At the forefront of my mind today is the week just passed: Orthodox Clean Week. Eastern Orthodox Christians began our Lenten pilgrimage on Monday, Clean Monday, the day on which we begin our efforts to purify and be purified so that we may be found worthy to see the light of Christ’s Resurrection at Pascha, at Easter. Here at St. Vladimir’s we experience this effort to “clean” ourselves with a two day, silent retreat beginning on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday (the Sunday that precedes the start of Lent) and ending after Great Compline on Clean Tuesday evening. Those of you who know me know that remaining in silence for any extended period of time is almost unthinkable. Sure, I do genuinely love quiet, whether in a library or church. But the prospect of two days in absolute silence frightened the living daylights out of me. Now, I should qualify this by saying that we do speak, or rather, sing quite a bit over the days of the retreat as we have a full cycle of services during those two days: Matins (with Lenten canon); 1st, 3rd, 6th, and 9th hour; Typika, Vespers, and finally Great Compline with the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete (more on him later). Otherwise, there was to be no talking. Not even to, “pass the salt” at dinner. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t speak at all, I slipped a few times. But the silence did get to me, I’ve never been silent for so long in my life.
Silence is scary. Silence is scary because silence leaves us with our thoughts, it leaves us with ourselves. There’s no distracting ourselves by talking about the basketball game to others, there’s no distracting ourselves from those thoughts that, in a very real way, confront us with who we are. I know that I tried to reduce the number of possible distractions; I turned off my phone and my computer for the retreat. I still tried to distract myself with books, to get lost in what Evagrius of Ponticus was saying about prayer, or what Fortescue says about when the deacon is to genuflect. But at the end of the day, there is no escaping silence.
What ended up happening was the gaining of a profound sense of how much I need other people in my life, and in them, God. Since my last post two years ago, I’ve been tempted to become self-reliant. I don’t mean self-reliant in a, “I can do my own laundry and balance my checkbook” sort of way, but rather in a rejection of the need for God and other people. Things start going well and I’m tempted to pat myself on the back, instead of recognizing the hand of God in my life and the care he gives. If things start going badly I find myself demanding of the Most High, “why did you let this happen!?” when I should have been saying, “I thank Thee for this opportunity to know Thee in the midst of these trials.” I decide to have a pity party. And while my pity parties have great food and impeccable musical selections, they’re still a party of one.
No man is an island and no man is meant to live a life alone and isolated. “In my distress I cried unto the Lord,” the psalmist says (Ps 18:6). He cried to another, he cried to God. He recognized the need to go outside of himself to find what he needed in his time of sorrow. Maybe he spent some time in silence, maybe he spent a day in silence. And when he finally heard his thoughts; when he couldn’t run away from what was inside him, and the pain was became too much… he cried out and said, “Lord, save me for I perish!” He broke the silence, not to distract himself, but to focus himself on what would really help him.
In my silence during the retreat I felt the oppressiveness of that quiet. I experienced the loudness of that silence. I saw each thought clearly as it danced through my head. And I was reminded, once again, of just how much I need to refocus my life towards Christ in this Great Lent. And this is cause to be very joyful.