Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind and earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)
Over the past month or so I have had two similar experiences that got me thinking. The first was while I was camping with my family in Maine. We drove up from Burbania as we usually do. Then we spent the rest of the day in pursuit of the usual activities. We visited friends. We ate. We laughed. We swam in the lake. Then-- not long after dark-- we went to bed. Some time after dawn I woke up and it was completely silent. It wasn't just quiet like it sometimes gets in the woods. There was no noise at all! No loons on the lake. No critters rustling in the bushes.
The second experience was a little bit more surprising as it occurred at a bluegrass festival. Music festivals are loud, after all! In fact, at this particular week long event (no doubt I will tell you more about it in another post) things don't really settle down until around 3 AM. Falling asleep before then means contending with a layer cake of noise. This is true even in the "Quiet Zone" where the music of the main stage high on the hill provides background to the sounds of the dance stage only a few yards away. It is "quiet" in the sense that we are spared some (but not all) of the wandering revelers. Some folks bring earplugs to bed. Most of us, however, just stay up until we are exhausted. Then we drag sweaty, tired bodies to our sleeping bags and pass into a dreamless state until morning.
The first night I woke up to a bright light in the tent and cursed what I assumed were the high beams of somebody's car. Then I realize the light was the sun and that there was no real sound but the ringing in my ears. Over time I could discern some other noises. It wasn't really as still as that lake in Maine. However, there is a special sort of silence made by over 3000 people trying not to wake each other up that is just as majestic and profound.
Silence is something I am not all that familiar with since I entered the ministry...since I had children...since I moved to the suburbs over a decade ago. After all, my profession requires a great deal of talking and listening. Thanks to years of training, when I talk I am usually loud. Then there are the many sounds of children growing up and filling the void with their noises as they do. Finally, even when I have a few moments and the parsonage is empty (the ringer off and books waiting to be read), there is the constant sound of "civilization". There are cars humming by. There are people on the sidewalk, planes overhead and God knows what else contributing to the background hum that I must accept as part of living where I do.
I grew up in the country on a rural road in Androscoggin County, Maine. I spent my summers working on my grandparent's farm in rural Dutchess County, New York. In both places you could hear a single car coming from half a mile away, note its passing, and then listen to its retreat for another couple minutes. My adult life, too, had been spent either in cities like Chicago or Montréal or in small communities in northern New England. Maybe this is why (in spite of my verbose nature) I value the moments of silence I do receive. It is something that doesn't really happen much anymore.
I wonder if it happens to any of us all that frequently. To the best of my knowledge, I live the way most people live. There is a great deal of chatter and environmental noise. There is the "noise" of the Internet, social networking, and the news cycle. So each of us in our own way yells to be heard. We also are naturally attracted to the loudest voice. Sometimes we hear shouts of joy. Sometimes we hear shouts of anger. Mostly, though, what we hear is confusion. I am talking about politics, of course. I am talking about religion. I am also talking about the ways we relate to each other more personally. I am talking about the way we interact with the world; with Creation.
In that quote from 1 Kings the final phrase "sheer silence" is sometimes translated as the "still small voice". In either case we need to find ways to hear it. In the noise and the thunder that we create around us it is hard to discern the motions of whatever spirit we wish to listen to and follow. It is also easy to be distracted by fear and anxiety. Recently at the church we decided to have a picnic, a "Civility Dinner" to purposefully practice making room for that spirit in the midst of our conversation. Of course, we try to practice it all the time but-- just as in worship--sometimes it is good to do it with intention.