Two different readings, both about silence:
From the First Book of Kings:
“(God) 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?’”
And from the American poet Edgar Lee Masters:
“I have known the silence of the stars and of the sea,
And the silence of the city when it pauses,
And the silence of a man and a maid,
And the silence of the sick
When their eyes roam about the room.
And I ask: For the depths,
Of what use is language?”
This last week was not a very good sleep week for me. Our dog Murphy, 18 years old, arthritic, no longer able to see or hear, began waking up every hour and barking, seemingly confused about where he was. Of course, we couldn’t really tell what was going on for him. We only knew that he seemed uncomfortable, disturbed and disoriented. And so yesterday morning we made the sad trek to the vet’s office to end his life. It was hard. But the hardest part for me was coming back home to the new and strange silence that had descended upon our home.
And so in looking at our readings for today, I couldn’t help but go to our lesson from the First Book of Kings, the passage about the prophet, Elijah’s encounter with God after a sheer silence. And I wondered—what is it about silence in our lives? How is it that silence has the power to disable, to disappoint, to nourish and to transform?
I use all these very different verbs because in my experience, silence is anything but neutral. Silence is sometimes quite uncomfortable and painful, and at other times, full and rich, the fertile ground from which new things can emerge.
Some of this has to do, of course, with the source of the silence, what brings it into our lives. And so silence that comes after a great loss or as a result of separation or as part of being shut out of things—out of power or influence or community—is excruciating for us. And silence that comes at a moment of great love or honor, at a moment of great reverence, is something else entirely.
The silence that Elijah encounters in our first lesson for today is a mix of both of these kinds of silence. In our story, we learn that Elijah, God’s prophet, is a wanted man. Having gone
up against and defeated the prophets of Baal who serve Queen Jezebel, he’s now on Jezebel’s hit list. He flees for his life and becomes despondent, withdrawing by himself to the silence of the wilderness. There he asks God to let him die.
But God does not let him die. God provides food, bids him eat and is with him as he retreats even further into the wilderness to a cave on Mt. Horeb, the same mountain where God first appeared to Moses. Once there, Elijah complains to God. He and he alone, he complains, has remained faithful to God. And yet, he complains, Jezebel continues to kill him.
In response, God tells him to come out and to stand on the mountaintop for God is going to pass by. And then the racket and tumult begin—first a great wind, then an earthquake and then a fire, all of which, the Biblical writer tells us, do not have God in them. But then the sound of sheer silence fills Elijah’s ears. Hearing this, Elijah gets up and comes to the mouth of the cave. And out of this silence, comes God’s question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” “What are you doing here?”
And so silences that come to us after loss or separation from what our life has been about, silences that come to us after the din of wind, and earthquake and fire in our lives, silences that descend upon us so fully that they have the depth and resonance of sound itself, are the place from which we hear God’s provocative question: “What are you doing here, Melissa, or Mark, or Barb? What are you doing here, Kate or Sarah or John? What are you doing here, Pam or Kristi or Dan? What are you doing here?
This, then, is the gift of the silence that we either choose to engage in or that comes to us though we would have chosen something different for ourselves: God’s posing of a question to us about who we are and what we are up to, about our authenticity to ourselves and to God’s call to us to be who we were meant to be, to do what we were meant to do.
Thomas Merton said of silence: “In silence we face and admit that gap between the depths of our being, which we… ignore, and the surface which is so often untrue to our own reality.” He goes on also to say: “Silence…can be a regression and an escape, a loss of self, or it can be presence, awareness, unification, self-discovery. Negative silence blurs and confuses our identity and we lapse into daydreams or diffuse anxieties. Positive silence pulls us together and makes us realize who we are, who we might be, and the distance between these two. Hence, positive silence implies a disciplined choice…For when we come face to face with ourselves in the lonely ground of our own being, we confront many questions about the value of our existence, the reality of our commitments, the authenticity of our everyday lives.”
As I hear these words of Merton, I think, “No wonder so many of us are frightened of the silences that descend upon our lives.” They each have the power to become what Merton calls “creative silences,” silences that call the question about who we are and what we’re doing.
Here at St. Paul’s we try to help each other with this by practicing silence and stillness together in our liturgy, both as a way of listening to ourselves and to God in worship and as a way to prepare ourselves for the longer silences, often unbidden, that will descend upon our lives.. Other things help too. Imagining that silence as the sound of God passing by us or approaching us, or is the sound of God’s deep breath before posing yet one more all important question to us. And then there are the silent images of Christ like the one you see on the front of the bulletin today, images that speak of a compassionate and confronting presence that is patient and wordless, both capable and desirous of being with us in any of our silences.
This morning as I often do, I got up quite early to make final edits on this sermon. Instead of pulling a sleepy little Westie up beside me on the couch to be my silent editing companion, I experienced a different kind of silence. It was, I have to say, a poor substitute for the warmth of Murphy’s body and the quiet calm he’s brought me and my writing process for so many years. But maybe, just maybe, silence, God’s silence is supposed to be like what I’ve just lost—a sense that with no one else around and with nothing else going on, that it is God who is silently nestled right up against us, God who is surrounding us on every side; God whose quiet presence calls us back to our center and sends us out to do the work we have been given to do.
Works Cited or Consulted
Edgar Lee Masters’ poem “Silence”
Thomas Merton “Creative Silence” in Bulletin 67, October 2001 of <Monastic Interreligious Dialogue