Stillness and Wonder

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Saint Isaac the Syrian was witness in the Spirit to the Spirit’s prayer of stillness and wonder which lies at the heart of Orthodox Christian Hesychasm to this day.  He gives the name ‘spiritual prayer’ to the prayer of the Holy Spirit in the heart, a stillness of heart which plunges the heart into awestruck wonder, an experience of the light of glory which transcends not only verbal prayer but pure prayer as well.  Prayer has to do with the soul and its movements, but the spiritual prayer of stillness has to do with the Spirit’s awareness of deifying presence in stillness.  Wonder silences the soul by awakening the heart to wisdom, wisdom that beholds the glory of God in the stillness of ineffable silence.  Stillness and prayer of the Spirit in the heart are two ways of referring to the experience of ineffable glory that inspires and sustains Hesychasm in elders and saints.  Pure prayer is undistracted prayer, but for Saint Isaac, stillness arises beyond all prayer because it is the Spirit that prays this prayer of stillness in us, silencing our prayers by striking us dumb with awe and wonder.  It is the Spirit that opens the eye of the heart to spiritual vision (theoria), turning the heart’s vision into ‘vision beyond vision’ (metanoesis) through deep turning (metanoia).  It is a knowing beyond knowing, a prayer beyond prayer, a stillness beyond silence that is strictly ineffable but which elders indicate with the help of apophatic negation and a negation of negation which doubles back to negate every negation.

‘Dazzling darkness’ (lampros gnophos) is an example of this sort of apophatic negation which doubles back to negate its own negation, calling its darkness ‘dazzling’ due to excess of uncreated light, a phrase passed on by Saint Gregory of Nyssa in his ‘Life of Moses’ (1:377) to Saint Denys the Areopagite and his ‘Mystical Theology.’  Saint Isaac’s prayer of stillness beyond prayer is a state of ‘dazzling darkness,’ of awe-struck wonder in which wisdom beholds glory as an ecstatic awareness beholding uncreated presence.  It is the ineffable mystery of the Bridal Chamber, which is hidden in the Holiest of Holy depths within the Holy of Holies.  Saint Isaac acknowledges that language is stretched way beyond itself when elders try to speak of these mysteries.  He refers to union in the Spirit as a state of spiritual drunkenness like the state of the disciples at Pentecost or on Mount Tabor, an ineffable inebriation of mind and heart that turns prayer inside out and outside in.  The Spirit prays unceasingly in the heart not with prayers like our verbal prayers, but ineffably as the Spirit prays, leaving the heart plunged in wonder and stillness.  Saint Isaac calls this ineffable prayer an unknowing beyond all knowledge, following in the footsteps of the ‘mystical theology’ of Abba Evagrius and Saint Denys.

Saint Isaac’s so-called ‘spiritual prayer,’ is the Spirit’s prayer, transcending our prayer, which wisdom beholds as the Spirit’s prayer of glorification in the Age to Come.  It is a state of ineffable awareness which beholds the ineffable presence of glory in the Kingdom to come.  It remains hidden to all temporal perception caught between time past and time future, conditioned by linear temporality.  But wisdom is awake to the timeless glory of the Age to Come, always already present as ineffable awareness of ineffable presence, uncreated witness to the timeless glory that glorifies the saints.  Saint Isaac was an elder who imparted wisdom to countless elders through his homilies, ensuring that wisdom faithfully shepherded saints on the path of glorification.  Wisdom, for desert elders, is the spiritual state (-dom) of vision (wis-) that sees the oneness in God of seer and seen, of awareness and presence, the oneness of uncreated energies in God, distinct from essence.  Saint Isaac does not confuse spiritual vision (theoria), which is grace from God, with intuition of the nature of things, which is a natural human capacity.  But he does say that spiritual vision is given to some solitaries because it unites them with the spiritual vision of angels, with whom they experience communion in their solitude.  Saint Isaac was aware of the supporting presence of the celestial hierarchy in his work as elder to other desert elders.  He tells us there are many kinds of spiritual vision, revelations, insights, noetic visions and illuminations, but none exclusively define glorification or usurp God in God’s God-centred glorification of God.  Stillness awakens wisdom to wonder and wonder to wisdom, when the unceasing prayer of the Spirit in the heart restores glory to the Father through the Son.