Stillness may be equated to peace of soul; the absence of spiritual warfare and the presence of calm. We beginners in the spiritual life cannot imagine what it would be like to be totally unaffected by the disquietude of the world; it is beyond our ability to comprehend never being tempted to speak in haste and never experiencing the movements of anger in our hearts. The beginner must be content with experiencing moments of this peace. He must strive to win this peace, by overcoming all the passions which seek to overthrow it.
It is only when we begin to center our thoughts on the spiritual world within by pushing far from us the noise of the external world that we notice how little peace is found there. The first notice of this peacelessness is often enough to drive many back to the diversions of the world. For some, the existential pain of their passionate soul is too great to bear and they choose to run away rather than stay and face it. For those who choose to stay, the experience of the true state of their souls is a necessary lesson. We first learn the presence of our soul by its pain rather than its peace. As we continue in our spiritual lives, it is this pain which will always direct us back to the concerns of the soul when we begin to stray.
As we set a priority on peace, we will begin to notice more and more the things in our lives that rob us of peace. We will begin to find the noise of this world to be a hindrance rather than a help. We will notice how much of our time is spent following distractions. We will begin to change our lifestyle on the basis of what produces peace in our souls. We will inevitably be led to a love of quiet and solitude.
However, an important thing to note is that this is a gradual process. St. John is very quick to point out the dangers of embracing too much "stillness" before we are spiritually ready: "The man who is foul-tempered and conceited, hypocritical and a nurse of grievances, ought never to enter the life of solitude, for fear that he should gain nothing but the loss of his sanity."
Above all, then, we must remember that the path to internal peace is not an easy one. Therefore, we must set ourselves for a long struggle. We will not achieve the state of constant peace in a day. Perhaps it is enough for us today not to have allowed anger to enter our soul; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from that idle word which stirs up passion; perhaps it is enough for us to have refrained from viewing those things which would have aroused our sexual passions. Each day we add virtue to virtue. Each day we embrace the struggle. Each day we repent of our failures. Each day we continue the struggle. In this way, although we may never be completely successful, we will never stop trying. And God who grants the prize, will consider our struggles to be victory and will grant us His peace for eternity.
1-29 In these opening paragraphs, St. John defines stillness, distinguishes its various stages and describes the qualities of those who are seeking or have obtained this virtue.
Stillness of the body is the accurate knowledge and management of one's feelings and perceptions. Stillness of soul is the accurate knowledge of one's thoughts and is an unassailable mind.
The start of stillness is the rejection of all noisiness as something that will trouble the depths of the soul. The final point is when one has no longer a fear of noisy disturbance, when one is immune to it. He who when he goes out does not go out in his intellect is gentle and wholly a house of love, rarely moved to speech and never to anger. The opposite to all this is manifest.
The cell of a hesychast is the body that surrounds him, and within him is the dwelling place of knowledge.
Close the door of your cell to your body, the door of your tongue to talk, and the gate within to evil spirits. The endurance of the sailor is tried by the noonday sun or when he is becalmed, and the endurance of the solitary is tested by his lack of necessary supplies. The one jumps into the water and swims when he is impatient, the other goes in search of a crowd when he is discouraged.
Sit in a high place and keep watch if you can, and you will see the thieves come, and you will discover how they come, when and from where, how many and what kind they are as they steal your clusters of grapes.
When the watchman gets tired, he stands up and he prays. And then, sitting down once more, he bravely carries on his task.
The solitary runs away from everyone, but does so without hatred, just as another runs toward the crowd, even if without enthusiasm. The solitary does not wish to be cut off from the divine sweetness.
Go now. At once. Give away everything you have. ("Sell what you own." That needs time) . . . Take up your cross, carrying it in obedience, and endure strongly the burden of your thwarted will. And then, "Come, follow me" (Matt. 19:21). Come to union with most blessed stillness and I will teach you the workings and behavior of the spiritual powers. They never grow tired of their everlasting praise of their Maker, nor does he who has entered into the heaven of stillness cease to praise his Creator. Spirits have no thought for what is material, and those who have become immaterial in a material body will pay no attention to food, for the former know nothing of it and the latter need no promise of it; the former are unconcerned about money and chattels and the latter are heedless of the malice of evil spirits. In those dwelling above, there is no yearning for the visible creation, while those on earth below have no longing for what can be sensed, because the former never cease to make progress in love and the latter will never cease to imitate them. The former know well the value of their progress; the latter understand their own love and longing for the ascent to heaven. The former will desist only when they rise to the realm of the Seraphim; the latter will grow tired only when they come at last to be angels.
30-45 St. John then describes the differences between the various kinds of stillness. He depicts how the virtue is practiced rightly or wrongly by those living the solitary life and those living the common life.
The man who is foul-tempered and conceited, hypocritical and a nurse of grievances, ought never to enter the life of solitude, for fear he should gain nothing but the loss of his sanity. Someone free of these faults will know what is best. Or perhaps, I think, not even he.
The following are the signs, the stages, and the proofs of practicing stillness in the right way - a calm mind, a purified disposition, rapture in the Lord, the remembrance of everlasting torments, the imminence of death, an insatiable urge for prayer, constant watchfulness, the death of lust, no sense of attachment, death of worldliness, an end to gluttony, a foundation for theology, a well of discernment, a truce accompanied by tears, and end to talkativeness, and many other such things alien to most men.
The following are signs of stillness practiced wrongly - poverty of spiritual treasures, anger on the increase, a growth of resentment, love diminished, a surge of vanity.
With regard to those who lawfully, chastely, and in pure fashion are wedded to this orderly and admirable way of obedience, there are manifestations - validated by the divinely inspired Fathers and brought to perfection in their own time - manifestations accompanied by daily increase and progress. There is an advance in basic humility. There is lessening of bad temper, which must after all diminish as the gall is depleted. Darkness is scattered and love approached. Lust, under ceaseless criticism, diminishes; despondency is unknown; and zeal grows. There is compassionate love and a banishment of pride. This is what everyone must seek, though few will be completely successful.
A young wife who strays from her marriage defiles her body. A soul unfaithful to his vow defiles his spirit. The former is denounced, hated, beaten, and, most pitiable of all, thrown out. For the latter there is pollution, forgetfulness of death, an insatiable belly, eyes out of control, vainglory at work, a longing for sleep, a calloused heart, insensitivity, a storing up of bad thoughts, an increase of consent, captivity of heart, spiritual upheaval, disobedience, argumentativeness, attachment to things, unbelief, doubt, talkativeness, and - most serious this - free and easy relationships. Most wretched of all is a heart without compunction, which, in the careless, is succeeded by insensitivity, the mother of devils and of lapses.
43-87 St. John then begins to describe the struggle for stillness. First, St. John details those things that threaten to destroy or prevent one from obtaining an inner state of peace. He identifies in particular the five demons that attack the solitary (despondence, vainglory, pride, dejection and anger) and the three that assail those living in community (gluttony, lust, and avarice). Second, St. John identifies the essential virtues of the hesychast (unceasing prayer, discretion, faith, fear of God, patience, prudence and a discerning spirit). He concludes by exhorting his readers to use every means to protect and strengthen the gift.
Of the eight evil spirits, five attack the solitary and three assail those living in obedience.
The spirit of despondency is your companion. Watch him every hour. Note his stirrings and his movements, his inclinations and his changes of face. Note their character and the direction they take.
The first task of stillness is disengagement from every affair good and bad, since concern with the former leads on to the latter. Second is urgent prayer. Third is inviolable activity of the heart. And just as you have to know the alphabet if you are to read books, so if you have missed out on the first task, you cannot enter upon the other two.
The demon of despondency, as I have discovered, opens the way for the demons of lust. . . . Fight hard against these demons and they in turn will furiously attack you. They will try to force you to desist from your labors, which, they will tell you, are of no value.
A small hair disturbs the eye. A minor concern interferes with stillness, for, after all, stillness means the expulsion of thoughts and the rejection of even reasonable cares.
The man who wishes to offer a pure mind to God but who is troubled by cares is like a man who expects to walk quickly even though his legs are tied together.
A man without experience of God ought not to undertake the solitary life. He leaves himself open to many hazards. Stillness chokes the inexperienced. Never having tasted the sweetness of God, such people waste time being set upon, robbed, made despondent, distracted.
It is better to live poor and obedient than to be a solitary who has no control over his thoughts.
Stillness is worshipping God unceasingly and waiting upon Him.
Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath. Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness.
Self-will is the ruin of the monk living in obedience. But ruin for the solitary is the interruption of prayer.
. . . the model for your prayer should be the widow wronged by her adversary (Luke 18:1-8) . . .
Faith is the wing of prayer, and without it my prayer will return to my bosom. Faith is the unshaken stance of the soul and is unmoved by any adversity. The believing man is not one who thinks that God can do all things, but one who trust that he will obtain everything. Faith is the agent of things unhoped for, as the thief proved (Luke 23:42-43). The mother of faith is hard work and an upright heart; the one builds up belief, the other makes it endure. Faith is the mother of the hesychast, for after all, how can he practice stillness if he does not believe?
A man chained in prison is fearful of his judge, and the monk in his cell is fearful of God. But the court holds less terror for the one than the judgment seat of God for the other. My good friend, you have to be very much afraid if you are to practice stillness, and nothing else is quite so effective in scattering despondency. The prisoner is always on the watch for the judge to come to the jail, and the true worker is ever on the watch for the coming of death. A weight of sorrow bears down on the one, while for the other there is a fountain of tears.
Take hold of the walking stick of patience, and the dogs will soon stop their impudent harassment. Patience is a labor that does not crush the soul. It never wavers under interruptions, good or bad. The patient monk is a faultless worker who has turned his faults into victories. Patience sets a boundary to the daily onslaught of suffering. It makes no excuses and ignores the self. The worker needs patience more than food, since the one brings him a crown while the other brings destruction. The patient man has died before his death, his cell being his tomb. Patience comes from hope and mourning, and indeed to lack those is to be a slave to despondency.
Pay careful attention to whatever sweetness there may be in your soul, in case it has been concocted by cruel and crafty physicians.
. . . until you have acquired spiritual power, do not read works that have various levels of meaning since, being obscure, they may bring darkness over the weak.
Let the soul's eye be ever on the watch for conceit, since nothing else can produce such havoc.
Once outside your cell, watch your tongue, for the fruits of many labors can be scattered in a moment.
Stay away from what does not concern you, for curiosity can defile stillness as nothing else can.
When people visit you, offer them what they need for body and spirit. If they happen to be wiser than we are, then let our own silence reveal our wisdom. If they are brothers who share with us the same type of life, we should open the door of speech to them in proper measure. Best of all, however, is to deem everyone our superior.
Wealth and numerous subjects constitute the power of a king. Abundance of prayer constitutes the power of the hesychast.