“Noise is one of the most common pollutants. It is often ignored because it is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. And yet it can have negative effects on human well-being” (ASHA.org). Did you know that a hair blow dryer can cause hearing damage because of the amount of noise it produces? We live in a world today that is surrounded by noise. It is extremely difficult to find silence.
I was at a winter retreat a few years ago, and Fr. Silviu Bunta challenged us to sit in silence for five minutes every day. At the time, I thought he was crazy. There was no way I was going to sit in silence for five minutes every day. I love to talk, and anyone who knows me can attest to this. I asked Fr. Silviu if I could listen to music and reflect that way.
He looked at all of us and said, “No.” Just no.
Fr. Silviu continued to tell us that when people were tortured for information, the torturers would play loud and fast music. When this happens, our minds become overstimulated, and we can’t take much more, and our bodies start to shut down. Someone then asked if loud and fast music and noises are okay in moderation, and Fr. Silviu said, “If you fill yourself with noise, how can you expect to hear God”.
That made me think of the Bible, where God speaks to Elijah.
“Then He said, ‘Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.’ And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. So it was, when Elijah heard it…” 1 Kings 19:11-13
Elijah did not hear the Lord during the noise but in a “still small voice”. Some translations write that it was a stillness, others a whisper. Throughout my life, I wished that God’s voice would come in a booming thunder, that it would shake the heavens and declare its victory through the world. God could totally do that, but instead he speaks to us through silence. We must quiet our hearts, thoughts, desires, and earthly cares in order to hear God.
Saint Isaac the Syrian once said, “Silence is the sacrament of the world to come.” St. Iassac has a point. As much as I hate to admit it, we can see in the story of Elijah, we will not be able to speak with God with so much background noise. Imagine you’re at a party or a large social gathering. Your friend is speaking in a normal voice but ends up shouting, so you can hear them. So, imagine trying to whisper in a crowded room and expecting your friend to hear you. It’s probably not going to happen.
If we fill our lives with noise how will we hear God? When I think of sacraments, I think of baptism, chrismation, and communion, three important things that help us towards our salvation. For St. Isaac to call silence a new sacrament, it must be essential to guiding us towards salvation.
If we want to look at the scientific side of things, there are proven things that can happen to our bodies with excess noise exposure. Excess noise exposure can cause: a change in blood pressure, change in heart rate, change the way the heart beats (possible abnormal palpitations), disturb digestion and harm your organs, contribute to premature birth, and disrupt sleep. But don’t forget that on top of all of that, we can start to lose our hearing. I am not saying we should live the rest of our lives in complete silence shutting ourselves out from the world. That would also be detrimental to our health because we need human interaction to survive. So, what are we supposed to do if we should live in silence, but not shut ourselves up in our rooms?
Fr. John Breck writes, “Silence is not just the absence of ambient noise. Nor does it mean the lack of laughter or music or shared reflection. Silence is a state of mind and heart, a condition of the soul. It is inner stillness. Silence in heaven reigns amidst joyous song and ceaseless celebration. It is awe in the presence of the Divine.”
One of my favorite parts of that quote is that silence “is awe in the presence of the Divine.” The presence of God is everywhere and fills all things. He is in me and you and your next-door neighbor. He is everywhere, so when we are in the presence of the Divine, we must be in awe. By quieting our souls through prayer, fasting, and vigilance we can hear God.
My mom used to always tell me, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Fr. John helps us see that listening to music isn’t evil and speaking with friends isn’t detrimental, but we have to remember that it canbe. If we listen to music that is harmful to our souls and bodies, our souls are no longer quieted, but aroused with the passions. If we speak wrongfully and with hatred, we add fuel to the fire of the burning passions.
I want to hear God. That is a goal, but I haven’t because of the noise in my life. It’s time to drown out the noise, to listen for the still small voice. I have been trying to practice silence. It’s hard, but the more I do it, the more possible it becomes. Not only has this been quieting my soul, but it has helped me to keep my thoughts and words in check.
I pray that you will find the silence needed to hear God and listen. I pray that like the other sacraments we can join together to find the silence we need. I pray that we can find our state of awe and together stand in the presence of our Holy Father. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” (Matthew 11:15)
I am Evyenia Pyle. I am freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I am majoring in Speech and Hearing Sciences with double concentrations in neuroscience of communication and speech-language pathology. This year I am the Central Illinois District Student Leader! I love to sing, especially byzantine chant. I play a lot of instruments including guitar, bass, piano, and more. I have two amazing dogs, they are my pride and joy. I am so excited to be contributing to the OCF blogs this year!
One of the most wonderful movies about Orthodox prayer is The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer, a documentary made by Fr. John McGuckin and Dr. Norris J. Chumley. It depicts the journey of two men who, following an ancient example of a monk, go from the Egyptian desert and Mount Sinai, to Greece, Romania, Ukraine, and Russia in search of people who still practice this prayer. They look for people who pray the Jesus prayer and struggle to converse inwardly with God. In each case the people following this mystical tradition seek solitude and are later found in the wilderness – the wilderness of desert, the watery wilderness, the wilderness of the woods and the wilderness of the frosty lands. The beautiful thing is the Jesus Prayer shapes their mystical dialogue and bears the signs of the wilderness where it occurs.
The reason I think this movie is relevant when talking about music and worship is that it offers a good analogy for the great variety of music that may be encountered in Orthodox worship–Arabic, Greek, Romanian, Georgian, Russian chant, etc. The chanting tradition in divine worship is shaped by its geographical context just as much as the musical context where it occurs–just like the Jesus Prayer. The desert, the waters, the woods, and the frost put a charming seal on chanting. What sounds good to the Greek ear will sound exotic to the Russian as will the Arabic Byzantine Chant to the Romanian, for example. What binds all these traditions together is the unity of faith, the shared dogmas, history and belief in the Savior Jesus Christ.
These various chanting traditions originated in synagogal singing and developed simultaneously in connection with different centers like Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc. When “imitating” the mother church became too difficult new chanting styles emerged most of the time taking the shape of the local musical traditions.
Fr. Teodor leads the children of St. Herman’s Orthodox School in chanting at a hierarchical liturgy at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Allston, MA
Romanian chant is a good example in this regard. Historically close to the Byzantine Empire and having great relationship with Constantinople, the Romanian chant followed the tradition of Byzantium and even after it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks took pride in continuing its legacy. Well known church choirs in Romania still try to emulate it to this day. In the western part of the country however, in the territory that was under the Austro-Hungarian occupation, the Orthodox Church suffered acerbic persecution, and the people were cut off from their brothers in the principalities of Moldova and Walachia who continued to worship using Byzantine chant. In order to preserve their ancient faith and traditions the Romanians living in Transylvania used the local musical tradition in divine worship, resembling more and more folk music rather than Byzantine chanting.
The significance of music in worship is immense. St. Basil the Great considers music to be a vehicle of dogma, comparing it to the honey used by physicians to sweeten medicine that otherwise would be hard to swallow. Music draws people together in worship and can channel different feelings and emotions delivering them prayerfully to Christ. It can also help you retain your spiritual identity as we saw it helped the Transylvanians.
Worship is the highest destination that music, as a vehicle, can reach. Silence and stillness are the opportunity to rejoice in God’s response. If a monk can silently pray in a cave on mount Sinai, you can loudly worship with psalms in a city church. This dialogue with God is vital, and it is just as important that we don’t allow our prayer ropes to stay idle in the urban “wilderness” as it is for Russian monk to work on his salvation while living on permafrost.
Fr. Teodor Anastasoaie teaches at St. Herman of Alaska Christian School in Allston, MA serves at Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church which is part of the Bulgarian Diocese of USA, Canada and Australia and is passionate about Byzantine chant. He leads the Byzantine choir of the parish and is convinced that the best way to learn Byzantine chant is through increased participation in Church services.
Like many other “second-order” virtues, fasting is spiritually beneficial principally because of what it enables us to do, or learn, or achieve, rather than intrinsically, in its own right. Fasting assists us in prayer by a) clearing the mind, b) by removing certain common physiological and psychological shackles to concentrated and sustained prayer, and c) by putting us back in touch with the reality of our genuine dependence upon God’ providence, instilling in us a sense of humility and realism about our factual situation as created beings. In addition to these more practical benefits, fasting is also important as an obedience, one which builds character by instilling in us the more general virtue of self-restraint, giving us practice in setting our own desires to one side for the purpose of fulfilling God’s will. Finally, fasting is a momentary and deliberate mode of participation in a higher life, a paradisical life, in which the death, pain, and suffering of other creatures is not a condition for human survival – a moment which both forshadows the final eschaton, and looks backwards to the life of Adam and Eve before the fall, enabling those of us who have not taken upon ourselve the more demanding obligations of the monastic life, a temporary mode of participation in that ascetical ideal. For all of these reasons, fasting is important, and indeed, obligatory for Orthodox Christians.*
This week, I’d like to specifically address the question of precisely how fasting helps us in the art of prayer. To a great extent, this assistance is physiological in character. One of the general results of reduced food intake is that the body begins, instead of burning ingested calories, to use resources already stored in the body as fat for food. This biological process, called ketosis, was absolutely essential for human survival during periods of want, and was found by most ancient cultures, including the ancient Jews, to be highly effective for clearing the mind from some of its customary frenetic activity, and for encouraging a certain degree of dispassion (in that one finds it easier not to obsess about what one “wants”). Both of these effects are, for obvious reasons, helpful in one’s religious life.
Fasting also helps one stay alert, since while one is fasting one is not subject to the usual glut of high calories after one’s meals, and so not as strongly affected by a desire to sleep after eating. This too, is useful, both for staying awake during private prayer, and during the public services of the Church, which tend to be more frequent during the fasting periods.
Amazingly enough, fasting even helps one be less concerned about eating and, once one is accustomed to it, less distracted by food. Biologically speaking, in addition to helping one burn body fat, ketosis also has the advantage of helping one feel less hungry and helping one to maintain muscle tone. So fasting, when taken seriously, actually helps one overcome one’s obsession with food itself. This is, I think, helpful for people to know, since I find that converts, for instance, are often afraid to keep the fast for fear of dealing with the discomfort of actual hunger. This is not generally a problem, for simple biological reasons related to ketosis.
The part of us that fasting usually causes to suffer is the part of us that wants to be constantly entertained and catered to – and, of course, this is one of the very aspects of our character that we are seeking to overcome through fasting and prayer in the first place.
Photo from Real Break Constantinople 2009
To be fair, ketosis, as a sustained biological process, is usually not fully entered into save after a somewhat longer period of extended or complete fasting, which is why the so called “Ninevite Fast” (a complete three-day fast) at the beginning of Lent was customary for Orthodox Christians of the past and also why a regimen of no more than two small meals a day was proscribed for weekdays during Lent. When fasting is practiced in such a way, in its fullness, as it were, so that one begins to realize the degree of one’s fundamental dependence upon God and the kindly benefits of His sheltering and nurturing creation, then we are also given a visceral sense of our own habitual ingratitude and the goodness of God’s creation. Without such additional efforts, however, the practical impact of fasting on our prayer life may be relatively small, and difficult to perceive, and this appears to have led many in the modern Church to question its usefulness on empirical grounds. Those of the faithful who have made use of the traditional fasting practices of the Church in their fullness, however, are well aware of the prayerful and dispassionate benefits of the practice. If you don’t believe me – go ask any monastic!
In any case, fortunately there are other benefits of fasting available even to those of us who do nothing more than keep the basic fasting rules regarding what types of food may or may not be eaten on given days. I’ll discuss that more next week.
* There are, of course, some relatively rare health reasons for which fasting may be physically harmful and contra-indicated for particular individuals. But this is far less common than generally believed, and such complicated situations are properly handled by economia, with the competent assistance of both medical and spiritual guides. The fasting obligation of the Orthodox faith is not something that one can or should set aside on one’s own, as an Orthodox Christian. Obligatory, in this case, means obligatory.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Cassian Sibley at The Life-Giving Spring of the Mother of God Russian Orthodox Church in Bryan, TX. His wife is a college professor, and his daughter is a freshman in college. He was raised in Africa, and is an adult convert to Orthodoxy. Fr. Cassian also has an active prison ministry, and in his spare time is a permaculturalist and organic gardener.
As Orthodox we always ask ourselves how much publicity and noise we should make on campus. We have left the home, the comfortable context where we feel our identity to be less challenged. Morality was also easier with someone else in charge: parents, priest, home parish community, etc. So here we are at college, learning to stand on our own feet (hopefully). Who are we? Do we shout “ORTHODOX HERE!?” Do we forsake Church with the first mistakes and signs of imperfection or impurity? We are learning to be ourselves but are told to be free of pride… How do we manage it all?
Sin and temptation that comes in a time of freedom and uncertainty is also a providential place of challenge that helps us grow and improve spiritually. There are some shocking sayings of St. Anthony in the Alphabetic Collection of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers:
Anthony said to Abba Poemen,
4. This is the great work of a man: always to take the blame for his own sins before God and to expect temptation to his last breath.’ 5. He also said, “Whoever has not experienced temptation cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.’ He even added, ‘Without temptations, no-one can be saved.’ 6. Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, “What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’ 7. Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”
The readings before Lent challenge us to not argue about things with people who have different opinions: “As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables.” (Romans 14:1-2) We control the “tongue and… stomach.” Notice: we are eating vegetables now! We do this to repent, or “re-think” and change, gain confidence in God’s ability to change us. This is humility—to know that God gives victory, not our righteousness, successes, intellect, or purity. Everything else is defeat; only Christ’s humility is perfect faith. We feel it by the Paschal vigil, when we are tired, weak and hungry…
We ask “Who are we and how do we define ourselves?” Be defined by going to Church, believing, self-restraint and the confidence that does not proclaim our righteousness, but rather the confidence of Christ’s silence, God’s silence at the Cross, the silence of the life-giving Tomb and the silence of Christ who is in the “hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison…”(Mathew 25:44). This silence is what teaches us to listen to and love others. This silence (of mouth, mind, internet) is what gets us through the “snares,” the mistakes we have to ‘make for ourselves.’ The prodigal son knows this. We will have temptations and fall; we can only learn humility this way—the confidence that God saves and raises us. This is the truly successful OCF chapter:
where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. (Colossians 3:11, OSB)
My practical tip, the one which is best borne out by working with OCF chapters, is this: Learn restraint and silence together!
All the ideas and programs in the world don’t help without learning humility and restraint that guide us toward confidence in Christ.
About the Author
This is a guest post from Fr. Elijah Mueller. Fr. Elijah is the pastor of St. Makarios Mission, OCA, at the University of Chicago and the Director of the Diocese of the Midwest OCA Catechist and Diaconal Vocations Program. He is the Chapter Spiritual Advisor at the University of Chicago, and the Great Lakes Regional Spiritual Advisor for OCF. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Marquette University, which he will complete this Spring. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.