A longer version of this essay was published in Magis: Official Publication of the Magis Deo Community, Volume XV, Number 11 (December 2003), p. 3.

“If a jar of wine is left in place a long time, the wine in it becomes clear, settled and fragrant. But if it is moved about, the wine becomes turbid and dull, tainted throughout by the lees. So you, too, should stay in the same place and you will find how greatly this benefits you.”—Evagrius Ponticus [1]

The Desert Fathers and Mothers had a word for it—hesychia. Silence. Stillness. In its most compelling metaphor it is a limpid body of water recollected in a state of tranquillity. In this state the soul is able to see itself as in an undisturbed reflection and to sense the touch of God when it alights upon the surface. In the silence of prayer the soul is a perfectly placid lake:

In autumn chill I sat at the edge of a deep blue lake.

It was placid as the stillness of the moon in solitary space.

Silently as if stirred by the slightest briefest breath,

Perfect circles in a series broke the surface, moving outward.

I watched the widening whorl travel to the edge then bounce back.

Something—or someone—had touched the water.

Maybe it was a bird dipping down or a fish twitching its tail.

Maybe a dry leaf riding a draught had made a splash landing.

When the waves had spent their energy, the lake becalmed again.

It shone purely, a polished mirror of the sky: blue to blue.

I felt the cold wet air rise but did not hear the wind swirl.

I waited for one hour and the surface stayed serene.

If you were to visit the New York Adirondacks in the chill after Labor Day, you would find no visitors at the edge of the clear blue lakes, which manifest a rich stillness. Gaze on the surface and you will see your image wavering ever so slightly but unbroken. In this delicate equilibrium the undetected aspects of the soul are discovered. Dip your finger in the water and you will view ripples in serenely widening arcs across the surface, even to the distant margins. Silence is this quality of the lake that is awakened by God’s gentle touch and just as at Bethesda (John 5:2-3), you would have to hasten to the water to receive the grace offered to you.

God is found in the sacrament of silence. The story of the revelation of God to Elijah (1 Kings 19:11-13) is worth calling to mind:

“Then the Lord said, ‘Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by.’ A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord—but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire—but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.”

In silence we see our own soul and hear the voice of God, supernatural abilities that are entirely beyond our natural powers.

There is a famous story of an anonymous Desert Father who asks his two companions to pour water into a basin and look at their reflection when it has stilled. “Thus it is with the man who dwells with other men,” he says, “for by reason of the disturbance caused by the affairs of the world he cannot see his sins; but if he lives in the peace and quietness of the desert he is able to see God clearly.” [2]

“We need to find God, and he cannot be found in noise and restlessness,” says Mother Teresa of Calcutta. “See how nature, the trees, the flowers and the grass grow in perfect silence. God is the friend of silence. His language is silence. And He requires us to be silent in order to discover Him. We need, therefore, silence to be alone with God, to speak to Him, to listen to Him, and to ponder His words deep in our hearts.” [3]

Silence holds out to us the promise, in which we may place our confidence, of participating in the mysterious life of God: “The fruit that silence brings is known to him who has experienced it. In the early stages of our Carthusian life we may find silence a burden; however, if we are faithful, there will gradually be born within us of our silence itself something, that will draw us on to still greater silence.” (Statutes 4.2)

The cited text does not refer to the story precisely or the exact words, but rather alludes to source text with basically the same meaning: “Then through the tranquillity of mind…in silent contemplation, he will remember his sins, and when he…hath cleansed his heart from odious thoughts, then shall he be worthy to see in his heart, even as in a polished mirror, the light of the revelation of our Lord.”

Other versions of Mother Teresa’s words exist, for example, in Mother Teresa, The Joy in Loving: A Guide to Daily Living (2000), p. 228: “We need to find God and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature—trees and flowers and grass—grow in silence. See the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence. The more we receive in silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.”


[1] The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Volume 1, translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 35.
[2] The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, translated by E. A. Wallis Budge, Volume 2 (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1984), pp. 319-320.
[3] The Practice of Silence and Solitude, Opus Sanctorum Angelorum: Work of the Holy Angels (June 2000), retrieved on August 7, 2003 from http://www.opusangelorum.org/oa_spirituality/six_traits_docs/Silenceandsolitude.html

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Joseph Gonzales is a regular customer of The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. He carries the pen name Gonzalinho de Costa.

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