I joyfully anticipated attending a 36-hour silent retreat during spring of my first year at seminary. Although I had no idea what to expect, I hoped that all my questions and anxieties about discernment would suddenly become clear.
My classmates and I arrived at the retreat center, shared a meal, and discussed a few guidelines for the weekend. In the first evening, the silence felt familiar; my room was lit by candlelight while I read from the Scriptures. But, by midmorning on the second day, I found myself restless and bored, busying myself by walking from one place to another. I may have had an exterior silence, but inside my mind, I saw the ordinary ever-present chaos. I felt it in my inability to stay in one place for more than an hour at a time. I was uncomfortable. There was no place to hide from the reality of my thoughts. Needless to say, I didn’t come to any new and profound answers concerning my vocation.
Instead, I began to appreciate the importance of cultivating silence, not only once a year for 36 hours, but regularly, daily and weekly. After returning to seminary with its social, intellectual, and liturgical obligations, I longed for the silence that I had experienced on retreat. Not necessarily the exterior silence, but I pined for those brief moments of interior stillness.
I suppose that I am not alone in the constant struggle for control over my attention. Advertisers on television and social media vie for a piece of my time, my thoughts, and my wallet. More willingly, my students, my coworkers, friends and family demand my attention in their presence for the sake of charity. Then, within myself, images from the past and hopes for the future, concepts and judgments about the world around me, press in upon my mind. Yet, I know the Scripture, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
I think that the antidote to a state of dispersed attention (a kind of “mental drunkenness”) is to cultivate interior silence through frequent prayer. By remembering the ever-present God and the occasional calling to mind of the inevitable end of this earthly life, the unfathomable depth of the interior life unfolds beneath the mind’s eye. To attend to the interior life is to invite God to heal the soul. Through interior stillness we can set our mind over our heart as a sentry, as a watchtower, to permit thoughts of love to enter and take root, and deny a seat for the thoughts that lead to sin. By creating space in daily life for interior attention and watchfulness, the fallen, corrupted, and darkened heart is healed and made luminous, thoughts and habits are managed, and, by grace, the whole person is brought toward a life lived in union with God.
The human heart is a battleground. The Name of Jesus is our most powerful weapon. Throughout the history of the Church, faithful men and women have used short prayers like a relentless flood of arrows throughout the day. Short prayers were said while walking, sitting, talking, eating, and working. The words would call the mind to an awareness of the presence of God, who is everywhere present and filling all things, whether we recognize His presence or not. Short passages from the Scriptures were frequently repeated for meditation in order to cultivate a relationship with Christ. In the Eastern Churches, the Jesus Prayer eventually became the standard, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
Fixing the attention on the presence of God through these short prayers leaves the mind a little clearer. Then the heart settles into a kind of stillness, and each intrusive thought becomes known to the consciousness. Then each thought can be judged as good or bad. We can accept the thought if good, and dash it against the rock of Christ if bad: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Over time, the soul gains skill in guarding the heart, and the grip of the vices, the habits and tendencies toward sin, begin to lose their hold.
But, this movement of the human person from slavery to sin toward an interior freedom is nearly impossible without cultivating periodic moments of silence. In the busyness of daily life, sinful thoughts take root in the heart unnoticed. Without attention to ourselves, we risk an unchecked expression of the fallen and unhealed drives of our human nature. Silence, stillness, and the interior freedom that follow allow the Christian soul to tread lightly and joyfully upon the earth. In this state, we taste paradise and the garden of delight that God originally intended for His beloved creatures.