Most of us live lives in which stillness is difficult, in a world characterised by activity, and in a society in which stillness or inactivity is viewed negatively. People who desire stillness are thought of as being anti-social, being “withdrawn” or depressed, perhaps even lazy. A desire for stillness is likely to be viewed by most other people as eccentric, or even pathological. Busyness, frantic activity, rushing around, striving to do as much as possible, filling every waking moment with “doing”…..these are all characteristics of modern life for most people.
Some of this activity may be necessary; much of it is obsessive, compulsive, a means to avoiding self-reflection and introspection. It is part of our need to “do” rather than to “be”.
Stillness is in very much the equivalent in activity of silence. We can be silent, but caught up in frenzied activity. Stillness requires both conscious reductions of both physical and mental activity. Being physically still while the mind engages in frenzied activity is not stillness. A range of practical techniques can be used to still both the body and the mind.
Stillness can range from sitting still and undertaking no external activity, to activities undertaken gently. The latter may be thought of as “intentional activity” in which attention is focussed undertaking the activity with minimal effort and minimal activity, but with maximal concentration.
While the Christian spiritual life does not require permanent stillness, and such a state (like that of the Hermit) is really an exception, even an aberration, some is necessary for spiritual health and growth. It may a few minutes in a day, or perhaps an hour or two during a week, or perhaps a day a month. The time must be realistically decided; anyone unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with being still needs to begin with short periods, and anyone with personal responsibilities needs to take those into account. Times of stillness cannot be self-indulgent or a means of escaping responsibilities.
It can be beneficial to have “planned stillness” – that is, to set aside a regular period of time to be still. Each individual will have to discover what appropriate stillness is for herself or himself.
“Although they are often used interchangeably, the terms “silence” and “stillness” are not synonymous. Silence implies in part an absence of ambient noise, together with an inner state or attitude which enables us to focus, to “center” on the presence of God and to hear His “still, small voice.” To silence, the virtue of stillness adds both tranquility and concentration. Stillness implies a state of bodily rest coupled with the creative tension that enables a person to commune with God in the midst of a crowd. It means openness to the divine presence and to prayer, prayer understood as a divine work accomplished by God Himself. As the apostle Paul insists, it is not we who pray, but the Spirit who prays within us (Rom 8:26).
This kind and quality of stillness is termed in Greek hesychia. It underlies the practice of Prayer of the Heart which focuses on the Name of Jesus: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”…Silence fosters stillness; it is indispensable for stillness. Stillness, however, goes beyond silence insofar as its aim is to purify the heart and issue in pure prayer. That purification involves the body as well, because body and soul, like mind and heart, are ultimately inseparable. In the words of St Mark the Ascetic, “The intellect cannot be still unless the body is still also; and the wall between them cannot be demolished without stillness and prayer.”…
Stillness is an undisturbed state of the intellect, the calm of a free and joyful soul, the tranquil unwavering stability of the heart in God, the contemplation of light, the knowledge of the mysteries of God, consciousness of wisdom by virtue of a pure mind, the abyss of divine intellections, the rapture of the intellect, intercourse with God, and unsleeping watchfulness, spiritual prayer, untroubled repose in the midst of great hardship and, finally, solidarity and union with God.
To this we can add the sublime words of St Gregory of Sinai, who died in the year 1346. St Gregory traces the hesychast way by which silence and stillness achieve their ultimate end: “Stillness gives birth to contemplation, contemplation to spiritual knowledge, and knowledge to apprehension of the mysteries. The consummation of the mysteries is theology, the fruit of theology is perfect love….”
If theology in our day can ever rediscover its true and proper end, it can do so only by recovering the virtues of silence and stillness as essential prerequisites for “listening to God” and dwelling in His perfect love.”
From: John Breck “Silence, Stillness and Listening to God” – full text available on-line at: http://johnrbreck.com/silence-stillness-and-listening-to-god