Letter 10: The importance of silence, solitude and ceaseless prayer

Early Christian mysticism is really a spirituality grown out of the harsh, uncompromising but hauntingly beautiful environment of the desert with its profound silence and solitude. The hermits had achieved a state of outer silence and solitude by retreating to the desert, but to reach a similar inner state in their life and in their prayer was much more difficult, as we well know from our own experience in meditation. It is so hard to leave the landscape of our own thoughts and feelings. But unless that is done even the desert is no help: “Amma Syncletica said, ‘There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in the town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is solitary to live in the crowd of personal thoughts.”

There is our consolation: “It is possible to be a solitary in one's mind while living in a crowd.” When we meditate by paying full attention to our prayer word, even when we live in the centre of a busy city, we can enter our inner silence and solitude. Inner silence is needed to hear ‘the still small voice’ and was also therefore considered to be the most essential quality: “Once Abba Macarius said to them, after he had given the benediction to the brethren in the church at Scete: ’Brethren fly!’ One of the elders answered him ‘How can we fly further than this, seeing we are here in the desert?’ Then Macarius placed his finger on his mouth and said ‘Fly from this’. So saying he entered his cell and shut the door.” Silence was therefore not just an absence of noise but also of unnecessary speech. The hermits considered all irrelevant talk as a danger, as it led inevitably to trivial thoughts: “It was said of Abba Ammoes that when he went to church, he did not allow his disciple to walk beside him but only at a certain distance; and if the latter came to ask him about his thoughts, he would move away from him as soon as he had replied, saying to him, 'It is for fear that, after edifying words, irrelevant conversation should slip in, that I do not keep you with me.”

The interior life of prayer can be very difficult, as the hermits knew as well as we do. They were advised to pay careful attention to their state of mind at prayer and at work. In doing so, they became aware of the constant attack of demons in the shape of ‘evil thoughts’. We have heard Evagrius’ advice on ‘watching the thoughts’ – mindfulness – in the last few episodes of Weekly Teaching Year 4. These ‘evil thoughts’ could only be conquered by full attention focused on prayer - their ‘formula’, our mantra. In this they (and we) follow Jesus’ teaching: ‘Set your mind on God’s Kingdom and his justice before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well’ (Matt 6:33) There is a perfect example of this:“There was another spiritual man about whom we have read. While he was praying one day a viper crawled up to him and seized his foot. He did not so much as lower his arms until he finished his customary prayer, and he suffered no harm whatever from thus loving God above his own self.” (Evagrius - Chapters on Prayer)

As we heard from Evagrius the hermits’ life was all centred on prayer. We can see that from Evagrius’ variation on Jesus’ saying: “Go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and take up your cross so that you can pray without distraction.” Therefore their aim was ‘ceaseless prayer’: “I will show you how I do not cease praying, simply by going on with my work.” (Sayings of the Desert Father)This is further emphasized by Origen’s words: “He prays unceasingly who combines prayer with necessary duties and necessary duties with prayer. Only in this way can we find it practicable to fulfil the commandment to pray always. It consists in regarding the whole of Christian existence as a single great prayer. What we are accustomed to call prayer is only a part of it. (Origen – On Prayer)

This we too can do. By faithfully and lovingly saying our prayer word clearly and silently in our mind and listening to it as we sound it during the meditation periods -and also at other times, that don’t require our full attention, when waiting for a bus or walking for instance - we help the mantra to root itself in our being and then it will sound in our heart clearly, gently and continuously, even if we are not conscious of it, and we too “pray unceasingly [combining] prayer with necessary duties and necessary duties with prayer”.

Kim Nataraja