Seeking the Sacred - Silence & Solitude
1 Kings 19:11-15a
[The voice of the Lord] said [to Elijah] “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord 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. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…”
There is an obvious irony involved in preaching about silence. It would be counter-productive to spend a lot of time talking about the importance of being quiet. So I’ll be succinct with a couple points and then I’d like to talk briefly about my experience with silence a couple weeks ago.
Most cultures, be they ancient or modern, tend to deemphasize the importance of silence. Esteem and power is most often claimed by the most vociferous of the population. The loud ones get attention paid to them. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as the saying goes.
Quiet people, on the other hand, are often viewed as subservient, timid, disengaged, and weak. The adjective most closely associated with silence is “awkward” – as in, awkward silence.
As a word of encouragement for all the quiet people out there, take heart in this helpful reminder from Susan Cain’s incredible book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. She writes, “There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”
Again, the concept of equating loudness with power spans history. Privileging loudness is evident in scripture also. After all, it is a loud noise that begins creation as we know it. Whether you understand it the “Big Bang” or the voice of God speaking creation into being, a loud noise is involved. When God speaks in scripture it is often with gusto, be it a burning bush, thunder, or a talking donkey.
One of the beautiful ideas presented in this story from 1 Kings, however, is the idea that God is present in sheer silence. You might be familiar with the translation from this story as “a still small voice”; however, it is more accurate to translate it as “sheer silence.”
God is able to do anything, but I imagine one of the hardest things for God to do is to speak in silence to people who prize loudness. People who lack awareness of God’s nature need flashing signs and loud trumpets to accompany God’s word or else they would miss it. A more spiritually mature person is already attuned to God’s nature, which means God doesn’t have to try as hard to communicate with that person; it simply becomes second nature. Spiritual maturity requires a spirit of discernment. And it’s very hard to spend time discerning God’s will when you’re being bombarded with noise or being loud yourself.
If you are curious and would like to know more check out the book I mentioned earlier, called Quiet, and also visit the chapter about silence in The Soul’s Slow Ripening. Now, however, I want to share my recent experience with silence.
I am participating in a 2-year certificate program in Christian spiritual formation. A couple weeks ago I was in Mundelein, Illinois for a week-long residency with each day packed with lectures, worship, and rich conversation. Each residency concludes with a 24-hr silent retreat. We surrender our cell phones and are left to our own devices as to how we spend our time, so long as it is in silence.
This was my second 24-hour silent retreat and I approached it with no anxiety nor any plans. A few hours in I decided to take a leisurely 2.5 mile walk around the lake on campus of the seminary.
Not long into my walk I passed by another retreat participant. I decided at that point that I would spend my silent walk praying for each person whom I passed on the trail. I made a sign of prayer to her to indicate I saw her and was including her in my prayers.
With her in mind, my attention turned to dead logs scattered throughout the woods and I recalled how she had shared her despair at the recent loss of a dear friend. I prayed that she would be reminded that God is the Lord of Resurrection and that God refuses to let death have the last word. I prayed for the new life that was at work in that decaying log.
I walked by another colleague and was struck by her smiling response. I prayed for her and her work as a spiritual director. I gave thanks to God that she is so aware of and infused with the goodness of God that she is able to share it with people looking for spiritual companionship, comfort, and hope.
I passed by another colleague and was led to pray about a somewhat difficult conversation we had earlier about homosexuality. We were coming from different perspectives and of course had not changed one another's minds. Something she said had crept under my skin and kept irritating me. I prayed for grace in difficult conversations, not just with her but others as well. I should add that our first night as a group we were asked to lay an object on the altar that symbolized our current relationship with God. This person brought in a piece of lichen (the algae/fungi symbiotic organism) to symbolize how she felt God was working in her to create a new thing. At some point during the walk I realized that I had stopped praying for her and was back to letting my monkey mind take me from random topic to random topic. Then I spotted a piece of lichen right in the middle of my path. It immediately brought her back to my mind and I returned to pray for her. This happened twice more along the walk.
I then walked by another participant and was reminded of his incredible gesture of hospitality when he learned that I would be traveling by his home in England this summer. Despite being practically a complete stranger, he immediately told me how we must come to his house and eat together and have our kids play together and get the inside experience of his hometown.
As I walked I decided to pay attention to all my senses, not just the physical sensation of being very cold, which my fingers and ears were screaming at me. I wondered if there was anything to smell so I took a deep inhale through the nose and was immediately met with the burning sensation of cold air as it enters the lungs. I was reminded of the Holy Spirit, so often portrayed as a rushing wind; so often portrayed as a burning fire. I had not previously noticed how intertwined the two seeming-opposite dynamics of wind and fire are. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would continue to fill me with grace, faith, life and love...even when the initial experience seems painful.
Walking further I noticed that I was alone. I hadn't seen anyone in a while. I started to pray for myself, letting God's spirit shine like light from a candle on the parts of my soul that I would prefer to stay hidden.
As I neared the last bend in the road and the residence hall came into view I thought about how my time at the residency was coming to an end and that I would soon return to my family, friends, and family of faith at Cross of Grace. I shifted my prayer to the ministry that God is doing here among us.
While I haven’t had a 24-hour silent retreat since returning, I do sense that the prayerful attentiveness to life and my fellow human beings that characterized that walk has stayed with me. That walk was a time of profound relationship intimacy with God that I will cherish and that will inform my regular spiritual practices. It was a reminder that God is available to me at any moment, especially when I eliminate the noisy distractions in our lives.