Word Magazine May 1986 Page 7
ISAAC OF NINEVEH,
“SAINT OF SILENCE”
by Father Theodore Pulcini
The air in the room was heavy — not only because of the heat but also because of the barrage of words reverberating between the walls, words exchanged between two arguing men. One of them was a creditor, loudly demanding immediate repayment of the loan he had made to the other man. And for his part, the other man, the debtor, pleaded repeatedly for a show of mercy, assuring the creditor that he would pay back all of the money if only he could have a bit more time.
Their words were not meant only for each other. There was a third man in this room in sixth-century Nineveh. He had been called upon to arbitrate. He was, after all, the bishop of the city, and this was part of his duty.
Though his outward demeanor was calm, the look in his eyes betrayed his agitation. Though he was dutifully trying to follow the line of the argument, he seemed withdrawn. Though he had the nobility of presence suited to his office, he nevertheless seemed strangely out of place.
And that was precisely what he was thinking to himself at that moment. What was he doing here in the city, in a position of power, in an administrative office demanding constant interaction with others? He recalled his days of solitude and silence in the wilderness, days of peace he would not relinquish even at the request of his own brother, who wanted him to be a part of the monastery community that he headed. Not even for his own brother would he withdraw from this beloved life of silence, not even to be with other monks. So why, he wondered, had he ever consented to become bishop of Nineveh?
Thus St. Isaac of Syria thought to himself when suddenly his attention was jolted back to the two men arguing before him. He had had enough. He addressed himself to the creditor: “If according to the Gospel commandment you should by no means ask back your goods that another has taken away, how much more should you show generosity to a man who promises soon to repay his debt?”
But the creditor interrupted St. Isaac, “Leave the Gospel commandment out of this for the present . . .”
That was the last straw. What good was all of this hectic life doing for him? Of what benefit were the demands of episcopal administration to his spiritual life? He dismissed the two men and shortly afterwards left the episcopal residence of Nineveh to return to the wilderness and its beloved silence.
St. Isaac of Syria may indeed be called the “Saint of Silence.” His spiritual directions present silence not as an optional facet of the Christian life but as an indispensable component of it. Without silence, St. Isaac teaches, the Christian experience remains anemic, without the intense intimacy with God, the repentance, the spiritual calm, or the wonder that should characterize it. Christian life without silence becomes flat and lacks richness.
We should give this teaching serious consideration. Who of us has not felt his Christian experience to be anemic, flat, impoverished? Why do we feel such dryness in our prayer? Why do we not have tears of repentance or a sense of joyful wonder? Why does inward calm elude us? Perhaps St. Isaac of Syria tells us why. Perhaps it is because we have not cultivated enough silence in our lives.
We should not consider this cultivation of silence to be of little account. “If you pile up on one side of the scales all the rest of spiritual efforts and practices,” St. Isaac tells us, “and on the other — silence, you will find that the latter outweighs them all” (par. 84, p. 206).*
We all feel tossed about, buffeted on all sides, by the disoriented cravings that the Fathers call the passions. For instance, a healthy disposition toward all the good things of the created order is often distorted and becomes the passion of greed or acquisitiveness. Or healthy sexual impulse can be distorted and become the passion of lust. Our lives are disrupted by the effects of these passions; the integrated wholeness that should characterize our existence falls into disintegrated fragmentation.
The sum total of these passions St. Isaac calls “the world”:
When we want to speak of passions collectively, we call them “the world”; when we want to distinguish them according to their different names, we call them the passions (par. 23, p. 187).
If one would approach God, he must withdraw from the world (par. 4, p. 183); he must overcome the passions. And silence is the only means by which this can be achieved. Says St. Isaac:
Works and deeds gain passionlessness for the soul . . . and give quietness from thoughts when we acquire silence . . . Otherwise success is not possible. For if a tree is watered every day, can its root wither? Does water ever get less in a vessel if more is added daily? But when a man gains silence, his soul readily discerns passions, and the inner man, roused to spiritual work, overcomes them and, from day to day, lifts the soul nearer to purity (par. 31, p. 189).
Recall, too, that as Christians we are called to continual repentance. Again, we must acquire silence which St. Isaac calls the “mother of repentance” (par. 87, p. 207) — if we are to respond to this calling as we should:
If you love repentance, love silence. For outside of silence repentance does not reach perfection (par. 87, p. 207).
Furthermore, silence heals. It heals the wounds of tumultuous memories and disturbing cares and restores the mind. St. Isaac quotes one man who practiced silence as saying this:
Silence cuts off pretexts and causes for new thoughts, while within one’s walls it withers and wilts memories of things which used to concern us. When the old matters wither in the thought, the mind, in setting them aright, returns to its proper dignity (par. 90, pp. 207- 208).
Or, as another practitioner of silence known to St. Isaac declared:
. . . with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart (par. 89, p. 207).
If St. Isaac were to walk into this chapel tonight, he would probably be quick to discern our spiritual malaise.
“What can we do, Abba Isaac, to draw closer to God? How can we feel his presence more intensely? How can we better know what his will is for us?” we might be moved to ask him.
“What have you done so far?” he might ask in return. And he would listen as we described our many programs and workshops and seminars and retreats and symposia and books and articles, all aimed at spiritual awakening, and he would undoubtedly be very impressed, since all of these things are very good indeed. But he would probably still feel the need to ask, “And what about silence? Have you pursued it? Have you made a place for it in the midst of all your busyness?”
And what would we respond? How much of a place does silence have in our lives?
Now you are probably saying to yourselves, “We are not monks. We are in the world — every day — dealing with spouse and family and business associates and colleagues and so many others . . . How can we acquire silence?”
It is true that we cannot have the silence of the hermit, but can we not give silence some place in our day-to-day regimen — for a half hour when the baby is asleep or for fifteen minutes early in the morning before anyone else in the house is awake or for several minutes during a lunch break or while taking a quiet walk before retiring at night? Do we make any time for silence? We are so geared toward “hype” — even in our religious experience — that we probably do not. And that, in large part, accounts for our spiritual malaise. I am sure that St. Isaac, the Saint of Silence, would assure us of that.
It would be so easy to rectify this situation. If only for fifteen minutes each day we would spend some time in silence — reading Scripture and praying in simplicity — we would be filled with spiritual delight. As St. Isaac tells us:
One man who practiced silence said: “I practice silence, that the verses of my readings and prayers should fill me with delight. (par. 89, p. 207).
Prayer needs constant exercise to enable the mind to gain wisdom by its prolonged practice. Prayer is preceded by seclusion (solitude, withdrawal of thoughts from everything alien to it). Seclusion is necessary for prayer, and prayer for acquiring love of God (par. 81, p. 206).
Let your reading be done in a stillness, which nothing disturbs; be free from all cares for the body and turmoil of life, so that, when the sweetness of understanding comes, you should be aware in your soul of this most sweet taste, surpassing all sensation, and your soul should savour it (par. 167, p. 233).
Time spent in silence. Reading done in silence. Prayer offered in silence. Listen to what St. Isaac of Syria tells us. Silence brings us to God. It gives us freedom from the passions and perfect repentance and healing of the mind and spiritual delight. It attunes us to God’s wonders (cf. par. 162, p. 232). It gains us access to the hidden mysteries (cf. par. 185, p. 238).
Listen to what St. Isaac of Syria tells us. The silence he so loved may be exactly what we need to cure that spiritual malaise that today ails us.
Sermon given at the Archdiocese Convention in Boston, 1985.
*All quotations taken from the translation of B. Kadloubovsky and G.E.H. Palmer, Early Fathers from the Philokalia, 6th impression. London: Faber and Faber, 1976.