros observes, "...we should not consider this an irksome interruption of our stillness, lest we cut ourselves off from the law of love.  This is why St. John, too, says, 'My children, let us love not in word or tongue, but in action and truth. And by this we know that we belong to the truth" (1 John 3:18-19) (171, ibid)."  Far from being a "bad sign," being aware of your irritation, anxiety, or anger, is a sign you ARE being still, even if just a little bit.

4. Adjust Accordingly for Distractions.
Besides irritation, getting distracted is a huge issue in practicing stillness.  One of the reasons the desert fathers and mothers went to the desert was to battle with the things and situations which distracted them from God.  I can only imagine what they must think of the distractions we have in our day - and we think virtually NOTHING of them!  The desert was a perfect place to detach from things but things are not the only distraction.  Theodoros also noted, "You must avoid continuously wasting time...if you have indeed chosen to practice stillness. So restrict your relationships with other people, lest your intellect should become distracted and your life of stillness disrupted (171, ibid)."  Obviously, Stillness is not a practice for us all but if you are going to focus on it, you'll probably want to change your Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat habits.

5. Examine Your Heart.
"Let your model for stillness of heart be the man who holds a mirror into which he looks.  Then you will see both good and evil imprinted on your heart," taught St. Hesychios (167. ibid).  I can't help thinking of James 1:23-25 when I read this.  It isn't just that you look and see - it isn't just that you are still and feel love - nope - what are you doing with it?

The practice of Stillness is not the only practice we've lost track of but it is surely one which was emphasized in the Church in centuries past.  I would argue as well, we are in need of it again because it seems we are far too attached to power in this world than we are to God's Kingdom and other human beings.  Our Christian ancestors knew well this temptation following Constantine's conversion to Christianity.  Roberta Bondi points out an important difference between our 21st Century understanding of loving and dealing with other people, and the early Christians.  She writes, "This love of other people who are God's images is not an abstract love of humanity, a warm feeling of kinship toward humankind in general. Love of neighbor included taking very seriously the actual day-to-day welfare of the real people... (32, "To Pray and To Love)."

Our spiritual practices are not merely for our own benefit but for practical, real life transformation for ourselves AND for others.  The concern growing in me is we are really not interested in Jesus, the Son of God.  We are interested in Christ's Church and who is in power here and now.  I recall the disciples of Jesus arguing this very thing, too.  Not much has changed.  Again, are we interest in knowing God or do we just want God's stuff?  We are going to have a hard time knowing which is which, if we are not engaged in spiritual practices which examine our soul and those passions which are festering ever more in the deep wound sin has left on us.

Be still.
Catch Fireflies.
Know God.

Works Cited:
Philokalia: "The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts"
Bondi, Roberta: "To Pray and To Love"



rhymeswithplague said...

This post is absolutely wonderful, Ken, and something I (and all of us) need to hear. You know that you continue to be in Ellie's and my prayers.

If you ever decide to gather these posts together into a book, I would love to be a volunteer proofreader/copy editor for you before you submit it. There are a few small changes I would suggest to keep grammar nerds like me absorbing the content instead of stumbling over minor errors. Put me in your Rolodex!

Ken Hagler said...

Thanks for the comment and offer Bob!

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