Reflections from a Journey into God with the Prayer of the Eastern Christian Contemplative Tradition
The Call to Silent Prayer
Sacred Scripture is imbued with examples of how and why silence and stillness are important. Of the many that can be found in the Old Testament, here we will feature one from Psalms and the other from Job:
"Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 45 :11).
"Teach me, and I will keep quiet. Tell me wherein I have erred" (Job 6:24).
It doesn't take much to explain these particular passages, especially because they are so familiar to us. But they are worth noting here because they not only persuade us to stop our noisy and busy activity, but also encourage us to admit our errors and re-learn the ways of the Lord.
When it comes to the New Testament, the first example we would like to note here comes from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke wherein Zecharias is visited by Gabriel in the Temple.
"And the angel answered and said to him, 'I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time'" (Luke 1:19-20).
The instruction here is that we are to listen to the Lord our God in everything that He and His angels and saints tell us. Zecharias doesn't do this and he is made mute (another way to say this is that he is forced to be quiet). At one level, Zecharias is being punished for his lack of faith. At another level, we are being shown how the high priests of the Temple are being silenced in order to make way for the announcement of the coming of the eternal high priest Jesus Christ.
The second example also comes from the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke.
"And having come in, the angel said to her, 'Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!' But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was" (Luke 1:28-29).
In this verse, Mary takes the time to consider what is being told to her. In modern language we might say that she is "discerning." In fact, other translations of this verse use the word "pondered" instead of "considered," which illustrates the point even better. In order to consider, discern, or ponder something, we naturally become silent to meditate.
Another example of the call to be silent comes during the Transfiguration passages, again in the Holy Gospel According to St. Luke.
"Then from the cloud came a voice that said, 'This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen" (Luke 9:35-36).
In this passage we see God Himself commanding us to be silent so that we may learn to listen to Jesus. And if God is telling Peter, James, and John -- three of Jesus' greatest apostles -- to be silent, then it should make us ponder how desperately we need to learn to be silent and still before the Lord.
The final example from the New Testament teaches us how important silence and stillness are to prayer. "But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly" (Mt 6:6).
So if we connect these passages from Sacred Scripture -- especially this idea of going into quiet and "secret" places to ponder and to pray to God -- we will start to form the basis of a new understanding for how to communicate with God (and love Him).
This is what became known as hesychastic prayer (a Greek word meaning stillness, rest, quiet, silence), which reached its mature expression in the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas (they appear in many other places, but this suffices for now).