I love a good conversation and can hold my own in conversations spanning a wide range of topics. Current events, pop culture, small talk, theology, and whatever comes in between. I come from a family of great conversationalists and I count that as an incredible gift. This is one of the reasons I love a good road trip. Endless hours side by side with another person to talk with and learn about. If I find myself driving a distance alone I am quick to make a phone call so I can chitchat and if no one is available, I’ll put on a podcast so I can eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation.
And then one time I was with a good friend. I had been sad and crying and we were sitting side by side on the couch. No one said anything. I leaned my head on her shoulder and she gently stroked my hair while tears quietly rolled down my cheeks. Even after the tears stopped we stayed sitting with one another. The room was so quiet. And I felt so deeply loved and cared for.
I wonder if we have become so good at listening to things about God and talking about God and playing music that praises God that we have grown a bit uncomfortable with letting silence fill our ears. I wonder if knowing God through our sense of hearing might really be learning to know God in silence.
The first time I was invited to practice silence and solitude I resisted hard. I tried to make all kinds of excuses and exceptions. Things like, “instrumental music helps me focus” or “I hear God best in conversation” or “when it’s too quiet, my brain gets too noisy and that’s not really quiet either.” Now, these things might be true. They are not bad things. And I was being invited to try a new way for a short amount of time. I invite you to do the same.
I think back to how my body responded to the silence with my friend. Initially my body began to tense up. My head was spinning with all kinds of interpretations of the silence. My friend was upset that I was crying. I was monopolizing the time with my tears. She had things she wanted to say but didn’t think I wanted to hear them. I needed to start talking but I was panicking because I couldn’t think of anything to say. And then the more I stayed in the silence and in the present moment and let myself breathe the more I settled into the safety and gift of being able to be with someone and not speak.
I have discovered the same with God. I think that often the people we can be most comfortable sitting in silence with are the people that know us best. They are the people we are safe with and we are known by. It makes me wonder why sitting in silence with our Creator, the one who calls us Beloved, can feel so unnerving and can make us squirm instead of settle in and simply be.
I’m reminded of the story of Elijah in 1 Kings.
He said, “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.
“A sound of sheer silence.” Perhaps God sometimes sounds like silence. Perhaps when we think we are hearing nothing God is especially close. What does silence feel like? How does it sit in our ears? How do our minds and bodies respond to silence? What does our breathing do? What’s our heart rate like?
Adjusting to sheer silence can be really hard. And I think it’s a generous invitation to know God in an intimate way. I want to leave you with a prayer from Black Liturgies, written by Cole Arthur Riley.
God of silence,
Remind us that when you encountered Elijah, you didn’t speak during the loud danger of wind, earthquake, and fire, but, you spoke into silence. Just as you met Elijah with food and empathy in his journey, would you help us to meet ourselves with that same kindness, knowing when to tell the truth about our exhaustion and give our stories and bodies the honor they deserve. Remind us that you are a god who draws near to us in tenderness during the wilderness and cares enough to ask the same question twice, knowing your proximity to us may mean more than the answer and would you guide us into that sacred silence which allows us to perceive your nearness and hear your words. Let your quiet whispers lead us out of our caves. Amen.
May the God of silence meet you wherever you are today.