Rediscovering an ancient tradition
from early Christianity
THE WAY OF INNER SILENCE
Rediscovering an ancient tradition from early Christianity
by Theodore J. Nottingham
Few western people know that the idea of "inner silence" is at the heart of the earliest expressions of Christian practice and faith. This way of being has a name that has yet to be uncovered in our part of the world. The Greek word "hesychia" has been a fundamental spiritual practice in the traditions of Eastern Orthodox Christianity going back to the first centuries after the appearance of the Anointed One in the hill country of Judea. This mysterious word can be translated as "inner tranquility" or "inner silence" and a complex psychological teaching and set of practices has grown up around it, involving some of the great figures of eastern Christianity such as Saint Gregory Palamas, John Cassian, and many others. Hesychasm is a quality of conscious presence that combines constant inner awareness and prayer with deep stillness. It requires a profound self-knowledge, attentiveness to each breath of the body, and commitment to the reality of the sacred at the heart of life. A synthesis of this teaching can be found in a revered book known as "The Philokalia" (translated as "Love of Beauty" or "Love of the Good") which is central to Orthodox spirituality.
The teaching on "hesychia" is modeled in many ways by the actions of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, but especially in the strange scene presented in Luke 4:28-33, after Jesus had revealed his mission to the people of his home town:
"All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way."
In the midst of violent attack, he maintained an attitude of extraordinary inner peace -- as he would later on the way to the cross -- and responded to the hatred and fury with silence and a detachment that mystically saved him from harm.
Though particularly evident in the humility and inner grounding of the Christ, "hesychasm" is a universal concept. Its parallel can be found in other ideas related to spiritual evolution, such as detachment, freedom from desire, inner peace. The results of this effort are seen in the presence of sages and saints in all times and places.
Inner silence ultimately means self-transcendence. It requires us to overcome a fundamental self-interest that guides everyone's life in order to accept the difficulties of passing circumstances, and to remember the greater context in which our lives are taking place. Accomplishing such inner freedom which leads to inner silence is no passive effort. It in fact demands "inner warfare" as we seek to become liberated from all that is connected with the inherent selfishness in which we are born which includes the self-absorption of relentless thoughts, most of them based on self-interest. This condition is part of our natural make-up, as basic to us as the instinct to survive. The paradox we all must face is that spiritual and psychological survival requires the opposite of this natural instinct.. The maturing of the human character means turning one's attention to something greater than oneself, which then offers a basis for inner stability, independence from externals, and a peace that "passes all understanding."
To be without this inner silence founded on the spiritual consciousness of a greater reality is to literally lose ourselves in the stimuli of the outside world and in the hallucinations of our imaginations, fears, daydreams, and vacuous illusions.
The serenity that is witnessed in the sages and saints of the past is not meant to be some rare or unique nobility of character. It is right alignment with reality, an achievable state for all of us and no less than our birthright, if we are willing to struggle for it.
This inner freedom has nothing to do with emotional disconnection, lack of compassion or disinterest in what is going on around us. In fact, to be rooted in an active state of inner silence gives one the widest scope of vision and makes possible a new awareness and a capacity for unconditional love.
This is very difficult work, as anyone will quickly discover upon making efforts to overcome the noise of our relentless and random thoughts and feelings. It demands moment by moment
remembrance of our true purpose in this world, and a constant check on our automatic reactions based on acquired habits and imitations of those around us. The "hesychastic" way calls us to take the state of calm found in deep meditation and carry it with us into the noise and tumult of daily life.
To follow this way of inner silence requires the capacity to accept necessary suffering, a fact that everyone must deal with in one way or another. To experience inner pain without falling victim to self-pity or despair is a sign of a new maturity of will and understanding. At the apex of this way of being is the ability to find joy and gratitude for the gift of life even in the face of great turmoil, injustice, or tragedy. Living in that paradox creates a new quality of Self which transcends the ever-shifting scenery of temporal life. This inner silence is the groundwork of unity, constancy, and true freedom.