Theophilus the archbishop came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, “Say something to the archbishop, so that he may be edified.” The old man said to them, “If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.”
Arsenius, when he was still in the palace, prayed to God, saying, “Lord, show me the way of salvation.” A voice came to him saying, “Arsenius, flee from men and you will be saved.” As he left for the monastic life, he prayed again, saying the same words, and he heard a voice saying to him, “Arsenius, flee, be silent, pray always, for these are the roots of sinlessness.”
A brother came to visit Abba Moses and asked him for advice. The old man said to him, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
Abba Nilus said, “The arrows of the enemy cannot touch someone who loves quiet. But those who wander about among crowds will often be wounded by them.”
Abba Anthony said, “He who sits alone and is quiet has escaped from three wars: hearing, speaking, seeing. But there is one thing against which he must continually fight: that is, his own heart.”
Abba John the Dwarf said, “We have put aside the easy burden, which is self-accusation, and weighed ourselves down with the heavy one, which is self-justification.”
A hermit said, “Charity is born of tranquility and silence and inner prayer.”
“If there is one virtue almost universally recommended in the desert,” wrote Rowan Williams in his exposition of the spirituality of the Desert Elders, “it is silence.” The people who retreated from the noisy world, with all of its demands and distractions, wanted to find a place where they could hear the voice of God speaking, as to Elijah of old. They chose the vast quiet of the desert as their listening post, and they valued solitude and stillness so that they could hear that voice of grace. The writings of the Desert Elders are full of admonitions to flee the company of others, lest one be distracted from the task at hand or tempted to sin.
But what the Elders found is that, no matter where they went, they carried their own inner voices and distractions with them. Often these were represented as demons coming to them with temptations to sin. Part of the struggle to master these powerful temptations was to maintain silence. This had an inner and an outer aspect.
Outwardly there is a need to maintain silence with others. The Desert Elders observed just how much of our speech distracts us in trivialities of life. Whereas they wanted to maintain a single-minded focus on prayer and listening to God, most speech with others is nothing more than chitchat, banter, gossip, and rambling. Worse, conversation can so often be a form of competition, in which each person strives to one-up the other with a story or boast; egos attempt to assert themselves with words. Even worse yet, our language is habitually filled with critiques, judgments, and micro-aggressions that we’re barely aware of. Far better, say the Desert Elders, just not to speak.
The inner aspect to the silence commended by the monks of the desert comes from the observation that we all carry a voice within us that babbles endlessly. I don’t know about you, but when I pay attention to my own mind in meditation, I find a noisy and restless chatterbox that won’t stop. This is the voice that constantly makes up a story about my life, with me as the hero. This voice goes into especially high gear when I’ve been hurt by someone else. Now the story that endlessly cycles is how much of a victim I’ve been, and how the other person is so bad to have said or done whatever it is. It’s the voice of self-justification, which is a heavy burden “because there is no end to carrying it; there will always be some new situation where we need to establish our position and dig a trench for the ego to defend.” (Rowan Williams) Better, say the Desert Elders, to silence that voice through struggle and vigilance, and lay that burden down.
The inner silence of the desert practitioners is the silence of “self-accusation.” This does not mean fostering some unhealthy attitude of self-loathing. It means letting go of the voice that always wants to bend things around so that we are in the right, and being willing to tell the truth about ourselves. They could do this because of their knowledge of God’s never-ending compassion and forgiveness.
Silence of the mouth and the silence of the heart. They go together as the beginning of spiritual growth and the ability to hear the loving voice of God.
This reflection is part of a series on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastics of the early church. In the second and third centuries these individuals left society to pursue lives of prayer and holiness in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. Seeking inner transformation through the concrete practice of their faith in love and service to the neighbour, their wisdom was recorded in collections of their sayings and stories about them. This literature comes down to us as a precious guide to the spiritual life, showing us in rich, practical detail what it means to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself.”