Chapter 10 – Holy Silence, pp. 197-203

May our God bring us strength and consolation as we pray, for the path is often not easy.

And let us walk this road together and pray for one another, even when practicing solitude, lest we believe that we are on the path alone.

When I read the title of this chapter, “Holy Silence”, I felt a pleasant anticipation, imagining that I would enjoy reading it and writing of it. It has been much more challenging that I had expected.

But I think the Lord has made me ready, at last, to write. And so I begin…

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The question is posed: “How much spiritual fruit have you borne as a branch in the vine?”

This question is challenging enough – but the quote that follows is even more startling: “Do not tell me, ‘I have preached in your name, served your gospel, healed your sick,’ lest you hear the rest of the saying: ‘Depart from me…’ For you have already received your wages – honor, money, fame and good repute.”

And a similar chiding follows for those who might claim as their “fruit” having attended church and offered sacrifice.

I found myself wondering, “what is left?” If the fruit to be borne is found neither in the works of the gospel nor the practice of the faith, where is it to be found?

The response of our author caught me off guard: “…the fruit that the vinedresser seeks is the amount of growth your soul has achieved in grace, as well as your promotion in the faculties of the spiritual life.”

Really?

I found myself reacting to this. Frankly, I thought it sounded rather selfish. It’s all about how far I’ve advanced in the spiritual life? What happened to loving my neighbor as the Lord Jesus has loved me?

What comes next in the text made sense to me. Sort of. This is where the “holy silence” comes in and it doesn’t sound nearly as attractive as I had anticipated.

If we want to learn whether or not we have been fruitful, Fr. Matta instructs us, we are to go into our rooms, close the door and examine the depths of our souls in silence and prayer before God.

We will then see our own image “in the mirror of God”. We will see that we are poor and wretched, naked and ugly, not resembling God at all.

It is only God’s compassion that protects us, shielding us from seeing the full reality of this all at once. Likely we could not bear it.

While this sounds rather gloomy, the discovery of our sins must be viewed as a blessing, even if not an easy one. For in this self-knowledge we become able to truly cry out to God for His mercy, weeping before Him. And “You shall surely not depart from God’s presence unless you shall have acquired every time new hyssop with which to wash yourself until you become whiter than snow.”

Fr. Matta adds some additional comments on the practice of this silence, what it is and what it is not. But I will pause here. Remember that I said it only “sort of” made sense to me?

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I have pondered on and off in my life why it is that salvation is portrayed as being so difficult to come by. Or at least I have pondered it often while reading books of this sort, much as I love them.

I read of the great ascetics, their severe fasting and all night vigils. I learn of the holy martyrs – of both body and soul – who forfeit their lives for love of the Lord. I am awed by the tireless servants of Christ who give up their lives to tend to the poor.

Admittedly, Jesus Himself made it sound as though it was going to be rather difficult to enter into Life:

“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.” (Matthew 7: 13-14, NABRE)

And yet…and yet, Scripture tells us that our Savior also welcomed into the Paradise a criminal hanging on the cross next to Him – whose only act of faith was to say in the final moments of His life, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23: 42).

No fasting. No vigils. No retreats into holy silence. No great works of mercy.

As I write this, it is the feast of the holy Apostle, St. Andrew. In our (RC) Scriptures for the feast, we read the well-known passage that begins,

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans, 10: 9)

This passage, of course, was oft cited in the great controversy about “faith vs. works”. A controversy which, BTW, I never thought merited the time and effort countless theologians put into it.

Yet my mind drifted in the direction of the controversy despite myself. Though confessing faith in Jesus as the risen Christ was not a safe or simple thing to do at the time St. Paul penned these words, doing so now is a relatively simple process.

I believe. I’m saved.

I’m not saying it always easy to believe but there is nothing in the process that seems to require endless pleas for mercy or rigorous acts of asceticism throughout one’s life.

Certainly, assuming one is not about to die when first accepting the faith, one’s faith must necessarily manifest in good works. To accept the faith is to change the heart and a changed heart must live out its mission.

So to what end is this gloomy going-into-the-closet business, a process whereby I can see how truly horrid my sins are which, BTW, I purportedly believe have been forgiven?

Now I am sure there are many ways this question can be answered. Many good ways.

But I am going to share with you but one, the one that given to me this evening as my mind wandered this path:

It is important – no necessary – that we look at ourselves. And that is something we simply do not want to do.

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Of course, our culture is a great help to us in our avoidance of looking deeply into ourselves. Music, movies, games, foods – countless and varied distractions stream at us and can be delivered to our doors or our devices most any time of day or night.

We need not bear a moment of silence or stillness. It is no accident that we have created such a culture.

But those of us in the Faith may be vulnerable to ever more subtle avoidances. “I go to confession,” I may say to myself. “I examine myself and confess my sins. I repent.” And perhaps we do and do so sincerely.

But even here, and I speak from experience, I can go to confession and I can go to confession.

A sincere confession can be prepared for and executed in a relatively short period of time. Then I resume my busy life and distractions.

This is not inherently bad or wrong. But if I have not learned to enter the holy silence, at least episodically in my life, I may be missing something very important.

I write this as a person who has missed (and avoided) some very important things for a long time. (And I’m sure that, even as I sit here, there are more things that I continue to miss and avoid. It is part of our sinful condition.)

And what I might be missing is twofold. First, I may very well be missing vital aspects of the disease in my soul. Because, out of fear or shame or even laziness, I do not look deeply, the roots remain alive and continue to grow – into the same old sins – or new variations.

Second, if I am missing this, I am also missing the deep, deep healing that comes from the “treatment” for my disease. It is not just that I need absolution. I need to be made anew in God’s grace. (That is, of course, what absolution is meant to be. But is will not be experienced as such if I have missed what needs to be healed.)

+++

Faith. Works. Simple. Hard. How do all these seeming contradictions come together in this holy silence?

The man hanging from a cross next to Jesus, to all outward appearances, found salvation with just a few words. How could this happen?

It happened because he looked at himself – in the “mirror of God,” hanging next to him. And Jesus, hearing his words and seeing the truth in his heart, announced it for all coming generations to know. “This is what is needed – enter.”

Profoundly simple, yet I’m sure very, very hard.

Faith or works? It must be both, of course, for they are inseparable.

We recognize his faith. But what “works” can a man do while dying?

He spoke. Aloud. For all to hear.

He could have kept his thoughts to himself, assuming, “He is the Son of God. He will know that I believe in Him.”

No. He spoke. He humiliated himself in front of all. Those who jeered at Jesus likely jeered at him.

But that no longer mattered – for he had looked deeply at himself and then at the Lord. He had to speak.

I wonder how many people have been comforted, if not saved, throughout history because this man acted – because he spoke.

+++

And so we are called to look within. Deeply. In holy silence.

Unless we have reached the final moments of our lives, we will likely be doing this more than once.

We will not want to do it. At least not at first. It takes courage to see what is there.

But when we encounter Jesus there – when we find Him waiting for us in the holy silence, eager to heal us and draw us further into Himself – we will learn to go into the silence despite our fears.

We will forget their darkness in the light of Him.

And in the end, it is only the Light that matters.

+++

(As always, comments or questions for further reflection are welcome.)

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7 thoughts on “Chapter 10 – Holy Silence, pp. 197-203

  1. I have learned that trying to look deeply into yourself can be risky unless you have a wise guide or companion. (We have talked about this before, Mary, haven’t we. If I repeat myself, well, friends are patient, right? ) You probably know about that from your work. If it applies there, surely it is even more relevant to the mysterious “work” of approaching God.

    Also, I think that Eastern Christian writers tend to be very formal, as if addressing a large diverse audience, and emphasize the extremes (of penitence, as here, and in other places, extremes of love) lest they be guilty of treating religion like a classroom assignment, or like a hobby. In addition they can be very strict, as if they were speaking only to themselves.* So they often make general statements, sometimes exaggerated, which, if not considered in the wider context of Christian tradition, might sound harsh, even a bit “unChristian.” e.g., “It is only then [sitting in God’s presence ‘in holy silence’] that you will discover how ugly you are.” (p. 198)

    I cannot read sentences like that a second time without remembering earlier conversations, whether with a priest or with a trusted spiritual friend, in which God’s love and patience and understanding are stressed. Otherwise I would probably throw away a book like this; I wouldn’t even give it to a book fair because of the harm it might do to persons without the benefit of guidance. Spiritual instruction should not be thought of as similar to a lecture in graduate school, and certainly not as research. Spiritual books often sound more like lectures (to me, anyway).

    Just a few thoughts. I’m no guide, but I can repeat what I’ve heard from some.

    * I’m thinking of certain holy persons who have said, “I am the worst of all sinners.” No doubt it must seem that way the closer one gets to whatever we mean by “the vision of God.” But to the rest of us it sounds almost crazy.

  2. Thanks, Al, for your reflections and reminders. It is always good for us to have a spiritual father or guide – and if we don’t have one, to pray that God sends us what help we need.

    That being said, I believe the message stands that we must look into ourselves – and, at least occasionally, allow that look to go a bit deeper so that our self-examination doesn’t become a perfunctory exercise.

    Yet what that means and what the “holy silence” means is going to vary a great deal. It has to. A 7 year old child is old enough to look inward – but in a very different manner than a mature monk. The child’s “silence” is also likely to be very different and of much shorter duration. A person with specific mental/spiritual afflictions may need differences as well, whether living in a monastery or in the world.

    For example, there was an extended time in my life when I felt unable to make a retreat in silence, even for a short time, because it was likely to trigger my anxiety disorders. I tried to persist but I eventually realized that it was not helpful to provoke symptoms in myself that might take weeks or months to resolve. At that time in my life, I needed more to persist in therapy and not expect of myself protracted periods of silence. My looks inward needed to be briefer and I needed an extremely gentle confessor.

    Then there came a time when, by the grace of God working through my therapist and confessor, my anxiety disorders became less and less troublesome. At some point, I realized that I had not entered the “holy silence” of a retreat in a very long time – and that now it was fear that kept me from doing so. Not the anxiety of old – but just a slight nagging fear of its return. I recognized that it was time to stop avoiding the silence and deeper looks.

    God helped me re-discover the silence and its holiness. At each step in this years-long process, my looking into myself was modified – but it was always necessary to some degree, even in my most fragile state. Often we do not know how to navigate our challenges, either being too hard or too easy on ourselves. And so trusting God – and hopefully a guide who knows Him – is essential.

    I found your comments about Eastern Christian writers interesting. My sampling is not at all random. I find Met. Anthony Bloom’s writing considerably less harsh, though I have not read all of it.

    In the context of this book discussion, I think it is good for all of us to remember a couple of things. First, Fr. Matta did not set out to write a book but rather made notes of his own experiences, only drawing them into a book when he felt the Spirit call him to do so. Second, our author is a man who left everything to live a monastic life in the desert for 55 years. This is very different from my vocation and I cannot imagine that anyone reading this has a vocation similar to his.

    Hence, we certainly must not regard this book as a “how to” for all Christians. I consider it a treasure because it gives a look into the spiritual life of an extraordinary man. I want to glean from it what I can. But I certainly do not expect to understand it all nor do I imagine that I can apply all dimensions of it to my own spiritual life.

    Although I have not read ahead, I suspect my difficulty understanding will only increase as we move through the final third of the book – as Fr. Matta describes a spirituality that so outreaches my own that I will struggle to write any questions or commentary at all.

    Perhaps by the end of the book I shall just content myself with holy silence. 🙂

  3. I agree about silence, no question. Thoughtful reflection is crucial–but I dont think it has to be, or even ought to be, about oneself–faults, sins, failures, past experiences. Jesus gave us the example of going off alone, but what he was doing during that time is impossible to imagine. Surely not examining himself, and not talking either. ( This sounds a bit presumptuous, or maybe even sarcastic–but not intended that way. Nor am I being argumentative. Well, I hope not.)

    I’m puzzling over what holy silence means to an ordinary person, especially those of us who tend to be more inward to begin with. And I get it what you said about anxiety. In addition I tend to be obsessive about all sorts of things. It may not be unusual, but it sure makes an interior life challenging. Easy to go off the rails. Of course saints are praised for that, but it’s not called obsession. I read recently about St Xenia. I was both inspired and frightened. I read about St. Mary of Egypt. Couldn”t believe it. Then I thought, maybe these are like parables, teaching principles of the spiritual world but not reporting as if in the news or a careful biography. It’s confusing. So for now, silence to me has to be limited to literal silence, but with some book or reading or phrase to focus the mind. In fact that’s the way Jesuits teach meditation, as I recall.
    Without those aides I very often experience what a Buddhist friend calls “monkey mind.” The only way back to peace is reading prayers, especially aloud (if I’m alone; if in church, I whisper along with the priest or read what he is saying privately)

    But we are all unique, and God invites us along different paths–maybe even different for each person as the years pass. So my comments are not meant as challenges. Your reflections help me a lot, and sometimes writing back clarifies, and even challenges, my own thoughts.

    My favorite spiritual writer for a long times was Thomas Merton, especially his letters (collected in “The Hidden Ground of Love.”) Then Dorothy Day. Also the letters of Simon Weil. Also the person who wrote “The Cloud of Unknowing.” And most recently a little collection of journal writings by Madeleine L’Engle called “Walking on Water.” Her collected poems are very inspiring also, “The Ordering of Love.” I probably should go back to these and not try to seek out too many other approaches . I have been trying hard to read Eastern Christian authors, but it’s more of a forced march than a peaceful retreat. There’s so much about sin. So much asceticism. So much emphasis on martyrdom. And yet the Divine Liturgy is so powerful, so positive, so beautiful. As are the basic teachings and recommended daily prayers. I can relate to those.

    But I’ll keep reading Fr. Matta, in the hope that God’s help and your insights will generate light.i

  4. P.S. A clarification

    Aside from Anthony Bloom (although sometines a bit long-winded for my taste), C. S. Lewis (of the superior tone) and certain other “Western/Eastern” writers whom I have read, *

    I haven’t found Eastern Christian writers that seem to be speaking to persons like me–not a monk, seminarian, reader, sub-deacon, zealous convert, or even fully integrated Orthodox believer–just a church-goer seeking God in everyday experiences and not only at church.

    As I mentioned before, the Divine Liturgy does it all, but happens ( for most of us) only about two hours a week on Sunday and another, different but almost as inspiring, hour at vespers on Saturday evening. The rest of the week we try to pray, looking for help from, say, persons like you as well as from established authors. I’m reading Fr. Matta because I trust your judgment and recommendation. And I do find some of the quotations he includes from earlier writers relevant to my circumstances. Quite a few, actually. e.g., from Isaac the Syrian:

    “146. Question: what is the sign that a man has attained to purity of heart . . . ?
    “Answer: when he sees all men as good🙄 . . .For how could anyone fulfill the word of the Apostle, that “A man should esteem all better than himself” (Phil.2.3)”

    Because it is expressed positively, this helps me understand my earlier confusion about the statement, “I am the worst of sinners.” See? I CAN get something out of what seems purely penitential, ascetic writings,

    * like Stephen Freeman, Thomas Hopko, Kallistos Ware, Frederick Matthews-Green . . . These are usually more concise and personable than the other, heavy duty sort

    (why can’t i stop talking?)

  5. Sometimes, if I cannot relate to an author’s perspective or a saint’s practice, I find it helpful to simply step back. I can observe with curiosity and/or wonder, “Look how God is working (worked) in that person’s life…”

    This can help me remember that I do not need to live that person’s life, only my own. I may learn something from their thoughts or their life, but God’s work in me will not be just the same. There are some things saints have done that I have thought unhealthy and I could not see how they were of God (e.g. extremes in asceticism or damage to one’s health).

    But who am I to judge someone else’s vocation? Maybe they were wrong. Or maybe there was a special reason God called them to do something so unusual.

    Also, I find that I am learning a great deal from this book. But I do not spend much time thinking about my sins and faults as a result. I do pray that God will help me to know my sins and turn from them – and occasionally I am given that deeper look.

    To dwell on my sins, especially particular sins, can be a form of pride – I read this in another Eastern Christian author. And I can see that.

    My gaze is not to be fixed on me but on God. I want to maintain awareness of my need for His help and His mercy. And I want to cultivate thanksgiving that He gives them. Thus, we shall be not gloomy but joyful.

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