Hesychasm and the Internet

By Kevin Walthall

How the ancient Christian discipline of active silence plays a role in the age of Twitter

 

“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.”

These words are the gateway to divine silence, according to the pillars of ancient Christian spirituality. This prayer is known as the Jesus Prayer, and it’s one of the central practices of Hesychasm, the ancient Orthodox discipline of inner silence. The goal of Hesychasm, and the goal of the Jesus Prayer (or Prayer of the Heart), is to quiet all distraction and focus on the personhood of God. Not thoughts about God, not hopes or supplications, not our relationship with God: simply God in his essential, uncreated, ineffable form. In the Jesus Prayer, the words are repeated again and again out loud, until they are one with the rhythm of our breathing, until breath becomes prayer, until we are focused and all else becomes quiet and our minds cease their dazed wandering, until our consciousness is pierced by the Holy Name and the prayer takes on a life of its own, living in the heart, transcending the many thoughts of the mind.

Which sounds wonderful. Too bad it’s in such conflict with the endless distractions living in our pockets.

 

The Goal of Missional Speech

“One person appears to be keeping silent and yet condemns others in his heart; such a person is speaking all the time. Another person talks from morning to evening and yet keeps silent; that is, he says nothing except that which is helpful to others.” – Abba Poeman

With his Gandalf-like aura and robed in the vestments of an Orthodox monk, Abbot Tryphon of All-Merciful Savior Orthodox Monastery on Vashon Island, Washington is more in tune with social media than one would expect.

“If we don’t use social media, Satan will,” he says with the starkness that characterizes men in cassocks.

He’s difficult to pin down. Abbot Tryphon has a PhD in Psychology and lives by a strict rule of fasting and prayer. Yet he also hosts a podcast and is the subject of multiple memes.

“We will get in a huge circle and we will do an Orthodox flash mob… and we will put it online and watch it go viral around the world,” he says with a twinkle in his eye as he describes a particular flash mob plan of his involving a live octopus.

Among all the seriousness of his position and depth of Orthodox tradition, he sits next to a decorative wall hanging that reads “Bearded men are stronger, happier, healthier, manlier, and better looking than bald-faced men.” He smiles from a face shrouded in white beard.

Coming from a position of peace seems to aid in having good humor. The Orthodox tolerate absolutely no nonsense when it comes to the ego, but other varieties of nonsense seem downright encouraged. And that seems only right. In perfect inner peace, security, and purpose, our words are freed from having to prove our worth. Our words are free to build love, joy, and righteousness.

I walked in hoping for complex discourse on Apophatic knowledge. Instead Abbot Tryphon told me about how he takes long scenic detours whenever he travels, and encourages all to turn the music off when they drive. And perhaps simplicity is for the best. We don’t have to become mystical titans or professional theologians for God to dwell in our hearts. There are some simple structures and perspectives from Hesychasm that can take the standard “quiet time” to a deeper level, and develop an inner quiet from which to speak peace into a troubled world.

 

Outer Quiet for Inner Good

Christianity has a long history of pursuing prayer that transcends words and thoughts. The cloud on Sinai (Exodus 24:15) preceding Moses’ encounter with God and the many mentions of darkness and light in the Psalms have historically been understood to describe focused, spiritual prayer beyond sensuality and thought. We are told by Scripture to avoid many words and empty phrases (Matthew 6:7), that our intellect is inadequate for prayer (Romans 8:26), and yet to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Rather than forming eloquent or creative prayer, repeating the Jesus Prayer focuses the mind’s activity on the person of God, which becomes a stillness of mind. Focusing on the physical heart calms the senses and unites the body to prayer.

Hesychasm teaches quiet of the mouth around others because with every word spoken we anticipate a human response, and thoughts and feelings wrapped up in human interaction drown out the whisper of God. Especially in the toxic hyper-reality of social media, it’s easy to trick ourselves into a confused sense of identity. The constant words and mental activity of social media distract from the spiritual growing pains we need to feel.

Focusing on the physical heart calms the senses and unites the body to prayer.

One story in The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a collection of sayings from Christianity’s first experiments in monasticism, tells of a village man who became famous for his fasting. “The Faster” visited Abba Zeno in his cell, but the Faster was unable to make Abba Zeno engage him in casual conversation. The Faster became bored as Abba Zeno worked in silence. After some time, the Faster asked the Abba for permission to go.

“The old man said to him, ‘Why?’

“‘Because my heart is as if it were on fire and I do not know what is the matter with it. For truly, when I was in the village and I fasted until the evening, nothing like this happened to me.’

“The old man said, ‘In the village you fed yourself through your ears. But go away, and from now on eat at the ninth hour and whatever you do, do it secretly.’”

Though it was custom for the Faster to fast until nightfall, he now had difficulty making it past 3 p.m. Local villagers worried that the Faster suffered from demonic attack, but Abba Zeno gave a clear pronouncement: “‘This way is according to God.’”

There’s a fine line between missional speech and spiritual exhibitionism, and social media offers a ready outlet for both. We need to live Instagrammable spiritual lives—in secret.

 

Silent Strength

On some level most Christians already participate in Hesychastic traditions that lead to inner peace. The daily “quiet time,” Abbot Tryphon confirms, is a great start.

Inner quiet is an agreeable concept, but outer silence is abrasive to everything we’ve been taught. After all, we’re told words have power. Do we implicitly believe silence is powerlessness in the face of injustice? We’re surrounded by axioms like “speak up” and “take a stand,” but at what point do movements, even righteous movements, simply become white noise? We all know Twitter beefs aren’t an effective means of change, but is there an alternative we’re actively pursuing? The internet has inundated us with movements, and each movement is heard as part of a cultural package that’s more about personal identity than the actual words being said.

There’s a fine line between missional speech and spiritual exhibitionism, and social media offers a ready outlet for both. We need to live Instagrammable spiritual lives—in secret.

Hesychasm would have us skip the movements and the words and go straight to the heart of human identity with peace—the very thing every movement tries to achieve.

If we believe in an uncreated Creator, we believe there are realities beyond our mental and verbal capacities. In God there are boundless mysteries, and that is the image in which we are made. There are places in the soul only the Spirit of God can go. We must have faith that as the Spirit changes us, what we are is as valuable in changing the world as what we say.

When we know that words are not the only vehicle for influence, we are freed from the desperation to be understood and to change others on a rational level. Jesus often went out of his way to not be understood, and maybe our tweets also need more unexplained parables. Maybe they need more octopi. There really isn’t a formula for speaking, only a formula for being in such a way that words have weight.

In God there are boundless mysteries, and that is the image in which we are made. There are places in the soul only the Spirit of God can go.

The legacy of Hesychasm is a reminder of something crucial: Being made in the image of God is completely counter to the Enlightenment idea of words and reason. We are more than brains. We are not living in a binary of mind versus emotion. There is mystery within God, yes, but don’t discount the mystery within ourselves.

Applying these practices has given me a reason to hold my tongue. It has transformed my quiet times from attempting a relationship with no earthly template, to union with God. They have helped unite who I am in front of my Bible with who I am when insulted.

“Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me, a sinner.”

May our utter dependence become a song stuck in our head. May the Lordship of Jesus Christ become a constant second glance within our souls. May we fulfill the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov: “Acquire the spirit of peace, and a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

In this age defined by movements, stillness in Christ is the soothing balm we need.

 

For further reading: The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, The Way of a Pilgrim, St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, The Three Ways of Attention and Prayer, and Dark Night of the Soul. There’s also a wonderful lecture series on Orthodoxy and Mysticism.