The Science of Stillness

The phrase “the science of stillness” has stayed with me. For Evagrios, the pursuit of stillness is Serious Business. This is not a hobby, not a fluffy side pursuit for those who can’t hack it in the Real World. There is nothing more real than God, the creator of reality, and no better, more challenging, more rewarding way to spend time than in His presence. Evagrios likens stillness to science, to business, to a race; it is a goal he ruthlessly pursues.
I struggle with how to frame my reading of this single-minded monk, vacillating between two interpretations:
1. Stillness is one calling among many. We are each to discern our own particular calling, as Evagrios did. Evagrios is then read for clues on how to discern your own purpose, and tips on how to relentlessly pursue that individual calling.
2. Stillness is the calling of each of us; we are each to pursue silence before God. Evagrios is then a blueprint to follow for a life of stillness.
These are simplifications, and there are obvious problems with each. If I believe 1, why am I taking the time to sit in the company of this ascetic monk, instead of reading someone with a calling more similar to mine? If 2, well, do I really believe I can only eat one meal a day and live in a cell? I have already failed.
As I wrestle with defining my own relation to stillness, I find it helpful to return to the definition. Stillness, or hesychia, is “a state of inner tranquility or mental quietude and concentration which arises in conjunction with, and is deepened by, the practice of pure prayer and the guarding of heart and intellect. Not simply silence, but an attitude of listening to God and of openness towards Him.”
When I picture stillness as pure prayer and openness to God, a middle way becomes clear in the distance. This is not an either/or question. I believe we’re all called to stillness, all called to sit in God’s presence. We are then to find a way to carry seeds of that stillness into our days, into our other callings (which are discerned from a place of stillness). Are you called to be a pastor? Pastor with the peace of Christ. A teacher, an artist, an engineer? Pursue it with the peace of Christ dwelling in your heart.
Finding this balance between sitting and activity, finding a way to maintain the Lord’s presence within you throughout your day – that is a grueling calling. The world shouts so loudly, demands so much of us, and it is easy to subject ourselves to the whims of work and people and life in general, sacrificing the peace that is ours as children of God. It is much more difficult to keep still within the whirlwind. Maybe Evagrios had it easy – it’s pretty clear what to do when you’re an ascetic. For us it’s trickier. It’s a delicate business, this science of stillness.
I’d like to end there. It would be catchy to wrap up the post by repeating the title. But there’s a nagging thought in my mind, demanding to be addressed. If the pursuit of stillness is so exacting, the question wants to know, why bother?
Because, as Evagrios says, this is the path to joy. Think about that, joy as the pay-off. Joy as our birthright as children of God, there for the taking if we only seek it. It’s a small word for a big concept that deserves its own post. A word to sit with. A word for something I hunger for deeply. If that’s the goal, the pursuit starts to seem worthwhile.


  1. Very nice piece. Evagrios and Stillness, you did a great job on this dear subject.

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