Ignatius of Antioch

This is another essay that I wrote a few years ago, shortly before I became Orthodox, and never got to publishing. I thought that it may be worth publishing it here as it relates to things that I also keep coming across here and so have expanded and updated it slightly in the hope that it may be helpful.  Of course, there is more that can be said on related matters if I ever get to it…

A few years ago, while I was still in the Netherlands, I became aware of a certain media interest in monasticism. Despite their declining numbers and the secularization of society, monasteries continued to fascinate people and had even become rather fashionable destinations for those in search of some sort of inner peace.

What struck me then about this phenomenon was that it was fundamentally redefining monasticism. I read an article that managed to explain the meaning of monasticism for a broad public without once mentioning God or Christ. Instead, it told us that monastics withdraw from society in order to search for silence, for the heart of their life is concerned with what happens in this silence.

That silence is important for the monastic life is indisputable. But for a concept such as “silence” to come to define monasticism, even to the point of replacing any reference to God, is at the very least rather problematic. For Saint Benedict, the necessary condition for becoming a monk was that one truly sought God. Silence can be an important means by which we seek God, but we also need to ask ourselves what silence means. Is silence something neutral? How and with what is silence filled? What is the relationship between word and silence? Is the silence of a Christian monastery different to that of a Buddhist monastery? And what is it that actually happens in the silence?

Since coming back to South Africa, I have become aware that there is a similar dynamic at work among many people who are seeking after “spirituality” – something that I keep hoping to write more about. All too often I have seen references to retreats, courses, groups, and “inspirational” quotes (I could name names but I won’t) that originate in a Christian context but would seem to replace any specifically Christian content with a reference to silence, or solitude, or the absolute. An experience of this silence is what we are told that we need to seek, often by contrasting it to dogma which is invariably viewed in negative terms. But, once more, what is this silence? What is its relationship to Christian tradition and to dogma? (more…)

Given a thorough-going faith and love for Jesus Christ, there is nothing in all this that will not be obvious to you; for life begins and ends with these two qualities. Faith is the beginning, and love is the end; and the union of the two together is God. All that makes for a soul’s perfection follows in their train, for nobody who professes faith will commit sin, and nobody who possesses love can feel hatred. As the tree is known by its fruits, so they who claim to belong to Christ are known by their actions; for this work of ours does not consist in just making professions, but in a faith that is both practical and lasting.


Indeed, it is better to keep quiet and be, than to make fluent professions and not be. No doubt it is a fine thing to instruct others, but only if the speaker practices what he preaches. One such Teacher there is: He who spake the word, and it was done; [Ps 33,9] and what He achieved even by his silences was well worthy of the Father. A man who has truly mastered the utterances of Jesus will also be able to apprehend His silence, and thus reach full spiritual maturity, so that his own words have the force of actions and his silences the significance of speech. Nothing is hidden from the Lord; even our most secret thoughts are ever present to Him. Whatever we do, then, let it be done as though He Himself were dwelling within us, we being as it were His temples and He within us as their God. For in fact, that is literally the case; and in proportion as we rightly love Him, so it will become clear to our eyes.


Ignatius of Antioch, The Epistle to the Ephesians, 14-15, in Early Christian Writings. The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Maxwell Staniforth (Middlesex, Penguin, 1968) 79-80.


Ignatius seems to somehow have lodged himself firmly in my heart. It’s rather strange, really, as there are things that he says that tend to make me feel a bit hesitant, or at least vaguely uncomfortable, like his burning desire for martyrdom and his emphasis on the hierarchy, to say nothing about his views on heretics. This is certainly no polite, liberal Christianity! Yet his words somehow speak with a passion that transcend the historical and cultural gaps between us and even manage to rebuke my squeamishness.

 I love what he says here about the one who has truly mastered the words of Jesus being able to hear his silence. Andrew Louth picks up on that in Discerning the Mystery and I shall come back to it again. The relationship between discourse and silence has always intrigued me, and especially the ability of language to lead us to that point where it breaks down and where we are confronted with the One who is beyond all language.

Ignatius’ words on silence could lead one to think that he was talking about a sort of gnostic secret knowledge, whereas nothing could be less true. His major concern was to counter the gnostic-orientated tendencies of the Docetists who denied the reality of the Incarnation of Christ and, with it, the reality of God’s working in history, including its concrete manifestation in the Church. Silence and speech go together. To seek “mysticism” apart from the concrete historical mediations of the tradition is ultimately illusory. For what the Gospel offers us – and challenges us to grow into – is not a disincarnated mysticism, nor a purely intellectual knowledge, but rather a faith that is both knowledge and love and which translates into a life, a life lived in communion not only with God but also with others, a life where silence, speech and action have become one.