My question over the years since I've moved here has been: With all the noise around me, how is it possible to acquire solitude and inner silence in order to focus on prayer? The answer has come slowly, and I'm honestly just beginning to formulate something solid.
Recently I've taken to reading some of the works of the servant of God, Catherine de Hueck Doherty. Catherine led a long and very interesting life, but for our purposes here it is sufficient to know that she was a Russian Orthodox who converted to Catholicism (whether Eastern or Roman Catholicism is unclear to me) and sought to share the treasures of Eastern/Russian spirituality with the West.
In her book on silence, Molchanie (the Russian word for "silence"), Catherine had this to say: "Solitude usually walks with silence, but silence does not need solitude. Silence possesses solitude in itself. He who enters the depths of God's heart leaves solitude at his door, because God envelops him. Solitude is a way to silence... Solitude prepares a person for silence." (emphasis mine)
This is very consistent with writings of the Fathers on solitude and silence, but it put the matter in terms that I found rather applicable to our modern urban and suburban situation. We may be constantly surrounded by noise and people, but that does not mean that we cannot possess inner silence, stillness, or as they call it in Greek hesychia.
As noted by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware in his wonderful work The Inner Kingdom, there are several ever-deepening levels to hesychia, starting with the most exterior and working their way ever inward. According to him, and according to the writings of St. Theophan the Recluse, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov, and others, the external trappings of hesychia are primarily tools to achieve inner stillness. They are not indispensable. What is indispensable for the spiritual life is that we acquire inner silence or stillness - that stillness where all thoughts cease and we are able to focus on God in our hearts, standing there attentively before Him. How do we do this? Through the Jesus Prayer or any other short prayer, so long as we focus our attention on God.
In the movie The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer an Ukrainian Orthodox nun tells us that we ought to pray as though God is standing right next to us. My own mother, when praying the family rosary, used to tell us to pray as though we were standing before the Blessed Mother or the throne of God. Other Church Fathers encourage us to cry out to God as a drowning person cries out ceaselessly for help until help arrives. These are all ways of saying the same thing; calling out to God with our mind in our heart, and standing attentively before Him there.
It is only when we learn to draw our minds into our hearts, and to stand there attentively before God that the various thoughts that jostle around in our minds will begin to settle. No amount of solitude can give us that inner silence. I am reminded of a story where an angel appeared to St. Antony of the Desert and revealed to him that there was a doctor living in the middle of a city who had acquired the same level of holiness that Antony himself had. I'm reminded also of a Coptic monk in The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer who said that despite the fact that he spent months and months alone in a cave in complete solitude, that his mind would be so busy that he might as well be in New York City.
All of these sainted people say that in order to quiet our hearts and gain inner silence, it is not necessary to withdraw into complete solitude. What is necessary is that we acquire the habit of inner prayer. This is done only through hard work and absolute reliance on God's grace. One saint, I believe it was Thomas Aquinas, said that we should work as though everything relied on us, but pray as though everything relied on God. Ultimate silence/stillness is a gift from God that cannot be acquired through our own efforts, as St. Theophan says. But that gift is only given to those who show sincere desire for it. This is where the work of prayer comes in.
So let us prayer the Jesus Prayer unceasingly, persevering even during difficult times. Only then will our minds and hearts be stilled from all distraction and all the thoughts that jostle around within us. Only then can we "lay aside all earthly cares," as we sing in the Divine Liturgy, "that we may welcome the King of all... Alelluia!"