Recovering the Practice of Stillness

Most times, the initial feeling we have in our gut is the one we need to pay attention to.  My friend, Dr. George Tomes, was the first person to really teach me how important the gut is to our overall health and well-being.

The problem for me is my brain and tongue can operate independently of my gut.  When this takes place is usually the time when I make a mess of things. I wish my track record was better than it is.  As I have considered this point over the past weeks, I made the observation, no matter how smart or wise I think I have been, the idealism of my youth has been shattered by the reality of the years.

I suspect you, the reader, and I, are a lot alike in preferring the echo chamber of like-minded people.  It is comfortable to believe our way is the "right way" and it is comfortable to label others, based solely on our observations.  The results of the recent election are a prime example but this is only one more event in the long line of human history where this has occurred.

Going back to the gut, one of its primary responsibilities is to process the food and drink we take in.  The brain and mouth have to work to make this happen.  In spiritual practices, the practice of fasting restricts this, in part, to address the passion/temptation of gluttony and to exert control over the body.  It is, no doubt, a sure sign of religious piety to fast regularly.

But what is it we are practicing to restrict our mind and mouth from being rash and foolish in our words?  Is it scripture memory? Is it reciting the daily office? Is it just thinking good and noble thoughts?

The writer of Proverbs cautions you and me: "watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23,NASB)."  What is the life which is springing from your heart?  The warning of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back always gets to the simple things: Is it anger? Is it fear? Is it aggression?  You may not know what is coming out of your heart but those around surely do UNLESS you are surrounded only by your echo chamber.

This is the challenge of Jesus: "Love your enemy and those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44)."  And you cannot love a person who you cannot reach or you will not reach out to. (This is NOT endorsing being in or seeking out abusive relationships!).

In the early centuries of the Church, "guarding your heart" was also known to be the way of attentiveness or of Stillness.  St. Hesychios the Priest wrote:
"If you wish to be "in the Lord," do not just SEEM to be a monk, and good, and gentle, and always at one with God, decide  to BE such a person in truth.  With all your strength, pursue the virtue of attentiveness - that guard and watch of the intellect, that perfect stillness of heart and blessed state of the soul... (I, On Watchfulness and Holiness, Sec 115)."

Tragically, the lessons of the desert fathers and mothers have been mixed with poor theology and wrong interpretation through the years and centuries.  Their teaching is often confused with the heretical practice of "Quietism" which notably the Roman Catholic Church and John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, condemned.

In the writings of St. Theodoros we find the consistent teaching that the practice Stillness does NOT mean putting off serving other people.  Quietism does endorse this very thing - that we need not concern ourselves with good works.  Theodoros wrote: "When we receive visits from our brethren, 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)" ("Philokalia," 171).

Stillness is a practice that includes being quiet but it is not being naive to the work we are doing in the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This practice of Stillness is the listening, the praying, the searching of our heart and intellect in the presence of God's Spirit and, following the lead of the Spirit, it is the casting off of the "old man - the false self," the "dark side."

Stillness, like other spiritual practices, is simple but far from simplistic.  The practice of Stillness moves us from the echo chamber of our mind to partnering in the constructive and convicting work of God's Spirit.

To practice Stillness means to spend time alone.  It challenges us to put aside images and distractions from our mind.  But we aren't being inactive either.  "Stillness, prayer, love, and self-control are a four-horsed chariot bearing the intellect to heaven" writes St Thalassios (ibid, 171).  Another picture of stillness is that of a mirror.  In Stillness we are looking at ourselves honestly under the Spirit's guidance and "then you will see both good and evil imprinted on your heart" (ibid, 167).  Finally, the central tenet to the practice of Stillness is prayer centered only on Jesus Christ.

I would have thought in the Valley of Suck that it would have been easy to practice Stillness.  The reality is, there is nothing about our life and culture which makes Stillness to be natural or easy for us.  The best teachings on Stillness are centuries old, so it clearly was no easier in the days Jesus lived.  Like any spiritual practice, we need humble hearts and godly guidance.  We need both all the more if we are to overcome the devilish divisions of the Church and the world today.

Work Cited: Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts
Image Used with Permission:


Dallas Georgia Chiropractor said...

Nice thoughts, keep up the good work.

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