The Christian Tradition of Breath Meditation
The Holy Breath
“For as many as are led by the Spirit [Breath] of God, they are the sons of God” (Romans 8:14). “Holy Spirit”–Agia Pneuma–means Holy Breath as well as Holy Spirit, and many verses about the Holy Spirit can be interpreted in this light to reveal their inner esoteric meaning. It is very worthwhile to look up the passages in the Bible that speak of “spirit” and substitute the word “breath.” Some interesting insights will be gained.
The inner secret
The breath of the yogi is the inner secret of the yogi. For the scripture says: “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit [the Breath] of the Lord” (II Corinthians 3:18). The Breath of the Lord active within him transforms the yogi from glory to glory: from the glory of enlightened humanity to the glory of enlightening Divinity–of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). For the Holy Spirit–the Holy Breath–of which he is a living temple (I Corinthians 6:19) continually breathes within the depths of his being. Thus constant awareness of the breath empowers and recreates the individual, often working profound transformations in his inner makeup. When Jesus “breathed on [the apostles], and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost” (John 20:22), he was indicating that the breath and the Holy Spirit are identical–to meditate upon the breath is to meditate upon the Holy Spirit. Or more to the point: to experience the breath is to experience the Holy Spirit. The inmost, subtle breath that arises from the spirit is the transforming power of God. Uniting ourselves with the breath is uniting ourselves to the evolving and life-giving action of the Holy Spirit. Thus, from the very first moment of Breath Meditation we are engaging in spiritual experience–experience in which any “phenomena” are of negligible and peripheral value. For it is not the experiences within meditation that matter, but rather the result that manifests outside of meditation in the continuous state of consciousness.
The divine and human breaths
Through the union of the divine and the human breaths accomplished in Breath Meditation, we come to life, grow “unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:13) and attain the knowledge of God through that union. To that end Jesus “breathed on [the apostles], and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost.”
God, being the source of life, is also the source of breath, “seeing he giveth to all life, and breath” (Acts 17:25). Regarding this Father William Johnston has written in Christian Zen:
“Breath rises from the very root of the being, so that consciousness of the breath can lead to a realization of the deepest self by opening up new doors in the psychic life. In the Bible it is clear that breath is identified with the deepest thing in man; it is precisely when breath enters into matter that man becomes man.
“Further, it should be remembered that in Eastern thought breath is not only the little breath in my little body. It is much more than this. It is associated with the breath of the cosmos, so that regulating the breath means regulating one’s relationship with the whole cosmos and bringing about harmony and order. This is true of both Zen and Yoga, where breath plays such an important part.…
“I myself believe that the consciousness of the breathing is somehow linked to a basic rhythm in the body, a rhythm that can be deepened and deepened until it reaches the center of one’s being from which enlightenment breaks forth. Let me try to explain what I mean.
“There is a basic rhythm in the body, linked to a consciousness that is deeper than is ordinarily experienced.…
“As I have said, the rhythm of breath leads to something deeper. All points to the center of the soul, the core of the being, the sovereign point of the spirit, the divine spark, the true self, the realm from which enlightenment arises. This is the truest thing that exists.…
“If one perseveres one gradually comes to realize that this breath is not only the life that fills the body from head to toe. It is more. The Sanskrit prana, like the Japanese ki, is the breath of the universe, a cosmic force which penetrates all things. As for the Hebrews, they believed that their breath was the breath of God whose presence gave them life. For Christians the breath, like the wind, symbolizes the Holy Spirit who fills all things with his love, giving wisdom and joy and peace.…
“It is interesting to recall here that scientists distinguish between the voluntary and involuntary nervous system. There are bodily functions which are voluntary in that we only perform them by an act of the will; and there are others (such as digestion, heartbeat, metabolism and so on) which are involuntary or automatic. And breathing stands midway between the two. With most people it is involuntary but it can easily be made conscious, regulated and brought under control of the will. When one becomes conscious of the breathing one gradually becomes conscious of the whole body and even learns to control the whole body. Breathing is the gateway to the unconscious.”
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works” (Revelation 20: 12, 13). This symbolic revealing and release that takes place in both the conscious and subconscious minds–and sometimes even the physical body–is the result of long-term watching of the breath, and is always a passively observed process.
The work of the Holy Spirit
This is the unique work of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath, for as Saint Paul assures us “the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26). The word translated “groanings” is stenagmos, which more properly means “sighings”–in other words, the subtle sound of the inner breath. Those who go deep in their practice of Breath Meditation will sometimes experience the subtle currents of inhalation and exhalation as faint breath-like or “sighing” sounds.
Saint Paul also informs us that these “sighings of the Spirit” are alaletos, unutterable, and therefore cannot really be spoken by human beings, though they can be approximated. Our part is to meditate and enter into the Holy Spirit’s utterance of them, the Holy Spirit’s speaking (breathing) which gives us life–the Life in (and of) Christ. “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the spirit [subtle breath], and watching thereunto with all perseverance” (Ephesians 6:18).
Through meditation we literally breathe the Holy Spirit, becoming filled with and united to the Life that is the Holy Spirit. Meditation is in truth the “praying in the Holy Ghost” enjoined by Saint Jude (1:20). “I will pray with the spirit [breath], and I will pray with the understanding also” (I Corinthians 14:15).
“Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit [Breath] of God dwelleth in you?” (I Corinthians 3:16; 6:19). Through the practice of Breath Meditation this is revealed to us.
In the account of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, we are told that “cloven tongues like as of fire” appeared over the heads of those who were present. (Acts 2:3) This is a poetic description of the two “petals” of the ajna chakra, and the inhaling and exhaling breaths. The Holy Spirit is infused into our breath, and thus the Christian literally breathes the Holy Spirit, becoming filled with and united in anapanasati to the Life that is the Holy Spirit.
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters” (Psalms 23:2). The waters flow…yet they are still. So also in the practice of meditation the “water” of the breath flows–yet is perfectly still. “This is a great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32). “And he said unto me, I am Alpha and Omega. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely” (Revelation 21:6). “Rivers of living water shall flow out of the inmost being of him who believes on Me” (John 7:38). “Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3). The breath of the Christian is his water of life, for his breath is also the Breath of God. “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (I John 5:7). The “Father” is the witnessing consciousness of the meditator, the “Word” is the subtle sound of the breath, and the “Spirit” is the breath itself.
The surprised seeker
In the first quarter of the fourteenth century a man named Gregory entered the monastery on the sacred mountain of Sinai. Filled with zeal, he engaged in all the ascetic practices that were being done there, always exceeding his brother monastics in their observance. After a while they became annoyed with the spiritual one-upmanship of the young monk, and he, too, was not pleased, for he intuited that there was more to spiritual life than what he had learned there. Consequently, for the next years he wandered throughout Egypt and Palestine, visiting monasteries and hermits in the desert, learning of their disciplines and adopting them in an even more intense degree. Yet he remained spiritually empty, discontent, and desolate.
In time he decided to visit the island of Crete. Upon reaching there he met several devout people who urged him to visit an aged priest named Arsenios that was living the eremitical life in a cave somewhere on the island. After a great deal of searching he found the priest and began questioning him both about ascetic labors and the complexities of theology. To all his queries the old man simply replied: “I am sorry, but I do not know anything of these matters.” At first Gregory thought he was being modest and humble, but after lengthy questioning he realized that the elder’s answers were the truth: he really know nothing of those things. Disgusted and angry, Gregory left, telling himself that the old man was nothing more than an ignorant beast, unworthy of anyone’s regard or attention. Greatly disappointed at yet another dead-end search, he found a cave at the other end of the island and began living there.
A few weeks later his solitude was disrupted by the arrival of the old priest at the mouth of Gregory’s cave. “Please, Father, you are an educated man and an exemplary monk,” the old man said, “so I have come to ask you for spiritual instruction.” Suppressing his desire to call the old man a donkey and drive him away, Gregory asked impatiently what he wanted to ask–feeling sure that the stupid old man would be able to comprehend nothing of what he might say to him. “Well, the problem is this, Father,” began the priest, “when in the depths of prayer you establish yourself in the gate, some say that you should sit looking out of the gate, but others say that you should only sit looking in at the gate. And I want to know your opinion on this.”
Gregory was thoroughly perplexed at the old man’s words and asked him to repeat them. He did so, but Gregory still had no idea what the question meant. Then, as he sat puzzling over the matter, the realization came to him that his visitor was not a fool, a donkey, or stupid. Rather, he knew a whole dimension of spiritual life–real, inner spiritual life–of which neither Gregory not any of the monks he had met so far knew even a hint. Chagrined, he admitted his ignorance and begged the old priest tell him how to turn within and reach the gate. Which he did. And so began for him the path that would lead in his becoming Saint Gregory of Sinai: the practice of Breath Meditation, which he called Hesychia–the Silence.
In the practice of Breath Meditation the tip of the nose is called the gate or the door, since that is where the breath enters and exits. “Looking out” means to feel the breath moving out of the nosetip into the body when inhaling, and flowing out of the body away from the nosetip when exhaling. “Looking in” means to feel the breath flowing into the nosetip from outside the body when inhaling and flowing into the nosetip from within the body when exhaling. That is, the awareness is kept on the tip of the nose alone and the sensation of the breath moving in there–not outward. “Looking in” is the preferred practice–as the old priest knew, for he was only testing Saint Gregory–but not an absolute.
This is referred to symbolically by the prophet Ezekiel: “Then brought he me the way of the north gate before the house: and I looked, and, behold, the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord: and I fell upon my face. And the Lord said unto me, Son of man, mark well,…mark well the entering in of the house, with every going forth” (Ezekiel 44:4, 5). In the psychic anatomy of the human being, the head is “House of the Lord,” the Temple of God, the entire body being the City of God. The right side of the body (and the brain) is “east,” the left is “west,” the back is “south” and the front is “north.” The nosetip is the “north gate” of the Temple, and “the entering in of the house, with every going forth” are the inhaling and exhaling breaths which we are to “mark well.”
Hesychia: Breath Meditation
I have used the Pali term anapanasati because it best conveys what the practice of meditation should be: the awareness of exhalation and inhalation. But in the tradition of the Christian East the word commonly used for meditation is the Greek word Hesychia: the Silence.
Saint Gregory Palamas wrote extensively on Hesychia in the fourteenth century. In one essay he said: “We counsel those newly embarked on the spiritual path to draw their intellect into themselves by means of their breathing.” Here we have classical anapanasati: observance of the in-going and out-going breaths. Saint Gregory further cites Saint Paul’s statement that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit–the Holy Breath. It is our breathing that is the primary manifestation of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in us, and for that reason it is possible to attain awareness of the indwelling Divinity through the merging of our awareness into the breath. He then cites the mystical writings of Saint Dionysius the Areopagite which speak of the “circular movement” in meditation–an expression found also in Buddhist writings on anapanasati, and which refers to the inhalations and exhalations being so smooth and continuous that they are like a single, circular movement rather than two separated movements broken by pauses, however slight, between inhaling and exhaling.
“It is not out of place to teach [seekers] to bring their intellect within themselves by means of their breathing,” concludes Saint Gregory. Therefore it is reasonable to “recommend them to pay attention to the exhalation and inhalation of their breath, so that while they are watching it the intellect, too, may be held in check.…This control of the breathing may, indeed, be regarded as a spontaneous consequence of paying attention to the intellect; for the breath is always quietly inhaled and exhaled at moments of intense concentration, especially in the case of those who practice stillness [hesychia] both bodily and mentally.”
The Hesychast Fathers were keenly aware that the mind is a field of reflective energies. They further realized that the shaping of the mind into “waves” in the form of sensory impressions and thought patterns was an impairment-veiling of the true consciousness that lay behind it. Water which is broken up by waves and swirls not only cannot act as an accurate reflective mirror, it conveys a distortion of whatever it reflects. These agitations of the mind are like radio static or television interference which can distort, reduce, or altogether eliminate the message. And they discovered that it is the breath which ties us to the mind. What is needed, then, is to get to the root of the breath and untie the “knot” that binds us to the mind and the entire range of relative experience. Breath awareness was the “untying” which they employed.
“Commune with your own heart…and be still” (Psalms 4:4). Hesychia is frequently translated “Stillness,” and this is quite appropriate because in Breath Meditation we are silently aware so that in time the mind and heart become absolutely still–unmoving. When questioned about a profound interior experience he had undergone, Elder Joseph the Cave-dweller of Athos responded: “At such times as those, the mind stops altogether.” And we are consciously seeking the same.
A perfect symbol of this is given in the book of Acts: “He commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him” (Acts 8:38). To make the chariot of the mind stand still and descend into the stream of the breath to be baptized in the Silence is to be baptized in Christ, in the Word, and to be truly Christed (Christened). “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).
Hesychia is also referred to as “rest”–the equivalent of Yoga Nidra. When Jesus said: “Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while,” it was also meant to be a symbol of entering into silence, a “desert” free from thoughts and sense impressions. In the book of Hebrews we find: “There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God” (4:9), meaning the highest–seventh–level of consciousness. “For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Let us labour therefore to enter into that rest” (4:10, 11). “When he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven” (Revelation 8:1).
What, then, is real meditation? It is a single thing: the cultivation of consciousness. That is why Jesus continually exhorted His disciples to “watch,” to simply be silently aware in the depths of their being (Matthew 21:42; 25:13; 26:41). He also used the simile of people waiting with burning lamps (Luke 12:35) to give the idea that we are silent in a negative or blank sense, but are conscious–even alight with consciousness. And consciousness is silent.
In many texts Hesychia it is simply called “attention.” This is because Hesychia is not “prayer” in the usual sense of verbalization, but rather is the cultivation of prajna–awareness–through observation of (attention on) the breath. The use of the simple word “attention” also implies the truth so often spoken by Jesus that the kingdom of God is right at hand–we need only turn around and there it is. (“Repent” is a completely inaccurate translation of metanionite that means to turn around 180 degrees.) As Buddha said: “Turn around, and behold! the other shore.” For this reason, in meditation we need to keep silence in the absolute sense and simply be aware of awareness, to be still and know–to practice sati.
Attention is the effective element of Breath Meditation, awareness of the movements of the subtle breath at the nosetip. This is accomplished through the sense of touch. Interestingly, Nikitas Stithatos, the disciple and biographer of Saint Symeon the New Theologian, wrote about this in On the Practice of the Virtues: “If you refer the activities of the outer senses back to their inner counterparts–exposing your sight to the intellect, the beholder of the light of life, your hearing to the judgment of the soul, your taste to the discrimination of the intelligence, your sense of smell to the understanding of the intellect, and relating your sense of touch to the watchfulness of the heart–you will lead an angelic life on earth; while being and appearing as a man among men, you will also be an angel coexisting with angels and spiritually conscious in the same way as they are” (8).
Mary, the sister of Lazarus, is a perfect example of both stillness and attention: “Now it came to pass, as they went, that Jesus entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42). Mary chose the best part by not doing anything but sitting still and being aware, whereas Martha was running around doing many things. Martha practices methods; Mary practices awareness.
This was dramatically illustrated by David when he was just a teenage boy. In the seventeenth chapter of First Samuel we are told that when he went to being food to his brothers who were fighting the Philistines he found everyone, including the king, terrified of the gigantic warrior Goliath and unwilling to fight him. Seeing this, David offered to fight the giant. Willing to try anything but fight himself, King Saul put his own armor on the boy along with a brass helmet and a coat of chain mail. David buckled on his own sword and started to go, but he stopped and said that he could not fight with all those encumbrances. So he took them all off and left them behind–including his sword–taking with him only his slingshot, the toy of a child and no weapon at all. But onward he went, faced and challenged Goliath, and killed him with a single stone hurled from his sling. There is lesson for the aspiring yogi in this. All kinds of cumbrances in the forms of observances, recitations, and meditation methods are being thrust on us from every side by the professionals of religion and yoga–each one insisting that without their wares and trappings we either cannot succeed or will be hindered and delayed in our practice without them. (It is amazing how many “jet-plane” routes to God have surfaced in the last half a century, and how no one that has taken them has yet been seen to arrive–anywhere.) But if we engage in the simple practice of observing the breath–which he have had from birth–we will find like David that the simple thing works the best and does it well, that there is a marvelous sophistication to such simplicity. I knew a yogi that had traveled several “jet planes” over the course of many years. After only a few days’ of Breath Meditation experience he said: “This is what I thought would happen to me to me when I took up yoga over forty years ago.”
Hesychia: Prayer of the Heart
“But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet” (Matthew 6:6). The Hesychast Fathers say that the “closet” referred to by Jesus is the heart–not the physical heart, but the metaphysical heart, the core of our being: our pure spirit consciousness. In other word, the heart is our true self. And in hesychastic texts we are told to “lead the mind into the heart by means of the breath,” for through the breath we can enter into spirit.
Hesychia is also called Prayer of the Heart. Prayer (prosevke) means to draw near, to enter into something. “Heart” (kardia) means the absolute center, the core, of our being. Ramana Maharshi made this observation: “The real Heart is just consciousness in its native purity. The Self is also that consciousness. So it follows that the Self is itself the Heart” (The Power of the Presence, vol. 3, p. 179). Entering into the consciousness that is our true self through Breath Meditation is thus the Prayer of the Heart.
Silence As Prayer
The religions of the East fundamentally understand that God is utterly beyond all words or thought of any kind, that communion with God must necessarily occur beyond the mind in the silence of the spirit whose nature is pure consciousness. Although, beginning with Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, Christian writers and mystics have said the same thing, over time words and thoughts have almost completely taken over the province of spiritual life, including meditation. So much so that simple silence is considered by nearly all Christians as meaningless and worthless. Therefore I am including the following extensive section to assure you that the silent awareness of breath meditation is the highest form of prayer in the Christian tradition as well.
Saint Issac of Syria
The greatest Hesychast [Keeper of Silence] of the Eastern Christian Church was Saint Isaac of Syria, and his teachings on interior life are found in a large number of essays. In the twenty-third essay he has this to say about “spiritual prayer,” which is pure silence, as contrasted with “word prayer” that remains in the domain of the mind and cannot, despite its efforts, reach into the realm of the spirit where truth resides. For when the awareness moves into spiritual prayer “it no longer possesses prayer, or movement, or emotion, or control, or acts of will, or petition, or desire, or longing for any ‘thing’ in this world or the next. Therefore there exists no ‘prayer’” in this world of the spirit.” Although there are many gears in the prayer machine, since it is a product of the mind machine: “beyond this boundary there is awestruck wonder and not prayer. For what pertains to prayer has ceased, while a certain divine vision remains, and the mind does not pray a prayer. Every type of prayer arises from a movement of the mind, but once the awareness enters into spiritual territory, there is no longer any kind of prayer. Prayer is one thing, but the divine vision is another.…in which the reaper stands in ecstasy before the unutterable sight.…Then he remains entirely motionless in his divine vision.” For “what lies beyond cannot be called prayer.” And “it is blasphemous for a created being to say that spiritual prayer can be ‘prayed’ at all. For any prayer that can be prayed is inferior to what is spiritual…. This is because “whenever the intellect moves, it is found in the natural realm; but once it enters into that other realm, it ceases from prayer. The saints of the ages to come do not pray with prayer when their intellects have been swallowed up by the Spirit, but rather with awestruck wonder they dwell in that gladdening glory.…Let no one blaspheme and dare to affirm that it is possible to ‘pray’ spiritual prayer.”
Saint Isaac then explains how this can be. “At that moment the intellect is yonder, above prayer, and by the discovery of something better, prayer is abandoned. Then the intellect does not pray with prayer, but it gazes in ecstasy at incomprehensible things which surpass this mortal world, and it is silenced by its ignorance of all that is found there. This is the unknowing which has been called more sublime than knowledge.”
In his sixty-fifth discourse the saint gives us a maxim that sums it all up: “Silence is a mystery of the age to come, but words are instruments of this world.” Another translation is: “Silence is the mystery of the future age, while words are mere implements of this world.”
May we ever seek the holiness that Saint Isaac calls “the secret silence of the Lord,” the Silence that is the Lord.
Jesus said to the medieval English mystic, Margery Kempe: “If you wore a hair shirt, fasted on bread and water, and said a thousand ‘Our Fathers’ every day, you would not be as pleasing to Me as you are when you keep silence and allow Me to speak in your soul.…But you do not believe me, and go on telling your beads.”
Saint Albert the Great (On Cleaving to God)
“You should not be much concerned about tangible devotion, the experience of sweetness or tears, but rather that you should be mentally united with God within yourself by a good will in your intellect. For what pleases God above everything is a mind free from imaginations, that is images, ideas and the representations of created things. It befits a monk to be indifferent to everything created so that he can turn easily and barely to God alone within himself, be empty for him and cleave to him.…‘For one thing is necessary’ (Luke 10:42). You will experience because of it great grace, helping you towards the acquisition of nakedness of mind and simplicity of heart. Indeed this One Thing is very much present with you if you have made yourself bare of imaginations and all other entanglements, and you will soon experience that this is so–namely when you can be empty and cleave to God with a naked and resolute mind.”
“Grasp every opportunity when you can find the place, time and means to devote yourself to silence and contemplation, and gathering the secret fruits of silence, so that you can escape the shipwreck of this present age and avoid the restless agitation of the noisy world. For this reason apply yourself at all times to purity, clarity and peace of heart above all things, so that, so far as possible, you can keep the doors of your heart resolutely barred to the forms and images of the physical senses and worldly imaginations by shutting off the doors of the physical senses and turning within yourself. After all, purity of heart is recognized as the most important thing among all spiritual practices, as its final aim, and the reward for all the labours that a spiritual-minded person and true religious may undertake in this life.”
“So simplify your heart with all care, diligence and effort so that still and at peace from the products of the imagination you can turn round and remain always in the Lord within yourself, as if your mind were already in the now of eternity, that is of the godhead.…You must always keep the eye of your mind clear and still. You must guard your understanding from daydreams and thoughts of earthly things.…In just this way your whole mind gathered up with all its powers and faculties in God, may become one spirit with him, in whom the supreme perfection of life is known to consist.
“This is the true union of spirit and love by which a man is made compliant to all the impulses of the supreme and eternal will, so that he becomes by grace what God is by nature.”
“What is more, as is said in the book On the Spirit and the Soul (of St. Augustine), to ascend to God means to enter into oneself. He who entering within and penetrating his inmost nature, goes beyond himself, he is truly ascending to God.”
Above all it is important for you to keep your mind bare–without imaginations and images and free of any sort of entanglement, so that you are not concerned about either the world, friends, prosperity or adversity, or anything present, past or future, whether in yourself or in others–not even your own sins. But consider yourself with a certain pure simplicity to be alone with God outside the world, and as if your mind were already in eternity and separated from the body so that it will certainly not bother about worldly things or be concerned about the state of the world, about peace or war, about good weather or rain, or about anything at all in this world, but with complete docility will turn to God alone, be empty for him and cleave to him.…And let your spirit be cleansed in this way from all imaginations, coverings and things obscuring its vision, like an angel not tied to a body, who is not hindered by the works of the flesh nor tangled in vain and wandering thoughts.
“If all images are detached from the soul, and it contemplates only the Simple One, then the soul’s naked being finds the naked, formless being of the divine unity, which is there a being above being, accepting and reposing in itself. Ah, marvel of marvels how noble is that acceptance, when the soul’s being can accept nothing else than the naked unity of God!” (Be Renewed in Your Spirit)
Walter Hilton (The Ladder of Perfection)
“This opening of the spiritual eye is that lightsome darkness and rich nought that I spake of before, and it may be called purity of spirit and spiritual rest, inward stillness and peace of conscience, highness of thought and loneliness of soul, a lively feeling of grace and retiredness of heart, the watchful sleep of the spouse and tasting of heavenly savor, burning in love and shining in light, the gate of Contemplation and reforming in feeling. And this is the waking sleep of the Spouse, of the which the Scripture thus: I sleep, and my heart waketh.
“It hath been asked whether it be possible for the soul, while it is yet in the body, to reach so high as to cast a, glance into eternity, and receive a foretaste of eternal life and eternal blessedness. This is commonly denied; and truly so in a sense. For it indeed cannot be so long as the soul is taking heed to the body, and the things which minister and appertain thereto, and to time and the creature, and is disturbed and troubled and distracted thereby. For if the soul shall rise to such a state, she must be quite pure, wholly stripped and bare of all images, and be entirely separate from all creatures, and above all from herself. Now many think this is not to be done and is impossible in this present time. But St. Dionysius maintains that it is possible, as we find from his words in his Epistle to Timothy, where he saith: ‘For the beholding of the hidden things of God, shalt thou forsake sense and the things of the flesh, and all that the senses can apprehend, and that reason of her own powers can bring forth, and all things created and uncreated that reason is able to comprehend and know, and shalt take thy stand upon an utter abandonment of thyself, and as knowing none of the aforesaid things, and enter into union with Him who is, and who is above all existence and all knowledge.’ Now if he did not hold this to be possible in this present time, why should he teach it and enjoin it on us in this present time But it behoveth you to know that a master hath said on this passage of St. Dionysius, that it is possible, and may happen to a man often, till he become so accustomed to it, as to be able to look into eternity whenever he will. For when a thing is at first very hard to a man and strange, and seemingly quite impossible, if he put all his strength and energy into it, and persevere therein, that will afterward grow quite light and easy, which he at first thought quite out of reach, seeing that it is of no use to begin any work, unless it may be brought to a good end.
“And a single one of these excellent glances is better, worthier, higher and more pleasing to God, than all that the creature can perform as a creature. And as soon as a man turneth himself in spirit, and with his whole heart and mind entereth into the mind of God which is above time, all that ever he hath lost is restored in a moment. And if a man were to do thus a thousand times in a day, each time a fresh and real union would take place; and in this sweet and divine work standeth the truest and fullest union that may be in this present time. For he who hath attained thereto, asketh nothing further, for he hath found the Kingdom of Heaven and Eternal Life on earth.” (Chapter Eight)
Saint John of the Cross
(Ascent of Mount Carmel)
“From what has been said it is to be inferred that, in order for the understanding to be prepared for this Divine union, it must be pure and void of all that pertains to sense, and detached and freed from all that can clearly be apprehended by the understanding, profoundly hushed and put to silence.”
“Since we are here giving instruction to those who would progress farther in contemplation, even to union with God, to which end all of these means and exercises of sense concerning the faculties must recede into the background, and be put to silence, to the end that God may of His own accord work Divine union in the soul, it is necessary to proceed by this method of disencumbering and emptying the soul, and causing it to reject the natural jurisdiction and operations of the faculties, so that they may become capable of infusion and illumination from supernatural sources; for their capacity cannot attain to so lofty an experience, but will rather hinder it, if it be not disregarded.…Wherefore it is best to learn to silence the faculties and to cause them to be still, so that God may speak. For, as we have said, in order to attain to this state the natural operations must be completely disregarded, and this happens, as the Prophet says, when the soul comes into solitude, according to these its faculties, and God speaks to its heart. [Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. Hosea 2:14].
“…In this state we shut the door to all things whence distraction may come, causing the memory to be still and dumb, and the ear of the spirit to be attentive, in silence, to God alone, saying with the Prophet: ‘Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth’ [I Samuel 3:10]. It was thus that the Spouse in the Songs said that his Bride should be, in these words: ‘My sister is a garden enclosed and a fountain sealed up’ [Song of Solomon 4:12]–that is to say, enclosed and sealed up against all things that may enter.
“Let the soul, then, remain ‘enclosed,’ without anxieties and troubles, and He that entered in bodily form to His disciples when the doors were shut, and gave them peace [John 20:19], though they neither knew nor thought that this was possible nor knew how it was possible, will enter spiritually into the soul, without its knowing how He does so, when the doors of its faculties–memory, understanding and will–are enclosed against all apprehensions. And He will fill them with peace, coming down upon the soul, as the prophet says, like a river of peace [Isaiah 48:18], and taking it from all the misgivings and suspicions, disturbances and darknesses which caused it to fear that it was lost or was on the way to being so. Let it not grow careless about prayer, and let it wait in detachment and emptiness, for its blessings will not tarry.”
“Contemplation, is called ‘night,’ because contemplation is dim; and that is the reason why it is also called mystical theology–that is, the secret or hidden wisdom of God, where, without the sound of words, or the intervention of any bodily or spiritual sense, as it were in silence and in repose, in the darkness of sense and nature, God teaches the soul–and the soul knows not how–in a most secret and hidden way.
“Some spiritual writers call this ‘understanding without understanding,’ because it does not take place in what philosophers call the active understanding which is conversant with the forms, fancies, and apprehensions of the physical faculties, but in the understanding as it is possible and passive, which without receiving such forms receives passively only the substantial knowledge of them free from all imagery. This occurs without effort or exertion on its part, and for this reason contemplation is called night, in which the soul through the channel of its transformation learns in this life that it already possesses, in a supreme degree, this divine fruition, together with its beauty.”
Miguel Molinos (The Spiritual Guide)
“Contemplation [is] naked, pure and internal.”
“There are three kinds of Silence; the first is of Words, the Second of Desires, and the third of Thoughts. The first is perfect; the second more perfect; and the third more perfect. In the first, that is, of words, Virtue is acquired; in the second, to wit, of Desires, quietness is attained to; in the third of Thoughts, Internal Recollection is gained. By not speaking, not desiring, and not thinking, one arrives at the true and perfect Mystical Silence, wherein God speaks with the Soul, communicates himself to it, and in the Abyss of its own Depth, teaches it the most perfect and exalted Wisdom.
“He calls and guides it to this inward Solitude, and mystical Silence, when he says, that he will speak to it alone, in the most secret and hidden part of the Heart. Thou art to keep thy self in this mystical Silence, if thou wouldest hear the sweet and divine Voice. It is not enough for gaining this Treasure, to forsake the World, nor to renounce thine own Desires, and all things created; if thou wean not thy self from all Desires and Thoughts. Rest in this mystical Silence, and open the Door, that so God may communicate himself unto thee, unite with thee, and transform thee into himself.
“The perfection of the Soul consists not in speaking nor in thinking much on God; but in loving him sufficiently: This love is attained to by means of perfect Resignation and internal Silence, all consists in Works: The love of God has but few Words. Thus St. John the Evangelist confirms and inculcates it: “My little Children, let us not love in Word, neither in Tongue, but in Deed and in Truth” (I John 3:18).
“Thou art clearly convinced now, that perfect Love consists not in amorous Acts, nor tender Ejaculations, nor yet in the internal Acts, wherein thou tellest God, that thou hast an infinite Love for him, and thou lovest him more than thy self. It may be that at that time thou seekest more thy self, and the love of thy self, than the true Love of God, Because Love consists in Works, and not in fair Discourses.
“That a rational Creature may understand the secret desire and intention of thy Heart, there is a necessity that thou shouldest express it to him in Words. But God who searches the Hearts, standeth not in need that thou shouldest make profession and assure him of it; nor does he rest satisfied, as the Evangelist says, with Love in Word nor in Tongue, but with that which is true and indeed. What avails it to tell them with great zeal and fervor, that thou tenderly and perfectly loveth him above all things, if at one bitter word, or slight injury, thou doest not resign thy self, nor are mortified for the love of him? A manifest proof that thy love was a love in Tongue and not in Deed.
“Strive to be resigned in all things with Silence, and in so doing, without saying that thou lovest him, thou wilt attain to the most perfect quiet, effectual and true love. St. Peter most affectionately told the Lord, that for his sake he was ready, willingly to lay down his Life; but at the word of a young Damsel, he denied him, and there was an end of his Zeal. Mary Magdelen said not a word, and yet the Lord himself taken with her perfect Love, became her Panegyrist, saying that she had loved much. It is internally, then, that with dumb Silence, the most perfect Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity are practiced, without any necessity of telling God, that thou lovest him, hopest and believest in him; because the Lord knows better than thou dost, what the internal Motions of thy Heart are.
“How well was that pure act of Love understood and practiced by that profound and great mystic, the Venerable Gregory Lopez, whose whole Life was a continual Prayer, and a continued Act of Contemplation; and of so pure and spiritual Love of God, that it never gave way to Affections and sensible Sentiments:
“Having for the space of three Years continued that Ejaculation, Thy will be done in Time, and in Eternity; repeating it as often as he breathed; God Almighty discovered to him, that infinite Treasure of the pure and continued Act of Faith and Love, with Silence and Resignation: so that he came to say, That during the thirty six Years he lived after, he always continued in his inward Man; that pure Act of Love, without ever uttering the least Petition, Ejaculation, or any thing that was Sensible, or sprung from Nature. O Incarnate Seraphim, and Deified Man! How well didst thou know how to dive into that internal and mystical Silence, and to distinguish betwixt the outward and inward Man?”
“You must know, that when once the Soul is habituated to internal Recollection, then God uses to take it alone by it self, and raise it more then it knows, to a complete repose, where he sweetly and inwardly infuses in it his Light, his Love and his Strength, enkindling and inflaming it with a true disposition to all manner of Virtue.
“There the Divine Spouse, suspending its Powers, puts it to sleep in a most sweet and pleasant rest: There it sleeps, and quietly receives and enjoys (without knowing it ) what it enjoys, with a most lovely and charming Calm: There the Soul raised and lifted up to this passive State, becomes united to its greatest Good, without costing it any trouble or pains for this Union: There in that supreme Region, and sacred Temple of the Soul, that greatest Good takes its Complacency, manifests it self, and creates a relish from the Creature, in a way above Sense and all humane understanding: There also only the pure Spirit, who is God, (the purity of the Soul being incapable of sensible things) rules it, and gets the mastership of it, communicating to it its illustrations, and those Sentiments which are necessary for the most pure and perfect Union.
“The Soul coming to itself again from these sweet and divine Embracings, becomes rich in light and love, and a mighty esteem of the divine Greatness, and the knowledge of its own Misery, finding itself all changed divinely, and disposed to embrace, to suffer, and to practice perfect Virtue.
“A simple, pure, infused, and perfect Contemplation, therefore is a known and inward manifestation which God gives of himself, of his goodness, of his Peace, of his sweetness, whose object is God, pure, unspeakable, abstracted from all particular thoughts, within an inward silence: but it is God delights us, God that draws us, God that sweetly raises us in a spiritual and pure manner, an admirable gift, which the divine Majesty bestows to whom he will, as he will, and when he will, and for what time he will, though the state of this Life be rather a state of the cross of Patience, of humility, and of suffering, than of enjoying.
“Never wilt thou enjoy this divine Nectar, till thou art advanced in Virtue and inward Mortification; till thou doest heartily endeavor to fix in thy Soul a great Peace, silence, forgetfulness and internal solitude: How is it possible to hear the sweet, inward and powerful Voice of God in the midst of the noise and tumults of the Creatures? And how can the pure spirit be heard in the midst of Considerations and discourses of Artifice? If the Soul will not continually dye in it self, denying it self to all these Materialities and satisfactions, the Contemplation can be no more but a mere vanity, a vain complacency and Presumption.”
The Wisdom of Madame Guyon
“[Meditation is] an eager sinking into ourselves, restraining all our senses from wandering abroad: this serves to extricate us, in the first instance, from numerous distractions, to remove us far from external objects, and to bring us nigh to God, Who is only to be found in our inmost center, which is the Holy of Holies wherein He dwells. He has even promised to come and make His abode with him that doeth His will (John 14:23). St. Augustine blames himself for the time he had lost in not having sought God, from the first, in this manner of prayer.”
“When…we gradually begin to relish silence and repose, this experimental enjoyment of the presence of God introduces the soul into [contemplation].”
“The soul that is tranquil and peaceful in prayer, sinks frequently into a mystic slumber, wherein all its powers are at rest, till it is wholly fitted for that state, of which it enjoys these transient anticipations. You see that in this process the soul is led naturally, without trouble, effort, art or study.
“The interior is not a stronghold, to be taken by storm and violence; but a kingdom of peace.
“The most sublime attainments in religion, are those which are easiest reached; the most necessary ordinances are the least difficult. It is thus also in natural things; if you would reach the sea, embark on a river, and you will be conveyed to it insensibly and without exertion. Would you go to God, follow this sweet and simple path, and you will arrive at the desired object, with an ease and expedition that will amaze you.…but those who expect all from themselves, may hear this rebuke of God by his prophet Isaiah, ‘Ye have wearied yourselves in the multiplicity of your ways, and have not said, Let us rest in peace’ (Isaiah 57:10).”
“Some persons, when they hear of the prayer of silence, falsely imagine that the soul remains stupid, dead, and inactive; but it unquestionably acts more nobly and more extensively than it had ever done before; for God himself is its mover, and it now acts by the agency of his Spirit. St. Paul would have us led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14).”
(These quotations are taken from A Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer by the seventeenth-century French mystic Madame Guyon.)
Johannes Kelpius (A Short, Easy, and Comprehensive Method of Prayer)
“Internal Prayer is so weighty a Point, that one may call it the only Means to attain Perfection in this Life,…so this inward Prayer suits all Persons. It is no new Invention, as some will say, seeing Jesus Christ spent his whole Life in inward Prayer; and the Evangelist Luke tells us that he continued in it whole Nights.…Inward Prayer is not less for every one, than Faith, Hope, and Charity or Love, which are Virtues belonging properly to true Christians.…Therefore all are called to this Way and to this End, to will naught but what God wills, namely through the Means of inward Prayer to return into their Origin, which is God.”
“Inward Prayer is the Nourishment of the Soul; it is in this holy Rest that the Soul obtains that Strength which is so needful for her…the Prayer of the Heart, without Words or Thoughts.
“For one may pray without forming or uttering of any Words, without Consideration or Speculation of the Mind, without holding rational Discourses, or making Conclusions, yea, without knowing the least Thing in a Manner relative to the outward Senses: and this Prayer is the Prayer of the Heart, the unutterable Prayer; [in which] the necessitous and straitened Heart lays itself open before God.”
“The Soul has no more to do the whole time of Prayer but to remain in Peace and Silence.”
“This is properly the Prayer of the pure Giving-up or Presentation, or what is called the Prayer of Innocence; which prays without saying any thing, and awaiteth all without asking any thing, and desires with Submission to the Will of God, whether he will grant what is desired or deny it; and obtains more than it dare venture to pray for.…here the Soul does nothing else but present herself before God; which is something very innocent.”
“The Soul having thus presented herself before God, he instructs her in the Way of his Commandments: for God takes Delight in instructing the Soul, as soon as the Soul is attentive.
Even this I desire of you, that your Prayers may be simple, without a Multiplicity of Words, so that God, who pours out his Spirit upon the Simple, may himself be your Prayer: simple in Thoughts, abandoning and not entertaining them; simple in Understanding, depending wholly upon God.”
“For our parts, we should and can do so much as to refrain from all Thoughts and Words, (those excepted to which the Circumstances of our Condition, Business and Office oblige us) and to avoid all rational Cogitations, all Forms and Figures, not only during the Time of our Prayer, but also all Day long, that as soon as they appear we suppress them without Admittance.
“I have long ago very well conceived how necessary it is not to suffer any Thought to enter into the Mind, neither good nor bad, and to be free from all Figures and Images, in order to perform the inward Prayer.”
“We ought not to believe, that such a State of inward Silence is Indolence or Loss of Time; by no means: on the contrary, the Soul is then more active than ever, since she is practicing Faith, Hope and Love; Faith, in that she believes in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and is resigned to him, who is so truly present in her as he is in Heaven; Hope, since she would by no means abide in this State of inward Silence and Prayer, if she did not hope thereby to please God; but she practices still better the Virtue of Love, in that she is all this while resigned and given up to the Will of God.
“Let this then henceforth be our Prayer: because in such a reverential Silence the great Virtues are so nobly practiced, but chiefly for the sake of pure Love.”
“Now where the Spirit of God is, there is Freedom…. Therefore there must be no compelling to any particular Degree of Prayer, but to open the Heart to the Holy Spirit, and resign it wholly to him.”
“Accordingly we must pray and walk in the divine Presence, be not too busy with outward Things, keep the Flesh in Subjection, deny ourselves and our inordinate Inclinations, since this must keep Pace with the inward Prayer, for that from this is inseparable, for we must not be deceived: without inward Prayer there is no Conquest over the Flesh, and without this Conquest over the Flesh, no true inward Prayer, and without this, the one and the other is no Conversion, no true internal Life, no Perfection or Christianity.
“Thus we must be very faithful in the Beginning to accustom ourselves to suppress and mortify all Evils, that nothing may escape our Notice; and afterwards in Perseverance in a spiritual Life, will more Care be required to free ourselves from our own Self-workings, and admit the Workings of God in their Room, not to work and pray by our own Power, but that the Spirit of God in us may do it.
“In this State we perform a powerful Prayer, the Prayer of Jesus Christ, and through his Spirit: The Soul can then no more pray with Cogitation, and make conclusive Reasonings, since she is found in a continual and working Prayer. All what the Soul is and what is in her, prays through and in Jesus Christ; and being not intent upon her own Will, nor thinking discerningly on what she prays for, she receives at once what she has need of. O what Power has Prayer with God! But what Prayer? The inward Prayer of Silence, the Inclination of the Heart to God, without Thoughts, Words or Images; when we expect and wait for all from the Power and Mercy of God. Those who perform this Prayer, obtain therein so much Strength that they are not only comforted themselves, but they also comfort others who are oppressed.”
“We must also take diligent Care with what People we converse; so must we also reserve the needful Hours wherein to converse with no Man, but with God in Prayer. For I could never yet conceive how a Man could be right in his Internals, and yet be negligent in Prayer.”
“Let us ascend the Mountain with Jesus Christ; let us pray as he has prayed; let us contemplate, let us love; so shall we perform God’s Prayer.
“O divine Jesus! I join with thee in thy Prayer which thou hast in Solitude by Night prayed; in this Prayer of God grant that we may perform no other Prayer.
“O God! send this internal Spirit over the whole Earth; so will it be a-new created. Let this Spirit rest on the Waters of thy usual and wonted Grace, which thou offereth to all Men; so will it distribute an overflowing Fruitfulness. O give us new Hearts! Amen, O Jesus!”
Saint Seraphim of Sarov
Nicholas A. Motovilov recorded a conversation in the first half of the nineteenth century with the renowned Russian Orthodox mystic, Saint Seraphim of Sarov, on the subject of the purpose of the Christian life–which the saint said was one thing alone: the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath. Here are the saint’s relevant comments about the necessity for silence in interior practice:
“We must pray only until God the Holy Spirit descends on us…. And when He deigns to visit us, we must stop praying.…That is why is is said, ‘Be still and know that I am God (Psalms 45:10).…I will tell you in the name of God that…[when] out Lord God the Holy Spirit condescends to visit us, and comes to us in the plenitude of His unutterable goodness, we must be dead to prayer, too.…At the descent of the Holy Spirit we must remain in complete silence” (Saint Seraphim, Wonderworker of Sarov, pp. 123, 124). Later he cited the words of Job: “All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils” (Job 27:3).
Though it is not commonly recognized, the British novelist, Emily Bronte, was a highly developed mystic, as is shown in her poetry. In her final poem, written not long before her death and addressed to God, she says: “Thou art Being and Breath,” affirming the dual character of Divinity as both Consciousness and Energy, which is therefore reflected in us who can, by means of the breath, penetrate into the heart of being.
Bennett A. Brockman (The Prayer of Silence)
“The Prayer of Silence is a receptive prayer of resting in God and being open to God’s loving, transforming presence. Its key is the willingness to be changed by God’s indwelling; acknowledging our imperfection as not a condemnation, but an invitation to alteration.”
“The Prayer of Silence is at the same time a relationship with God and a discipline fostering that relationship.”
“It focuses on attention to the breath as the symbol of the divine presence.”
“In this prayer we offer ourselves to God in silence, in the willingness to be transformed more completely into the image of God in which we were created. We acknowledge that God is beyond our human knowing, while believing that God desires only that which is eternally good for us.”
“We enter into the presence of God with our deepest self, as we are right now, with all of our self with our deepest intention, acknowledging that God matters above everything else.”
“Paying attention to our breath enables us to recognize passing thoughts as merely that–passing thoughts. Only God is permanent; everything else is changing, moment by moment. Trying to hold on to anything merely frustrates us and makes us anxious.”
“Most of our thoughts can be gently ignored by returning our consciousness to the breathing, knowing that we thereby are lingering in the presence of God, and that our desire to do so is in fact pleasing to God, welcomed by God–and blessed by God.”
“We gently return to the awareness of breathing, as if it were God’s spirit (breath) breathing in us.”
“Practice has revealed that the virtue of this prayer form is not in ‘doing it well,’ but in practicing it consistently and in consistently returning to awareness of breath as the focus on and receptiveness to God.”
“We expect nothing during the time of prayer, nor do we celebrate mental phenomena that might occur; nor do we aim for a particular goal other than our aim to be in the presence of God and to be transformed into God’s likeness by that experience.”
“Rather, we realize that the fruits of the Prayer of Silence are in the way we are in the world:
in a diminishing of anxiety and egoism;
in a deepening of faith;
in a serenity in living out our faith in more deeply grounded ways, as our deepest self–the self created in God’s image–begins to emerge, as we experience ourselves participating in the divine eternal life more completely and more willingly;
in moving through the world we inhabit with compassion and love defining us;
in our being able fully to delight in the moment that is–holding on to it very lightly;
It is not so much that things have changed, as it is that our relationship to things has changed.”
“We come to realize that the actions of our lives, being grounded in this prayer, become the fruits of this prayer also.”
“We are less ‘attached’ to things–little irritations irritate less, disappointments leave us less crestfallen or angry. We are able to welcome God’s loving transformation of us–letting go of the ‘don’t mess with me, I’m perfect just like I am’ attitude and of the ‘I must control my world’ attitude.
“We are more continuously mindful of the presence of God, of the divine Self in which we move and have our being, which is continually reshaping us in the divine image in concert with our attentiveness.:
“It is helpful to recall that the purpose of the mind is to think; it is impossible to turn off our thinking. Therefore we do not get exasperated with ourselves that our attentiveness wanders; rather, we simply, gently, as soon as we become aware of wandering, return to God, paying attention to our breath. Let the thought be, and return to the breath.”
“Remember that the virtue of this prayer is in returning; returning signifies our belief that God is supremely important. Remember also that we do not return to a state of mind or to a thought or image, but to our intention of being in God’s presence and our willingness to be transformed by God’s presence.”
In the eighteenth century, two saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Saint Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain and Saint Makarios of Corinth, compiled a five-volume collection of writings from the fourth to fifteenth centuries on Hesychia which they entitled The Philokalia–The Love of the Good. All the following extracts relevant to Breath Meditation are from that collection. The expressions “attention,” watchfulness,” “stillness,” and “silence” all refer to the practice of silent, pure awareness.
Saint Antony the Great
“By virtue of his body man is mortal: and by virtue of his intellect and intelligence he is immortal. Through silence you come to understanding: having understood, you give expression. It is in silence that the intellect gives birth to the intelligence; and the thankful intelligence offered to God is man’s salvation.”
“A true man is one who understands that the soul is divine and immortal, being God’s breath.”
“The soul is a breath of God.”
Saint Diadochos of Photiki
“The unilluminated should not embark on spiritual speculations nor, on the other hand, should anyone try to speak while the light of the Holy Spirit is shining richly upon him. For where there is emptiness, ignorance is also to be found, but where there is richness of the Spirit, no speech is possible. At such a time the soul is drunk with the love of God and, with voice silent, delights in His glory.”
“Spiritual knowledge comes through deep stillness.”
“When [the intellect] is at peace in times of stillness, it is more and more renewed in its swift and effortless understanding of divine truth, and with great humility it advances in its knowledge of discrimination.”
In one section the saint speaks of “…the beauty of silence.”
Evagrios the Solitary
“Let the monk…win the blessings of stillness. For the practice of stillness is full of joy and beauty: its yoke is easy and its burden light.
“…safeguard the way of stillness. …the science of stillness.”
Saint Gregory of Sinai
“Ignore all images, whether sensory or conceptual, that rise up from the heart. For stillness means the shedding of all thoughts for a time, even those which are divine and engendered by the Spirit; otherwise through giving them our attention because they are good we will lose what is better.”
“If while engaged in spiritual work you see a light or a fire outside you, or a form supposedly of Christ or of an angel or of someone else, reject it. And do not pay court to images, lest you allow them to stamp themselves on your intellect.”
“According to Saint John Klimakos, ‘stillness is the shedding of thoughts,’ whether of sensible or of intelligible realities.…Stillness, in accordance with its name, is maintained by means of peace and serenity; for God is peace (Ephesians 2:14) beyond all unrest and clamor.”
“If you are rightly cultivating stillness and aspiring to be with God, and you see something either sensory or noetic, within or without, be it even an image of Christ or of an angel or of some saint, or you imagine you see a light in your intellect and give it a specific form, you should never entertain it. For the intellect itself naturally possesses an imaginative power and in those who do not keep a strict watch over it it can easily produce, to its own hurt, whatever forms and images it wants to. In this way the recollection of things good or evil can suddenly imprint images on the intellect’s perceptive faculty and so induce it to entertain fantasies, thus making whoever this happens to a daydreamer rather than a hesychast.
“Be careful, therefore, not to entertain and readily give assent to anything even if it be good. Always be suspicious of it and keep your intellect free from colors, forms and images.”
Saint Gregory Palamas
“[The intellect] returns to itself and operates within itself, and so beholds itself; and this is called by Saint Dionysios the intellect’s ‘circular movement.’ This is the intellect’s highest and most befitting activity and, through it, it even transcends itself and is united with God. ‘For the intellect,’ writes Saint Basil, ‘when not dispersed outwardly, returns to itself, and through itself ascends to God’ in a way that is free from delusion. Saint Dionysios, the unerring beholder of noetic things, also says that this circular movement of the intellect is not subject to delusion.”
“Saint John Klimakos [said]: ‘A hesychast is one who tries to enshrine what is bodiless within his body.’ And our spiritual fathers have rightly taught us things in harmony with this. For if the hesychast does not enclose his intellect within his body, how can he possess within himself the One who is invested with the body and who as its natural form penetrates all structurally organized matter? The determined exterior aspect of this matter–the material body–cannot enshrine the essence of the intellect until the material body itself truly lives by adopting a form of life appropriate to union with the intellect.
“Do you see, brother, how Saint John has shown, not simply from the spiritual but even from a human point of view, how vital it is for those who seek to be true masters of themselves, and to be monks according to their inner self, to install or possess the intellect within the body? Nor is it out of place to teach beginners in particular to look within themselves and to bring their intellect within themselves by means of their breathing. For no one of sound judgment would prevent a person who has not yet achieved a true knowledge of himself from concentrating his intellect within himself with the aid of certain methods. Since the intellect of those recently embarked on the spiritual path continually darts away again as soon as it has been concentrated, they must continually bring it back once more; for in their inexperience they are unaware that of all things it is the most difficult to observe and the most mobile. That is why some teachers recommend them to pay attention to the exhalation and inhalation of their breath, so that while they are watching it the intellect, too, may be held in check. This they should do to prevent their intellect from going out to external things, to keep it uncompounded, and to gather it into what Saint Dionysios calls a state of ‘unified concentration.’ This control of the breathing may, indeed, be regarded as a spontaneous consequence of paying attention to the intellect; for the breath is always quietly inhaled and exhaled at moments of intense concentration, especially in the case of those who practice stillness both bodily and mentally. Such people keep the Sabbath in a spiritual fashion and, so far as is possible, they rest from all personal activities; they strip their soul’s powers free from every transient, fleeting and compound form of knowledge, from every type of sense-perception and, in general, from every bodily act that is under our sway, and, so far as they can, even from those not entirely under our sway, such as breathing.”
“Through the practice of the life of stillness [the hesychasts] devote their attention undistractedly to themselves and to God, and by transcending themselves through establishing themselves in God through their mystical and supra-intellectual union with Him they have been initiated into what surpasses the intellect.”
Saint Hesychios The Priest
“Watchfulness is a spiritual method which, if practiced over a long period, completely frees us from impassioned thoughts, impassioned words and evil actions. It leads, in so far as this is possible, to a sure knowledge of the inapprehensible God, and helps us to penetrate the divine and hidden mysteries. It enables us to fulfill every divine commandment in the Old and New Testaments and bestows upon us every blessing of the age to come. It is, in the true sense, purity of heart, a state blessed by Christ when He says: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). Because this is its nature, watchfulness is to be bought only at a great price. But once established in us, it guides us to a true and holy way of life. It teaches us how to activate the three aspects of our soul correctly, and how to keep a firm guard over the senses. It promotes the daily growth of the four principal virtues, and is the basis of our contemplation.”
“Watchfulness is a way embracing every virtue, every commandment. It is the heart’s stillness and, when free from mental images, it is the guarding of the intellect.”
“Just as a man blind from birth does not see the sun’s light, so one who fails to pursue watchfulness does not see the rich radiance of divine grace.”
“Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought.”
“Continuity of attention produces inner stability; inner stability produces a natural intensification of watchfulness; and this intensification gradually and in due measure gives contemplative insight in which the intellect, free from all images, enjoys complete quietude.”
“Watchfulness consists in freeing the heart from all thoughts, keeping it profoundly silent and still.”
“The task of wisdom is to prompt the intelligence to strict watchfulness, constancy, and spiritual contemplation.”
“Watchfulness is like Jacob’s ladder: God is at the top while the angels climb it. It rids us of everything bad, cuts out loose chatter, abuse, backbiting, and all other evil practices of this kind. Yet in doing this, not for an instant does it lose its own sweetness.”
“This is the path of true spiritual wisdom. In great watchfulness and fervent desire travel along it, keeping the lips of both the senses and the intellect silent…. Travel along it with a mind trained in understanding, and with God’s help it will teach you things you had not hoped for; it will give you knowledge, enlightenment and instruction of a kind to which your intellect was impervious.”
“We sweeten [the heart] with the sense of blessed delight when in intense desire for God we practice this attention, keenly and diligently in the mind’s workshop. Then we are eager to pursue stillness of heart simply for the sweetness and delight it produces in the soul.”
“Whoever aspires day and night to peace and stillness of intellect finds it easy to be indifferent to all material matters and so does not labor in vain.”
“If we give attention to the intellect and assiduously reestablish its activity, it will stop being neglectful and will regain its proper state and its watchfulness.”
“When the heart has acquired stillness it will perceive the heights and depths of knowledge; and the ear of the still intellect will be made to hear marvelous things from God.”
“Every monk will be uncertain about his spiritual work until he has achieved watchfulness of intellect. Either he will be ignorant of the beauty of this watchfulness or, if he is aware of it, he will fail to achieve it because of his negligence. He will resolve his uncertainty only when he has learnt to guard his intellect. This guarding is rightly called mental philosophy or the practical wisdom of the intellect. Through it one finds the way of Him who said, ‘I am the way, the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25; 14:6).”
“As has been said, the assiduous practice of watchfulness teaches a man marvelous things.”
“A ship does not go far without water; and there is no progress whatsoever in the guarding of the intellect without watchfulness.”
“If our inner self is watchful it can protect the outer self.”
“With your breathing combine watchfulness.”
Ilias the Presbyter
“During prayer alienate yourself from everything except life and breath if you want to be with the intellect alone.”
Saint Isaiah the Solitary
“Like a pilot steering a boat through the waves, he should hold to his course, guided by grace. Keeping his attention fixed within himself, he should commune with God in stillness, guarding his thoughts from distraction and his intellect from curiosity.”
Saint John of Karpathos
“A monk should at all times cultivate intense stillness.”
“You should not be surprised when those who are themselves incapable of attaining stillness ridicule the stillness that we have achieved.”
Saint. Mark the Ascetic
“Stillness helps us by making evil inoperative.”
“Of all the commandments, therefore, the most comprehensive is to love God and our neighbor. This love is made firm through abstaining from material things, and through stillness of thoughts.”
Saint Maximos the Confessor
“Perfect silence alone proclaims Him, and total and transcendent unknowing brings us into His presence.”
Nikiphoros the Monk
“A hesychast is one who strives to enshrine what is bodiless within the temple of the body, paradoxical though this may sound. A hesychast is one who says, ‘I sleep but my heart is watchful’ (Song of Songs 5:2).”
“Some of the saints have called attentiveness the guarding of the intellect others have called it custody of the heart, or watchfulness, or noetic stillness, and others something else. All these expressions indicate one and the same thing, and you should read them in this sense.”
“Through the watchfulness of the heart we consciously perceive the Spirit, who refreshes the flame of our desire for supernal blessings and warms our spiritual powers, numbed as they have been by the frost of the passions.”
“Immersed in the silence and serenity of inward peace, [the body] becomes full of a new power, a new vigor, a new spiritual strength. When the soul works hand in hand with such a body, it promptly begins to perform spiritual work, and guards in itself the immortal fruits of the noetic paradise, where the rivers of godlike intellection have their source, and where stands the tree of divine knowledge (Genesis 2:9-10), bearing the fruits of wisdom, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, long-suffering and ineffable love (Galatians 1:22). Working assiduously in this manner and guarding what it harvests, the soul goes out of the body and enters into the darkness of mystical theology. It leaves everything behind, not held back by anything belonging to the visible world; and, united with God, it ceases from toil and grief.”
“Bringing inner stillness to their thoughts, this dispassion raises them to a state of intellectual peace, making their intellect visionary and prophetic to the highest degree: visionary in matters divine, in insight into supernal realities, and in the disclosure of God’s mysteries; prophetic in matters human, destined to happen in the distant future.”
“Full of reverence and joy, and in indescribable silence, you will dwell in the divine realm of God’s blessed glory, all your senses transformed, and at the same time you will live spiritually among men like an angel in a material body.”
“Their [the hesychasts’] life is the life of angels and is hidden in God (Colossians 5:3), their progress is based upon holy stillness.”
“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, an unsleeping watchfulness, spiritual prayer, untroubled repose in the midst of great hardship and, finally, solidarity and union with God.”
In one place the saint refers to: “…the upper room of your stillness.”
“Guardianship of the hidden treasure of the Spirit consists in that state of detachment from human affairs which is properly termed stillness. When through purity of heart and joyful compunction this stillness kindles a yet fiercer longing for God’s love, it releases the soul from the bonds of the senses and impels it to embrace the life of freedom. Recalled to its natural state, the soul reorientates its powers, restoring them to their original condition.”
“It is stillness, full of wisdom and benediction, that leads us to this holy and godlike state of perfection–when, that is, it is practiced and pursued genuinely. If an apparent hesychast has not attained this eminence and perfection, his stillness is not yet this noetic and perfect stillness.”
Saint Peter of Damaskos
“Stillness, which is the basis of the soul’s purification, makes the observance of the commandments relatively painless. ‘Flee,’ it has been said, ‘keep silence, be still, for herein lie the roots of sinlessness.’”
“Let each of us seek his own soul, in stillness following the angelic way.”
“The only path leading to heaven is that of complete stillness.…As Saint. Basil puts it, ‘stillness initiates the soul’s purification.’”
“‘Devote yourself to stillness and know’ (Psalms 46:10).”
“Stillness alone engenders knowledge of God. This peace is the ‘realm’ or ‘dwelling-place of God,’ as Evagrios says, referring to the Psalter: ‘In peace is His dwelling-place’ (Ps. 76:2, Septuagint reading).”
“With humility we should strive to maintain a state of stillness, free from all distraction, knowing that no one can do us harm unless we ourselves wish for it.”
“Nothing so benefits the weak as withdrawal into stillness.”
“We must remember, too, that stillness is the highest gift of all, and that without it we cannot be purified if we are to attain the humility and spiritual knowledge necessary for the understanding of the mysteries hidden in the divine Scriptures and in all creation.”
“Stillness [is] the beginning of the soul’s purification.”
“You must purify your intellect completely through stillness and engage it ceaselessly in spiritual work. For just as the eye is attentive to sensible things and is fascinated by what it sees, so the purified intellect is attentive to intelligible realities and becomes so rapt by spiritual contemplation that it is hard to tear it away. And the more the intellect is stripped of the passions and purified through stillness, the greater the spiritual knowledge it is found worthy to receive. The intellect is perfect when it transcends knowledge of created things and is united with God: having then attained a royal dignity it no longer allows itself to be pauperized or aroused by lower desires, even if offered all the kingdoms of the world. If, therefore, you want to acquire all these virtues, be detached from every man, flee the world and sedulously follow the path of the saints.”
“The soul’s passions are allayed by stillness.”
“He who renounces the world, ranging himself with Christ and devoting himself to stillness, loves God; he guards the divine image in himself and enriches his likeness to God, receiving from Him the help of the Spirit and becoming an abode of God; and he acts righteously in God’s sight.”
“Above all, guard the intellect and be watchful.”
Saint Philotheos of Sinai
“It is very rare to find people whose intelligence is in a state of stillness. Indeed, such a state is only to be found in those who through their whole manner of life strive to attract divine grace and blessing to themselves. If, then, we seek–by guarding our intellect and by inner watchfulness–to engage in the noetic work that is the true philosophy in Christ, we must begin by exercising self-control. Watchfulness may fittingly be called a path leading both to the kingdom within us and to that which is to be; while noetic work, which trains and purifies the intellect and changes it from an impassioned state to a state of dispassion, is like a window full of light through which God looks, revealing Himself to the intellect.”
“The intellect should always be watchful. In this way it maintains its natural state and is a true guardian of the divine commandments.”
“Watchfulness cleanses the conscience and makes it lucid. Thus cleansed, it immediately shines out like a light that has been uncovered, banishing much darkness. Once this darkness has been banished through constant and genuine watchfulness, the conscience then reveals things hidden from us. He who has tasted this light will understand what I am talking about.”
“Let us go forward with the heart completely attentive and the soul fully conscious. A spiritual heaven, with sun, moon and stars, is formed in the blessed heart of one who has reached a state of watchfulness, or who strives to attain it; for such a heart, as a result of mystical contemplation and ascent, is enabled to contain within itself the uncontainable God.”
“We must always breathe God.”
Saint Symeon the New Theologian
“Our holy fathers hearkened to the Lord’s words, ‘Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, unchastity, thefts, perjuries, blasphemies; these are the things that defile a man’ (Matthew 15:19-20); and they also hearkened to Him when He enjoins us to cleanse the inside of the cup so that the outside may also be clean (Matthew 23:26). Hence they abandoned all other forms of spiritual labor and concentrated wholly on this one task of guarding the heart, convinced that through this practice they would also possess every other virtue, whereas without it no virtue could be firmly established. Some of the fathers have called this practice stillness of the heart, others attentiveness, others the guarding of the heart, others watchfulness and rebuttal, and others again the investigation of thoughts and the guarding of the intellect. But all of them alike worked the earth of their own heart, and in this way they were fed on the divine manna (Exodus 16: 15).”
“To speak generally, it is impossible to acquire all the other virtues except through watchfulness. For this reason you must pursue it more diligently than anything else, so as to learn from experience these things, unknown to others, that I am speaking to you about.”
“God asks only this of us, that our heart be purified through watchfulness. As Saint Paul says, if the root is holy, so also will the branches and the fruit be holy (Romans 11:16).”
Saint Thalassios the Libyan
“Seal your senses with stillness.”
“The person who is unaffected by the things of this world loves stillness.”
“Enclose your senses in the citadel of stillness so that they do not involve the intellect in their desires.”
“Blessed stillness gives birth to blessed children: self-control, love and pure prayer.”
Theoliptos, Metropolitan of Philadelphia
“On account of your watchfulness the grace of contemplation will descend upon you, knowledge will dwell in you by virtue of your prayer, and wisdom will repose in you because of your compunction, banishing mindless pleasure and replacing it with divine love.”
Next Chapter in The Breath of Life: Some Closing Reflections On Breath Meditation