Embracing Stillness

Elissa Bjeletich | 01 September 2020

Lately I’ve been noticing that when we’re doing our family prayers, or when we’re in church, my eight year old may be standing quietly, may even be saying the words — but it doesn’t seem like she’s really praying. It’s hard to help kids make that transition. We begin by just trying to get them to be physically present at prayers, and then we work on not distracting other people or not being crazy during prayer time — but then at some point, we have to move from managing their outward behavior to developing something interior, a real prayer life.

And that’s really the heart of raising children in the faith. We begin by role modeling the faith, and by bringing them along with us. We show them how to behave in church, how to receive holy communion, how to stand nicely and say the Creed. Showing children how to outwardly ‘do’ Orthodoxy is the first job, but the real trick is helping them to take the faith into their interior lives, inviting a transformation of their hearts. We will spend years helping them transition from participating in OUR faith, to owning and living out their OWN faith.

It begins, I think, with teaching them how to pray. That shift from standing nicely and saying words to really opening our hearts to God, might be the first way that we really hand them their own faith. It’s all a process: we offer an example and we guide them in the outward motions — but if we stop there, at simply bringing them to liturgy and explaining what everything means, then we are falling short. Our services are rife with meaning, and it is wonderful to open that up to them, but we must do more than fill their heads with information. Somehow, we must help them or inspire them to open up their hearts, so that the activity of the faith becomes an interior process and a true love offering.

It’s intimidating when you think about it that way, but of course, that’s really our project, as we hope to raise saints. Somehow, we want the seeds we plant to take root and have a life of their own, independent even from our lives.

Some of my five daughters are getting pretty old. I don’t really feel old enough to be the mother of teenagers, but on the other hand, I feel like I’ve been mothering them forever, for longer even than their sixteen or fewer years.

In my house, we have one who is just entering kindergarten, but we also have some who are looking at colleges and thinking about careers. It does go by fast, and the years that we have in between, as they are growing and exploring here in our houses, are shorter than we may think they’ll be.

Their lives, like ours, will be a long walk. Childhood is the important beginning, in which they learn what love looks like. God is love, and He is our beloved Father, and as parents, we represent Him in our homes. We are stewards, entrusted to raise His children, and to lead them to Him.

On the one hand, this does mean that we are here to teach them, but it also means that we are here to love them. Sometimes love is quiet. Love cannot always be lecturing and explaining; often love is just cuddling on the couch on a rainy day, or working side by side on a quiet project. Indeed, we often feel love more intensely when we’re still — aren’t more aware of our love for our children when we sit beside them as they sleep, or when we sit quietly and hold them? Those are the moments when our hearts feel like they might burst.

God is love, and just as we feel love in the stillness, we find God in the stillness — the Psalm says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Be still.

I love to tell my kids about the time when Elias or Elijah was dejected, and hiding out in a cave:

Behold, the word of the Lord came to him and said to him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” And Elijah said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord Almighty since the children of Israel have forsaken You. They tore down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they seek to take my life.” Then He replied, “Go out tomorrow and stand on the mountain before the Lord; and behold, the Lord will pass by, and before the Lord, a great and powerful wind will be rending the mountains and shattering the rocks; but the Lord will not be in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord will not be in the earthquake. After the earthquake, there will be a fire, but the Lord will not be in the fire. After the fire, there will be a sound of a gentle breeze, and the Lord will be there.”  (3 Kingdoms 19:9-12 OSB, or 1 Kings 19:9-12)

Poor Elijah, he and his fellow prophets had done their best to bring the people of Israel back to God — but they were hard of heart and stiff-necked, and they wouldn’t worship God. They tore down his altars and killed His prophets, even as Elijah performed miracles among them. We can imagine him, dejected in that cave. And who comes, but the Word of the Lord? The Son of God, right here in the Old Testament, speaking with his sorrowful servant. This just a voice, and it promises that soon, the Lord will pass by Elijah, so that he can experience him more directly. He won’t be in the wind or in the earthquake or in the fire; but the Lord will be there in the gentle breeze.

We often want God to speak to us, we hope that He’ll boom out some instructions or encouragement — blinking neon lights that we cannot miss, an ear-splitting declaration that we are His faithful servants and we’re on the right path.

But He’s not like that. He’s in the gentle breeze. And over the years, as we offer ourselves up in prayer, sometimes we feel like we hear something in the breeze, like we get a sense that God or our angel wanted us to know something or to do something, and it just kind of came to us, ever so gently when we were quiet and prayerful. More often than not, that’s how God talks to us, how He inspires us. Inspire comes from the same root as respire: inspiration and respiration are both about breathing. God breathes life into us, at our creation and throughout our lives, breathing life in little tiny breaths, sweet gentle breezes.

If we are running here and there, flustered over whether the house is clean or whether a pair of lost shoes will make us late to soccer, we might not hear it. We have to make time to listen.

Love can be felt in the stillness. Taking time to cuddle with our kids — or perhaps if they are older and don’t want to cuddle, maybe just sitting beside them and listening to them, being present with them. You know, present. No cell phones, no email, no television. Just present and quiet and available to listen. We can express our love that way for our children, and they can learn to comfortable being loved in the stillness, and sitting in the stillness. Perhaps this is the best way we can prepare them to receive our Lord in the gentle breeze.

Parents, we talk too much. We lecture all the time, even though St. Porphyrios told us not to. We create noise, and the world around us creates noise. This modern, Western culture is every more frantic and loud. Perhaps the world that greets our children will be even more frenetic yet. There is too much input, we suffer information overload, sensory overloads.

But God is in the stillness, so it’s our job to give our kids enough stillness that they can feel at home there, and to help them value that stillness and protect it in their own lives.

There is a beautiful passage on stillness from St. Paisios:

The elder said: “And by itself stillness is a mystical prayer and aids greatly in prayer, like the unceasing breath of a person.

Stillness (far from the world) very quickly brings also interior stillness in the soul with ascesis and continual prayer. Then the person is not disturbed by exterior disquiet, because in essence only the body is found on earth but the mind is found in Heaven.”

By itself, stillness is a mystical prayer and aids greatly in prayer. If we want our children to pray, and to really mean their prayers, we should lead them first to stillness.

Now St. Paisios may well be discussing a truly advanced kind of interior stillness, but it must begin with outer stillness. As we raise our children, we should give them the gift of stillness, helping them to feel comfortable and loved in the quiet. As they grow older, we’ll teach them to do their own prayers in addition to the family prayers, and we’ll help them see that the key component of those prayers might be stillness, so that they can hear their own breath and begin to hear God’s.

Will your four year old be a great hesychast? Probably not, at age 4. Children are loud, and they must be allowed to run and play and be joyful. But there are times when they are ready for some quiet, and we should watch for those times, and take advantage of them. We should sit quietly beside them, rubbing their feet or snuggling them close, so that they know they are loved, and so that they learn to look for love that shows itself like a gentle breeze.

Over the years, we’ll show them that prayer can be quiet, that we make the distractions of the world fade away to find some respite, and there in Elijah’s cave, we sit with the word of the Lord, and we come to know Him. The Lord is not an idea to understand, but a person to know, and He comes in the quiet.

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