“Speech is the organ of this present world. Silence is the mystery of the world to come.” –St. Isaac the Syrian, 7th century
An irony of Lent is that too many of us like to talk about the discipline of personal silence, yet practice it little and poorly. Like breathing big city air, we’re accustomed to wallowing in the vague brown pall of noise pollution, sometimes of our own making, unhealthy but familiar. I remember real quiet. I got big pristine doses of it during the years I lived in a largely abandoned hamlet high in the French Alps. In winter, I was sometimes completely alone, and the stillness was intensified by massive, sound absorbing snowdrifts that broke against the old stone buildings of the village like wild ocean waves, muffling even my breath.
The luxury of living within such outward silence is long over. Then as now, I have to fight for the inner stillness I know contributes to spiritual stability, that peace that is more profitable to the soul than mere silence of place anyway. So I practice the ancient Jesus Prayer, the prayer of the heart, that centuries-old companion of ascetics, monastics, and all who wish to draw near to God: Lord Jesus Christ, God’s Son, have mercy on me, the sinner.” The Greek word for mercy, eleison, is a derivative of the same one used for olive oil in that language. A common healing agent among the ancients, the Good Samaritan in Christ’s parable anointed the injured man’s wounds with eleison. Supplicating God to visit me with his eleison (and through me, the whole world with the same), I invite his compassion on my brokenness, his restoration of my restless, chaotic person—the anxious enigma of who I am that prompts me to make so much noise in the first place.
As St. Isaac says, “silence is the mystery of the world to come.” Maybe that’s because in that bright, unabridged reality, fully restored souls will know instinctively how to speak beyond the primitive language of the mouth, and human existence will need no sound for its justification.