Wednesday 17 January 2024

Silence Divine

“…and after the earthquake a fire,
but the Lord was not in the fire;
and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”

—I Kings 19:12 (NRSV)

Do you recall the wonder you experienced as a child, that time when your eyes would not pass over so many things, but instead would alight upon and tarry over them? When you would search forever for a four-leaf clover, or sharpen your focus during that brief instant before the crystalline formation of a snowflake melted in your hand?

One of the tragedies of adulthood is our propensity to lose touch with this childlike sense of wonder, for there is a salutary reverence in this kind of attention, this silent posture of listening that opens us to the deep mysteries of God’s cosmos. As adults, the plans we make and the routines we follow dig deep mental ruts from which we find it hard to break free, even momentarily. Yet the health of our hearts and souls, not to mention our bodies and minds, demands we take regular sabbaticals from these everyday routines.

There are many places in scripture that seem to recognize this spiritual need to escape the noise of grownup life. Perhaps this is why, during Israel’s sojourn in the wilderness, Moses would set up “the tent of meeting” for “everyone who sought the Lord” far away from the main camp (Exodus 33:7). Perhaps this also explains why Mary, instead of helping her sister Martha with the domestic chores, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Luke 10:39). Or why the gospels report that, when the crowds pressed in on him, Jesus himself “would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16).

The poet Christian Wiman expresses this spiritual need eloquently and insightfully in his memoir, My Bright Abyss, while reflecting on Patrick Kavanagh’s poem “Having Confessed.” In that poem, Kavanagh counsels us to remain within our souls, to stay in “the unconscious room of our hearts,” where God might find us, and for this reason also worries about our efforts to view our souls consciously and abstractly, “from the outside.” The real issue at stake in Kavanagh’s poem, Wiman tells us, is “that the link not be broken, that every intellectual growth remain rooted in that early experience of ultimate insight, ultimate unknowingness, every word about God both responsive and responsible to the silence that is its source.” (pp. 78-79)

Perhaps, then, “the sound of sheer silence” by which Elijah finally sensed God’s passing presence is the same sound the melting snowflake makes as it kindles childlike wonder? Yet how might we ensure that the words of our faith remain rooted in this divine silence? Thankfully, the first step, if the poet Mary Oliver is to be believed (she is), is deceptively easy to take:

pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak

—From “Praying”

I wish you all God’s rich blessings for the New Year, friends. May it be filled with moments of silent wonder, allowing your life to radiate outward from this deep connection to our Maker and Healer!


Ron Kuipers