The Sounds of Silence
Escape. My house teems with evidence of attempts to escape from periodic attacks of panic, boredom and untidiness. There are multiple tapes and CD’s of waves lapping at anonymous beaches, which were supposed to ease me to sleep on those nights when it won’t come - and to calm me when I get a little frantic. Bags and sacks and boxes of yarns and fleeces mark an impulse to shake off the lazy me and turn myself into a Fascinating Woman of Artistic Vision. There are remnants of many different diets, booklets, cans of supplements, bottles of pills and supplements, etc. which testify to my abandoned attempts to drop weight or to become a healthier person. There was even a bottle of L’Oreal in case I decided to become someone else by changing the color of my hair. When I’m bored or frustrated by the lack of my body’s ability to rise to the challenges I see around me every day, or disgusted by the woman in the mirror, it’s easy to opt for the quick fix or the impulsive gesture. Rather than confront an unpleasant situation, I’ll start a new book. Rather than wrestle with my relationship with God, I’ll go shopping. More yarn is always good, and it’s so distracting. And the culture we live in is more than happy to accommodate my compulsion to avoid looking inside myself.
At times, the idea of being alone with my thoughts is about as attractive as treading water in a tank full of hungry sharks. Thought I travel often, I am never without a book or a bit of handwork - something to keep me distracted. Do I really want to hear God’s voice? Sure - as long as the stereo is on and there are folks around for company. God may very well speak in the midst of such circumstances, but am I listening?
I read recently about a monastery in the mountains of Colorado. Those seeking spiritual renewal make the trek to this remote place and stay for a week or more, in Spartan huts, without TV or radio. Seeking to supplant the noise of the world with a silence that listens only for the voice of God, they soak themselves in the Word of God and wait on heavenly insight. It sounds so beautifully ascetic. The mountains, the wind in the trees, all that nature. Unfortunately, something in my jittery self is ill at ease with all that unstructured time without the pacifier of civilization. My brain wants to make a plan, color it and hang curtains. I rush in with words to fill the awkward gaps in conversations. God, I want to listen, but I can’t stand the silence!
I don’t know if a forced silent retreat is what it takes to get us “noise junkies” in touch with God’s voice. It might do to ask ourselves what it is about silence that scares us so much.
Maybe it’s the intrusive voice of a critical parent. Or an image of a personal failure for which we can’t seem to forgive ourselves. Maybe it’s the ghost of a loss, which we have yet to mourn. We sense those images, those voices rumbling ominously in the distance, just beyond our wall of noise. And it takes all the emotional energy we have to hold them there. Sadly, until we allow the natural process of grief to invade our emotional wounds, neither will we experience the soothing hands of the Great Physician. His voice will remain garbled and indistinct - muffled beneath all those layers of noise.
In the Bible, we read about the prophet Elijah,
“The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
(1 Kings 19:11-13)
And we see that the voice of God is still and small, but always there.
At this point in my life I have separated myself from the usually present noise in the background. In fact, I cannot stand what I call noise pollution. But this is only the first step in listening to God. After removing our need for noise to mask the uncertainties, then comes the hard part. I have to learn to shut out my mind and it’s need to constantly make plans, lists, decisions, what to have for dinner when we have guests next week, what to wear to church, what do I need from the grocery store, how shall I handle the difficulty in being around my dear friend and her obnoxious child without alienating her, and on and on it goes. When God says ‘be still’ he means both inside and outside, and he means for us to empty our minds of the daily interrupters and make ourselves ready to listen to Him when He speaks to us. And if we are really quiet, and really listen, we really will hear Him. It may take strong medicine to wean you and me from the noisemakers in our lives. But when it finally happens, I suspect we will hear the same gentle voice Elijah heard on that day after the wind had passed and the earth had settled. And what might we expect him to say? Perhaps he will tell us to forget about changing our hair and taking up all those hobbies which clutter up our lives. He might urge us to stop “looking for love in all the wrong places”. Unplug the TV and the stereo. Turn off the ball game. Stop running away from the silence. Make your mind open to His voice. Because in the silence rests our hope. In the silence, a friend is waiting.
In Psalm 46:10 we find the words, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Let us practice being still.
Credit Note: a great deal of this material came from the book: Playing the Tuba at Midnight by Roberta Rand