“When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good. Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy. Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.” – St Diadochos of Photiki, On Spiritual Knowledge no. 70.
The House of St. Michael the Archangel recently completed our second reading of volume 1 of The Philokalia. For some of us, this was even a third or fourth time through. As we shared our reflections on this repeated reading of The Philokalia with one another last month, it was evident that this book possesses a unique depth which rewards its readers with new treasures every time they return.
When I read The Philokalia, I have the sense that every word on every page is of utmost importance. This is not a thin, light, book. There is no fluff or filler in these pages. The Philokalia‘s words are weighty and demand response. By contrast, many other things I read today are light, airy. They pass quickly and do not demand much. The words of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes come to mind: “Of making many books there is no end” and yet “all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8,12 ESV).
How then, when so many other books amount to mere vanity, were the writers of The Philokalia able to produce something of such depth? I believe it’s because they all knew that “timely silence . . . . is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts.”
Timely silence was both the context in which these wise saints grew in prayer, and a fruit of prayer itself. For these saints, reading books and writing books were never ends in themselves. They read and wrote what was necessary to grow in prayer, and to teach and inspire prayer in others. Because they read for the purpose of growing in prayer, the fathers and mothers of the Church were people who read for total conversion. They chose to know fewer texts well rather than many texts shallowly. This then reinforced the way they prayed, which in turn reinforced the way they read and wrote. Meaningful words were refined into more meaningful words as these saints rejected unnecessary words and pursued ever-increasing intimacy with the Word. This is an example of the beautiful cycle of spiritual growth Jesus summarized by saying “to the one who has, more will be given” (Matthew 13:12).
At the point of deepest communion with God – when one has moved from speaking words to being with the Word – these saints then testify that no human words remain. Initially this silence is reverent, fearful, awe-filled: “Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and your are on earth. Therefore let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2). But as fear turns to love, the silence of the saint before God is like the silence of one who is loved, resting peacefully in the presence of the Lover.
Fear and awe. Then love and beauty. And silence.
“Where there is richness of the Spirit, no speech is possible,” says Diadochos about this intimacy. “At such a time the soul is drunk with the love of God and, with voice silent, delights in His glory” (On Spiritual Knowledge, no. 8).
Thus when saints do speak, their words will be succinct. As Diadochos says, “ideas of value always shun verbosity.” And those ideas of value will be ideas that lead the hearers or readers into deeper intimacy with God. Mark the Monk succinctly says, “If you want with a few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer, right faith, and patient acceptance of what comes” (No Righteousness by Works, no. 102). Saints direct the attention of those to whom they speak to God, and they do so in as few words as necessary.
But we must be careful not to say too much. According to Diadochos, even good speech dissipates our “remembrance of God,” a phrase which has special meaning. The glossary of The Philokalia says “remembrance of God” is “not just calling God to mind, but a state of recollectedness or concentration in which attention is centered on God” (p. 364). Any form of communication requires attentiveness to the party with whom one is communicating. Speaking or writing to others appears to necessarily divert our attentiveness from God. This is not wrong; Christ has indeed sent us to proclaim his reign to others. But such apostolic proclamation flows most purely from a place of intimate communion with God. Silence marks the intimacy that, when daily renewed, also replenishes the spring from which words of Gospel pour forth.
These apostolic saints are thus enabled to speak only of what they know; they do not speculate. It’s noteworthy that Diadochos twice mentions fantasy in contrast to wisdom. The Holy Spirit keeps the intellect free of fantasy, until the intellect turns its attentiveness from God. The more verbose one’s words, the more speculative and thus filled with fantasy they become. Fantasy thus becomes the mother of confusion. Confusion at best begets idle talk. At worst, confusion gives us over deception and lies.
“Timely silence, then, is precious.”
If we want to speak words of genuine wisdom, let us first cultivate attentiveness to God in silence. If we want to write words of genuine wisdom, let us begin again by cultivating attentiveness to God in silence. Let us be unafraid to pray, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth, and keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). May the Lord graciously allow timely silence to be the mother of our wisest thoughts.