Sheer Silence


Daily Office Readings for January 3, 2020:


AM Psalm 68; PM Psalm 72

1 Kings 19:9-18; Eph. 4:17-32; John 6:15-27


Today, our reading from 1 Kings continues on with our story of Elijah on the run, his life in danger.  In yesterday’s segment, Elijah stops under the shade of a broom tree to rest, exhausted, displaying a sentiment I suspect many of us have had from time to time:  “Oh, God, just kill me now.” Then he crashed into the abyss of the sleep of exhaustion–but while he was asleep, an angel touched him and baked him a bit of bread on hot stones and left him a jar of water.  It was just enough to get him up and moving, and move he did–for forty days and nights on Mt. Horeb. He has just spent the night in a cave, when we catch up to him in today’s segment.


What’s interesting is how God self-reveals.  Although some of the usual vehicles we associate with the appearance of God are in the story (big wind, an earthquake, and fire), the author is quick to point out that the presence of God was not in these phenomena.  God is present in the “sheer silence” that remains after the fire.


How many of us have ever really heard sheer silence?  My bet is, it’s a pretty small percentage of us, in a world teeming with noise.  Amazingly, outdoor girl that I am, I never heard it myself until I was in my late 20’s, and to this day, its “sound” (if you can call the lack of sound, a “sound”) still haunts me.


I was driving into Yellowstone, on the first day the north entrance had opened for the summer in 1988, and early in the trip I’d wondered if I’d made a mistake in trying it–I saw NO cars for miles, literally the only car on the road for over an hour.  Some of the drifts that had been plowed to open the road were seven feet high.I’d pulled off at the scenic overlook for the Beartooth Pass, and stopped to take a few pictures. Amazingly it was a windless day, and at almost 11,000 feet, I was above the tree line.  After snapping a few photos with my then-state-of-the-art 35 mm camera, all of a sudden something hit me. I was hearing absolutely nothing. No wind, no cars, no animals, not even a bird. 


I suddenly discovered that phrase “The silence was deafening” was not merely a malapropism!  It’s hard to explain, but about the best way I can describe it was “the nothingness of it got louder and louder.”  It was disorienting…as if I’d been plunged into sudden deafness. I had to close my eyes because the emptiness of it was dizzying.


When I closed my eyes, though, what astounded me was what I did begin to hear–my own (slightly hyperventilated) breathing.  The blood whooshing through my carotid arteries. The faint scratching sound of my clothes moving as I moved. This Old Testament story was no longer “just a story” to me.  I could fathom how one could hear God in it, because I was hearing my own life inside myself that I never hear.  As I sat there a little longer in it, now with my eyes open again, I marveled at just how “full” I felt inside of this lack of noise.


All things come to an end, of course, and after about 20 minutes I returned to my car and continued on.  Later that night, though, as I lay in bed, unsuccessfully trying to re-create the experience (the noisy neighbors in the Teddy Roosevelt Lodge prevented that from happening), a thought dawned on me:  “You know, I’m sure I’ve been in that kind of silence before…I just never heard it until today.  I always kept it away with noise. Or maybe we humans are innately afraid of that silence, and we subconsciously fill it with noise.


In the years I’ve had since that experience, I’ve reflected a great deal on that feeling that I’ve heard friends and parishioners describe when they have felt God was absent.  Part, but not all of it, I’ve come to believe, is so many times, we obscure the presence of God with noise. Yet to go totally down that path is simply a sophisticated form of victim shaming.  The deeper truth I’ve come to discover that God IS the absence. We are people formed of the earth, admixed with bits of the stardust of Heaven, and those “molecules”, for lack of a better term, are always vibrating in the presence of the One who created us.  Those bits of us are always yearning to return to the Oneness of God….it’s just very imperceptible and the vibrations are faint. It is only when we can still the noise inside ourselves that we can even hope to perceive it. Jesus displayed the act of self-emptying–kenosis–on the Cross, and although we can never achieve the level of self-emptying that he could–that whole “fully human, fully divine” concept we embrace in the Nicene Creed–we still stand a better chance of sensing God’s presence when we empty ourselves, even a little bit.  It’s why in addition to words, for a more rounded prayer life, many people incorporate at least some form of silence as a prayer practice.


Practicing silence isn’t always easy, even if one isn’t a talker.  It can have an eerie feeling, even downright unsettling. When I’ve incorporated silence into corporate worship, I’ve learned that the average parishioner starts rustling in the pew after about 45 seconds, wondering if I’ve forgotten my lines, unless it’s clear in either the bulletin or in a brief verbal “heads up” that there might be a prolonged silence in certain liturgies of the church year or in services like Taizé.  Yet like many things we learn to develop in life, it can grow on us. For instance, most of us (on most days) have a longer attention span than we did as five year olds, unless we have a neurological barrier there.


If you’ve never tried silence as a prayer practice, I simply suggest to give it a try.  This reading from 1 Kings might well work as a meditation prompt. Pay attention to what bubbles up to fill the silence, and pray about those things either silently or aloud, either “in the moment” or at a later time–it’s your call when you want to leave the silence.


How has God filled silence, in those times you’ve chosen to be still and yearn for God’s presence?


Beartooth Pass, on the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park, Montana-Wyoming border, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO. 

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