Alone in the wilderness, Elijah sought a word from God, but it was not to be found in hurricane winds, earthquakes, or fire. Indeed it was not to be found at all; it came to him in the sound of sheer silence (1 Kings 19). Jesus, it is written, went as often as he could to a lonely place, there, away from all distractions, to commune with the God the Father.
Images like these have inspired generations of spiritual seekers to pursue lonely places of silence in search of God’s presence. It’s a very romantic notion, and not without value. Entering lonely places of silence with intentionality opens the way of expectation that God’s presence may be experienced. It’s also possible that the awesome wonders of nature revealed in lonely places can be mistaken for God’s presence. Elijah certainly did not find God in them, but only in the silence - of what? More than the silence of the world about him, he needed to experience the silence of his own mind and body, giving up his anxieties, worries, expectations, wants and needs, and in that silence he was finally prepared to hear the voice of God that had always been present.
It’s that always present part that’s so hard to learn. I’m not sure when it happened for me, but there came a time when I realized that God was as present to me in the midst of my daily work in New York City as on the quiet upcountry slopes of island mountains. The sheer silence of a lonely place might helpful and relaxing, but not necessary. The sheer silence needed to hear God’s voice can be present anywhere, at anytime because it exists in the spaces between sounds. They are spaces of a mystical nature. Once recognized, they can expand in the midst of competing sounds to become the sheer silence in which God’s presence is made known.
We don’t live in the NYC area anymore. We live out West in a broad valley on the edge of the Palouse, up against the Blue Mountains, with the high desert of the intermountain plateau around us. The Snake River, with all it’s canyons, borders us on the north, and the magnificent Columbia River Gorge begins just to our west. What better place could there be to find lonely silence in which God’s presence could be felt. There is no better place, but God is not more present here than on Fifth Avenue, in the local state prison, or amidst the small city hubbub of our Main Street. Learning how to recognize and live into it, that’s the trick.
It’s been a long time since I’ve given much thought to that, but a recent edition of The Christian Century advertised an essay contest on the subject of silence, it piqued my interest, and I wrote a short essay for submission. Winners will be published sometime in February or March, and there’s probably a small print rule about not publishing submissions anywhere else before then, but what the heck. Here’s a version of mine; keep it to yourself.
There’s a romantic idea that entering a place of silence will open doors to deeper communication with one’s self, the universe, and possibly the divine. It may be, but silence is not easily understood, and many find it uncomfortable.
Silence is not the absence of sound. It’s the quiet spaces between sounds, allowing us to hear each of them more clearly. I have, and maybe you have too, experienced lonely places where the quiet spaces between sounds have been profound. For me it’s been the high desert and mountain slopes. It’s said that God’s voice can be heard in those quiet spaces, but they’re few and infrequent. We don’t spend our time in those places, but in the ordinary ebb and flow of every day life where it’s not self evident that quiet spaces between sounds are important. Maybe they don’t even exist. We are not born to value them, at least not in the age in which we live. We are born into a world of sound with little room for quiet spaces between them. Learning to recognize and appreciate silence, can be an uncomfortable, disorienting process.
Consider the years of childhood and adolescence. Silence is alien. Quiet spaces between sounds are filled as quickly as possible. If not with talk, then music, video games, anything that makes a noise. The unheard sounds of texting fill in whatever is left. The young live in a world of sounds they and others create. Silence is either an accident or punishment.
Would it help to experience the comparative silence of nature? Yes, but to sit in a silence filled only with the sounds of creation, that’s not normal. Our diocesan camp, Camp Cross on Lake Coeur d’Alene, is a rustic camp, one of the few left. Talk about being cut off, campers arrive by boat. Leaving noise making things behind is hard. Life without tablets, smart phones and earbuds is unthinkable. The quiet spaces between the sounds of nature are strange, even a bit frightening. Counselors have been through it themselves, and know how to help them learn to live into the sounds of silence, with the possibility that God might be present in them. Does it work? Yes, and Camp Cross alums are passionate about how important the experience has been for them. Wonderful as that may be, attendance is declining, has been for years. Camps themed for sports, technology, academics, and even religion are where the money is. The busier with less time for silence and reflection, the more popular.
I didn’t grow up that way. Without a Camp Cross, my exposure to the silence between sounds came in a different way. We had only the rudiments of high tech noise making, but such as they were, we made the most of them, and were adept at keeping silence at bay. Introduction to it came with summer visits to grandma in rural Kansas. Grandma’s house was quiet. On hot Kansas days, the tick-tock of a clock, the quiet whir of a fan, and subtle sounds floating through screened windows could be heard, one at a time. Under their influence time seemed to slow, almost stopping. In my memory, grandma’s house was a place of comforting silence, a silence in which each small sound could be heard. It was confusing. A little was enough, nothing a few raucous cousins couldn’t fix. That was a long time ago. Funny how the silence of grandma’s house is a stronger memory than noisy time with raucous cousins. At the time, it was the other way round.
Let’s face it, youthful ears are not geared for silence. They are hungry for more knowledge of the world about them, and time for quiet reflection isn’t a priority. It’s not even a passing interest. Youthful ears hear well, but listen poorly. They’ve not yet learned to converse with silence. As they mature, some will learn. Many will not. For some, silence will always be a void to be filled in any way possible. For some, silence will be filled with terror, guilt and regret. For some, silence will be filled with comforting memories. For some, silence will become an invitation to conversation.
Into that milieu we are told God comes with a voice heard in sheer silence, the silence between the sounds. Rustic lake side camps and quiet grandma houses may be the best places to begin, but they’re not the only ones, and they can be misleading if we believe silence can’t be experienced elsewhere. Lapping water and forest breezes can be mistaken for God’s voice, if we’re not careful. High deserts and mountain slopes may come our way from time to time, but we can’t stay there.
When we have learned to recognize and value silence in the spaces between sounds, the cacophony of everyday life can also become a place accommodating them, and in them God’s voice may be heard, if we let it. It will always be a voice inviting us into conversation, into a deeper intimacy with God where any question, every doubt, and all possibilities are welcome. It requires intentionality. Learning and developing it may be helped by rustic camps and desert retreats, but it can be practiced in any place at any time, if we are willing to do it. The silence of the spaces between the sounds is always an open door through which communion with God is possible.