Friday, July 6, 2018

'An attitude of listening to God...'

Dear Parish Faithful,

During a somewhat casual conversation that strayed from subject-to-subject within my family circle a few days ago, we collectively arrived at a very rare consensus of opinion: There is just too much "noise" at practically any venue one chooses to attend or visit.

It started with the realization that now even at a sports stadium, there is pop/rock music blaring away all through the event, and television screens out in the concession area promoting products or allowing you to watch the game while away from your seat. Advertising is, of course, ubiquitous. It is as if there is a concerted effort to make sure that no one remains "un-entertained" even if only for a moment. That is just one example from among many. And recently, when in a restaurant, from my particular vantage point, I was able to view four television screens at once (there were a few more behind me) - each with a different program on. (Of the four, I chose "Judge Judy" by the way). Simultaneously, loud rock music was blaring over the speakers!  We were fairly shouting across the table at each other just to make conversation.

Are we, in turn, in danger of inevitably fearing silence? Or, will silence be experienced as a lack of something - anything - to keep us distracted? This brings to mind a dystopian novella by E. M. Forster, The Machine Stops. In a remote future, the "machine" controlled by the State, provides a distinct "hum" in the background that keeps everyone settled and secure. The drama of the story is about the panic that sets in when the "machine stops." Silence can be unsettling.

Thinking this over, I recently received a newsletter from a monastery in New Mexico - dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Perhaps this is typically monastic, but I found this insightful passage in the newsletter. It is from a very prominent Greek Orthodox theologian, Met. Hierotheos Vlahos on the meaning of hesychia or stillness. Combining genuine theology with what we would call spirituality, he writes the following:

Theology means speaking about God based on knowledge and experience of him. Hesychia is the way in which we acquire this spiritual knowledge of God. We live in an age of constant activity, gratification of the senses, uncontrolled imagination and speculations that wear people out. They are searching for inner stillness - hesychia - from the world of the senses and imagination, but also the theology - knowledge of God -- to give their lives meaning.

Prominent as hesychia is in the passage just presented, perhaps we need to ask: what exactly does hesychia mean? It is not exactly a household term (not even in Orthodox Christian households?) or a word used with familiarity in the "public square." In fact, a use of the word could very likely draw a quizzical (or dismissive?) expression.

Thus, it is helpful to present a working definition of this term since it is so often used in our spiritual vocabulary. We hear it often, and perhaps are uncertain how best to translate, or at least understand it. I will turn to the translation work of such prominent scholars and theologians as Archbishop Kallistos Ware, Philip Sherrard and Norman Russell for providing such a working definition, as they have worked on translating texts from our spiritual tradition - and these are often "hesychastic texts" - for many decades. The fruit of this translation work is now accessible in the four volumes of The Philiokalia which have been published to date.

In the useful Glossary provided at the back of each volume, and under the word "stillness," we will find the following:

STILLNESS (hesychia): from which are derived the words hesychasm and hesychast, used to denote the whole spiritual tradition represented in The Philokalia as well as the person who pursues this spiritual path it delineates: a state of inner tranquility or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of the heart. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him." (Vol. 4, p. 434-435).

"Inner tranquility," "mental quietude," "concentration," "pure prayer," and "guarding of the heart." The saints tell us that through these practices we can become open to God and actually listen to Him. Are such practices on our spiritual radar screens? Do we deep down long for a taste of such stillness?

As the daily cacophony of amped up noise continues to crescendo, perhaps what Met. Hierotheos reminds us of, is worth a bit of our attention and receptivity.

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