Monday, June 4, 2012

Stillness is a Prerequisite for Social Action

Often I mistakenly think that my primary effort should be directed toward social activity through some kind of service to society when my most important task is something quite different.

Saint Isaac the Syrian says,
Do not compare those who work signs and wonders and mighty acts in the world with those who practice stillness and knowledge. Love the idleness of stillness above providing for the world's starving and the conversion of a multitude of heathen to the worship of God.
He is advising us to put a greater emphasis on an inner stillness rather than an active external life. How many of us stretch our lives so thin that we are stressed trying to balance family and social obligations. the result is that we live in stress and our minds are ever distracted by the multitude of our activities. In this kind of life where is the place for communion with God? This is why Saint Isaac puts such a high priority on stillness. It comes before and above providing for the starving and the conversion of heathen to God.

He continues,
It is better for you to free yourself from the shackle of sin than to free slaves from their slavery. It is better for you to make peace with your soul, causing concord to reign over the trinity within you (I mean, the body, the soul, and spirit), than by your teaching to bring peace among men at variance.
If we do not first work on the purification of our soul we will never have the peace of mind to know God and to truly know His will for us. If we only focus on freeing slaves, on undoing some other infringement on basic human rights, and we have sin in our hearts, our efforts will be in vane. It is only with peace in our soul, harmony between body, soul and spirit that we can act with the love that God has in mind for us.

He continues quoting Saint Gregory the Theologian,
For as Gregory the Theologian says, "It is a good thing to speak concerning the things of God for God's sake, but it is better for a man to make himself pure for God" (Orations 3, On Flight, 12).
All these efforts that we think need our attention to rid the world of evil doing are good, but there is something that is better. We must cleanse our inner being, purify our soul, so we can partcipatte in the divine union with God. From this we will become the kind of servants of God He intended for us to become. In this way we will receive His saving grace.

Saint Isaac says more,
Love uncouthness of speech joined with knowledge from inner experience more than to gush forth rivers of Instruction from the keenness of your intellect and from a deposit of hearsay and writings of ink. It is more profitable for you to attend to raising up unto activity of your cogitations concerning God the deadness of your soul due to the passions, that it is to resurrect the dead.
Its not our elegance of speech that is important but the knowledge we can gain from an inner experience of God. The Fathers tell us that it is from this that comes true wisdom. Often our own cleverness sounds good, our projects to do good well intended, but in the end they spreads ideas that mislead others or cause even greater strife. It is better, as Saint Isaac tells us, to link our minds with a contemplation of the kingdom of God, to practice stillness. This is even better than to "resurrect the dead."

I ask for myself, let me take from this bit of wisdom from a great Saint of our Church, to guide me, helping me put my focus on gaining stillness in my mind and heart with a constant focus on God, seeking His education.  Let it help me set aside my own egocentric notions that come from my own intellectual activity and self-contrived social good works. Let me let my works come naturally from a soul that has been purified along with a will that is united with the will of God. Let me learn to practice stillness.

Source: Homily 4, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, p 144-5.


  1. This amazing! Now, I'm trying to reconcile this with the sense that the Lord and the Apostles were so evangelistic. How should I understand this?

  2. They were enlightened, holy people and given the gift of evangelizing.

  3. Surely it is not an either/or. The title says Stillness is a prerequisite. We try to major on the social action and neglect the stillness and therefore work with no strength and get stressed. Stillness and silence before God means that we do His will not ours.

  4. Fr, when I seek inner stillness in prayer what do I seek? Do I seek some type of meditative trance or a sensation of tranquility? Or, do I merely seek for my mind to be free of chaotic and vain thoughts and have the Jesus prayer as my number one focus?

  5. Seek forgiveness from God. Concentrate on the words of the prayer with sincerity. One should not seek some pleasurable state but approach God with a contrite heart. So that last sentence you wrote is most appropriate.

  6. Yes, Patricia, do do the work of God we must first rid ourselves of all our eco-centric motives. Social action without stillness can lead to more problems as is easily seen in the numerous social action organizations that abound headed by individuals who often command hugh salaries. Good works according to the virtues comes as a result of our union with God. seek this first then you work will become clear.

  7. Fr. Charles, your blog continues to be incredibly profound, incredibly Orthodox. Thank you for your witness to us English-speaking Orthodox Christians, unworthy though we are of that name.

    May I ask, is your patron saint Hieromartyr Charalambos? We named our son Robert and gave him that saint.

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  9. Yes, my patron saint is Haralambos. May he protect and guide both of us.

  10. Am reading St. Isaac and love his way with words, his insight, and am simply amazed at the beauty of it - especially in English translation... that this comes through.

    Yet it seems to me that the priority is right, but the Holy Spirit ultimately leads the heart toward actions for others that those of us in the world - not bound to place as monastics were - are charged to take up for the benefit not just of ourselves, but those with us. In this, we see the prospect of another changed by new hope - and this strengthens us, but this happens only if those we seek to help see in us that our efforts to help them are not born of clouded motivations. This is a tall order. Otherwise, we simply sustain each other for another day, and perhaps a better effort when our hearts might be more transparent (I think he uses the words limpid purity). And yet, it seems that sustenance and confidence in the Lord for another day is not without considerable value.

  11. I have been successful in so many aspects of life and have accomplished much. I know that I could do so much more if I want to, but for the most part I find myself thinking ‘I don’t want to”.
    I put it down to thoroughly enjoying the journey of life, and not fixating on one destination. I want to (and have) experienced so much that I resist pursuing one goal with any passion or enthusiasm. Living MY life is my passion, and perhaps that is where I am most successful.

  12. The question we should always be asking is, what is God's will. With stillness we will then be open to His will and can then align our will with His without effort. When this occures our goal becomes his goal and we live a life in union with Him, now and forever.


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