The Sound of Sheer Silence

soundofsilenceNow there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.   — 1 Kings 19:11b-13a

Human beings seem to have a kind of natural attraction to power — both the kind of power that is inherent in being able to destroy something or force someone else to do what you want, and the kind of power inherent in both a well-articulated and delivered speech and in an angry rant.  The stories that gain traction in our culture (seen in movies and television shows, for example) are often stories that radiate power as good and evil collide.  The politicians and other sorts of leaders who gain traction in our culture tend to be those who who can rant with power.  Power is currency.   Those who have it want to keep it, and often to have more, and those who don’t want it try to figure out how to get it.

The Christian tradition is not immune to this fascination with power.  Church leadership has historically been very concerned with power.  And, we have imagined God as being the Most Powerful.   The biblical narratives that seek to introduce us to God are often stories of power:  God creating, God destroying, God punishing, God healing.  Religious people have loved these stories of the All Powerful God for centuries, and they reenforce the image of God we often carry with us — of God as the ultimate power-broker, who can do anything and everything.   We often find ourselves wondering about the ways God chooses to use this power — or to not use it — but we seldom seem to question God’s all-powerfulness.

In the midst of these stories of God’s power, then, we have this little scene quoted above, from the First Book of Kings.   It features the prophet Elijah, the “original prophet”, one might say, and one who occupies a special place in the Jewish tradition.  Leading up to this scene, Elijah has gotten fed up with the people of Israel, and has run away, believing that there is nothing to be gained by continuing his prophetic ministry.  He hides out in a cave. In the midst of Elijah’s crisis, God comes to him.   And that brings us to this scene, in which God’s “arrival” is narrated.  There is a list in this narrative of a series of powerful things that one might associate with God:  an immensely strong wind, an earthquake, and a great fire.  But, the story tells us, God was not in any of these things.  Instead, God showed up in the “sound of sheer silence.”

What a different image of God this is compared with the one we seem mostly to carry with us.  The sound of sheer silence suggests a number of things to me.  First, it suggests that silence is not an absence, but a presence.  We don’t normally think of silence as having a sound — instead, we think of it as an absence of sound.  But this text suggests that silence does have a sound.  That is, it has a quality of presence.  It is capable of carrying something to us.  There is something in silence to be discovered.  Second, this silence seems foundational to me.  Before there was anything, there was silence.  The biblical metaphor of creation is of God speaking things into being.  If you think about it, silence is like a canvass for speech — and for music, and for all other sounds.  Silence, then, is the foundation for everything.  And if silence is, in fact, not an absence but a presence — a bearer of the Divine Presence — then it becomes the foundation of creation itself.  Silence appears to be passive, but this text suggests that it has a power of its own — a power that, indeed, enables everything that is.

Mystics within the Christian tradition — and, indeed, within all the world’s spiritual traditions — have long appreciated the power of silence, and its capacity for connecting us  with God.  By plumbing the depths of silence through various spiritual practices, mystics the world over have found something profound and rich within it.  They have found in it the very sort of foundational, enabling power that this text seems to point us toward.

When we look at God’s power from the perspective of this sort of silence, it seems to me that it is revealed as a power that gives rise to life itself, as a power that seeks to anchor that life in the life of God, as the powerful foundation upon which each of us stands, whether we are aware of it or not.  And what the mystics and spiritual explorers down through the ages have tried to tell us is that when we are able to touch this power, we find ourselves drawn more deeply into the divine life.   As Christians, we would speak of this as encountering the Risen Life of Christ.  These same explorers have also spoken about how transformational these encounters are, particularly when we adopt spiritual practices that allow us to regularly encounter God in the way Elijah did — in the sound of silence.

Unfortunately, our modern lives are quite noisy.   As you think about your typical day, how much room for the sound of silence do you have?  Are there moments when you are really able to listen to the silence, to touch its power, and to encounter the divine life that pulses within it?  For most of us, I suspect that there are not very many such moments from day to day.  That means, of course, that we must intentionally create spaces for ourselves when we can listen to the silence.  Sometimes, that might look like it did for Elijah:  going off to a place apart, away from the noise of our lives.  But most of us can’t, of course, do that very often.  So we must look to create smaller spaces in the dailiness of our lives where we can meet God in the silence that is our life’s foundation.

As we create such spaces for ourselves, we might find that the silence is a little disconcerting.   Part to that will be because we not accustomed to spending much time in silence.  But part of that may be that there is some part of ourselves that knows that the silence is powerful, and not being familiar with that power, there is a sense of being unsettled.   In those moments, we should remind ourselves that this sacred silence is where we came from, and it is really the “place” in which we live and move and have our being.  It is the canvass upon which our life is painted.  It is, indeed, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.   If we allow ourselves to sink into it, and it to sink into us, we shall be anchored more and more in God.


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