THE SOUND OF SHEER SILENCE
1 King 19:4 – 6, 11 – 15, Psalm 42,43 , Luke 8:35 – 39
June 23, 1995
The passage from the first Kings includes a very evocative expression, "the sound of sheer silence." Elijah was running away from his destiny. He was afraid to do what he was supposed to be doing. He feared for his life. He was so discouraged and disgusted with himself that he wanted to die. There was a fierce wind like a tornado that split the mountains, there was an earthquake that nearly swallowed up everything, and after that there was fire that nearly consumed everything. But God did not speak in those events. Then, the Bible says, there was the sound of sheer silence. At last Elijah heard it, the voice of God. The voice that told him to do exactly what he was avoid doing. To go back. To go back where the Queen was waiting to kill him. To go back to install a new king against the wish of the Queen Jezebel. What an awesome task. He did not want to do it. He was afraid to do it. The job was too big for him.
However, the really interesting point of the story is that such an awesome mission was not conveyed by big noisy and dramatic media, like tornadoes, earthquakes or fire. It came instead through in the sound of sheer silence. When Jesus was asked by Pilate if he was the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus did not answer. He just stood there in silence. The real truth was conveyed in silence.
There is an important lesson for us here. The real message did not come with a bang, but in silence. Today, we are so used to hearing loud messages, in TV advertisements for example, with music, exaggerated language, sexy people, and special effects that we can not hear the small and subtle voices any more. We expect every message to amuse us. Even the news must be entertaining to watch, otherwise we ignore it or pay little attention to it. Before South African election began, genocide in Rwanda was unfolding a year ago. Mass murder was obviously more dramatic and exciting than an election. So Many international media left and went to Rwanda. And we rate our politicians as much on their TV presence as on their political goals. You see, if it is not fun, or funny, we switch the channel. We can hardly hear the inner voice that comes in silence. I think this is a problem.
Some twenty-three years ago, I was detained against my will for a few days in South Africa . It was not very serious, only three days confinement before I was kicked out of the country because of my Anti-Apartheid activities. But I nearly went crazy, mainly because I was worried about my seven year old daughter who was alone at home and did not know where I was. What made it worse was that I had nothing to read, or to write with, or to listen to, or to watch. There were just four walls. Nobody came to talk to me. You would think that there should be some sort of interrogation in that kind of a case. But I was not such a big fish. They didn”t care. They knew what to do with me. "Scare him a little, then and kick him out."
I was left alone with no explanation about why I was detained. I came face to face with myself, because there was nobody else except me. You would think that as a religious man, I would know how to cope with a situation like that. I would know how to make use of solitude as an opportunity to meditate, to pray, to think, to be alone with God. But I was not like that. I went mad. I wanted to scream, "Let me outa here. I will say anything. Just tell me why I am here, and tell me how long I have to stay here." In retrospect, I must admit, I was pathetic. You see, silence forced me to confront myself. And I didn”t handle it too well. Furthermore what happened to my life after that incident did not help me to reflect on what happened to me during those three days. When I was released, I became an instant hero among those who were fighting the Apartheid system in South Africa. I received a letter from Mitchell Sharp, then the minister of Foreign Affairs, was visited by the Canadian Ambassador, and was even mentioned in a United Nations document. I enjoyed a few months of fame. I did not need to reflect on my spiritual paucity. This is very different from Elijah”s experience. He failed, he was afraid, he was disgusted of himself. He wanted to die. So, unlike Elijah, I did not truly hear the sound of silence. I was too quickly intoxicated by the noise, which was praising me and preventing me to look into my spiritual life.
Our life is surrounded with noise all the time. We are so used to living with noises that we are no longer capable of being able to listen to our inner voice. We get bored when it is too quiet and maybe we find it hard to stay awake. I don”t remember who it was, but someone said one time that prayer is the deepest form of thinking. We pray publicly to be united with other people, to become of one mind. But we have to have another form of prayer life. We have to have a private prayer life. You can do it in any way you like, standing, sitting, or even on your back, but you do it alone. You don”t even have to say anything. You can just think and listen, but think deeply and listen in total honesty. It is like looking at yourself in a mirror alone. There is no point hiding anything, lying, or pretending. You confront yourself alone, and think. And in the silence, one may discover that one is not alone. There is a greater presence reflected there as well. That”s private prayer.
Because we are so busy doing things all the time, or are so constantly surrounded by noises and sights, we are beginning to forget how to sit and think, and thus rarely pray alone. Maybe our process of recovering our spiritual life begins here. Maybe, because we can not sit and listen to ourselves alone, we also can not really listen to our kids or to our spouse trying to say something to us. If we can not listen, sooner or later they stop trying to talk to us. The message of such silence is more powerful than any noisy chatter. We cann”t expect to be amused all the time. But kids are not always funny, especially after a long day of hard work. And your wife is not funny when she has something important to say.
But when you learn to hear your inner self, you may discover a startling truth, just like Elijah was confronted by his awesome mission. If you are sensitive enough to be able to hear your inner voice, you can also hear important messages conveyed in people”s endless talk which may not make sense on the surface. The amazing thing about the story of Elijah is that, after hearing the message from God, he left the place of silence. He went to do exactly what God told him to do, though he was deadly afraid to do it. This was the man who was so afraid of the job he had, he escaped into the desert and asked God if he was allowed to die. How did he find such courage to change? I think that the secret lies in Elijah”s ability to listen to the sound of sheer silence. If one can face oneself alone in silence, one can face anything.