Listening for God through Silence
1 Kings 19:9b-12
Greenville College Chapel Address
October 15, 2007
I have spent a good portion of my life laboring in and curious about places of silence. During my high school years, Miss Dungee, the ICU nurse, assigned me the task of transporting bodies to the morgue at Deaconess Hospital, where I would oftentimes stay on to assist with the autopsies. Having struggled to resuscitate one of my patients and oftentimes still covered in blood, I would clean up, board the elevator with my charge, and wheel down the dark basement corridor filled only with the hum of the motor driving the freezer located deep within its bowels. Once the pathologist arrived, we would carefully remove the body and begin the meticulous and laborious process of removing and weighing the bodily organs. Attention to detail was important and we would usually work together quietly in sync, my mentor pausing only to point out any deviation from the normal in human tissue.
This same attention to quiet detail dominates my work with sixteenth century books, such as that which I have undertaken at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Sometimes, in fact, I have to don rubber gloves—much like I did in the morgue—in order to prevent damage to the five hundred year old texts with which I work. I carefully observe any differences in the printed editions and attempt to transcribe fading marginal notations. Behind these theological tomes, I oftentimes hear the voices of their earlier owners, whispering across the centuries into the void of that still, quiet place.
And, about ten days ago I took my senior theology students to St. Meinrad’s Monastery in southern Indiana—another place where silence reigns supreme. Last Saturday morning about five a.m. I lay on my back on the west steps of the abbey church, staring up into the dark early morning sky. The stars were ablaze in all of their glory, Venus, the morning star, hanging just below the moon. At least on three different occasions, I saw shooting stars blaze across the panoply of space, all in complete and darkened silence. As I shuffled up the steps and into that beautiful building, occasionally a monk cleared his throat—but, otherwise, there was not much sound, simply a resounding silence.
We live in a culture both “hard of hearing” and addicted to noise, like no other time in history. There are radios and IPOD’s, televisions and computers, cell phones and automobiles. In fact, a recent report on the emergence of the IPOD suggests that people are literally listening to their pre-recorded songs for hours each day at a decibel level guaranteed to render many with hearing problems within a matter of a few short years. Whether it is words as company, such as the incessant elevator “muzak” which follows us everywhere, or the words as addiction signaled by the buds which seem to sprout organically from our ears, noise trails us everywhere throughout our lives. Even here in Greenville, when things begin to settle down on campus, say around 4 or 5 in the morning, we are still treated to the incessant hum of air conditioners, heaters, and electrical generators. As Barbara Brown Taylor has commented: “There are fewer and fewer oases of silence in our noisy world. Communication has higher value for us than contemplation. Information is in greater demand than reflection. There was a time when only doctors wore pagers and the only person who carried a telephone around with him was the President of the United States, in case of nuclear attack. Now we are all that important. We can be found anywhere, at anytime, by anyone who needs us. When a cell phone goes off in a room full of people, a banner unfurls above the wearer’s head: I am necessary. I am involved in something so urgent it cannot wait,” (When God is Silent, 43).
The Bible is quite insistent that God is not to be discovered primarily in noise or in pyrotechnic displays, but that hearing God speak requires a certain silence in us. The central Jewish declaration begins, “Shema, Israel,” (“Hear, O Israel”), with the focus of the believer being centered in the act of hearing. For the Jew, God’s name, in fact, was unsayable. If one encountered it in Holy Writ, one substituted a different name (such as “Adonai”). The only human being allowed to vocalize the Holy Name was the high priest in the temple in Jerusalem and, even then, only once a year on Yom Kippur, as he pleaded for the life of the people. In fact, people were so afraid that he would die standing in God’s presence that they wrapped a rope around his ankle so that they might drag him out should he be struck dead for his audacity in daring to stand before the Lord of Lords in the Holy of Holies even to murmur the name of God.
For most of us, we prefer to be surrounded by our own words, rather than to listen to someone else. To become silent means to open ourselves up, to risk having to deal with our own existential predicament. The vast majority of students who come to me to talk about learning to listen to God, come hoping that I will have some kind of trick up my sleeve, some special little technique that will provide a shortcut to engaging in deep unrequited silence. Unfortunately, as Fred Craddock reminds us, the voice of God in Jesus was never made with a shout. In him, Craddock says, the revelation of God comes to us as a whisper. So, if we expect to hear it, we are required to be quiet, to lean forward, and to be silent.
Perhaps one of the reasons we insist on surrounding ourselves with noise is that we are afraid of what we might actually hear in the silence. Since 9/11, the rhetoric of fear has become all-encompassing. Fear seems to have gripped the national and international psyche leading to something of a state of paranoia amongst some. This fear has the capacity to paralyze or cause us to engage in irrational acts. In some, it even brings out the basest of animal instincts. There are, of course, those who profit from such fear and have a vested interest in seeing it perpetuated. In a controversial book by Barry Glassner entitled, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things, the author suggests that the use of fear and diversion tactics allow politicians and powermakers to divert attention away from society’s most important and pressing issues. Frightened citizens, he posits, make better consumers and more easily swayed voters. Thanks to opportunistic politicians, single-minded advocacy groups, and unscrupulous TV “newsmagazines,” Glassner claims that people must unlearn their many misperceptions about the world around them. As evidence, the author claims that the youth homicide rate, for instance, has dropped by as much as 30% in recent years, and up to three times as many people are struck dead by lightning than die of violence in schools. “False and overdrawn fears only cause hardship,” he writes. In fact, one study shows that daughters of women with breast cancer are actually less likely to conduct self-examinations—probably because the campaign to increase awareness of the ailment also inadvertently heightens fear.
This culture of fear bathed in a climate of noise can create in us a sense of foreboding and a heightened anxiety about too much quiet. The self-sustaining drumbeat of 24-hour-a-day news produced by innumerable media outlets, the constant political warfare and rhetoric which dominates the airwaves, not to mention the so-called “reality” programs with which we surround ourselves, all coalesce to deliver a cacophony of images and noise which threaten to sweep us up into a perpetual state of fear and anxiety. “There was a time,” writes Henri Nouwen in his little book, Open Hands, “when silence was normal and noise disturbing. But today, noise is the normal fare, and silence—strange as it may seem—has become the disturbance,” (16).
In this world of too many words, Taylor claims, “silence affects people who are no longer affected by sound,” (31). Silence, by itself is polyvalent, open to numerous meanings. If you and I both enter a room together and choose to be silent, it may be because we don’t know each other at all or it may be because we know each other so well that words are unnecessary. Whenever we go to the monastery, the silence is experienced by many as natural to that environment, though somewhat strange for our sub-culture. Whenever President Mannoia goes home to Joy House after a busy day at work these days, however, he encounters a very different kind of silence. It is a silence that reminds one of the absence of a loved one; a silence that is bottomless, like the grief which it reflects.
“In his poetic eulogy, The World of Silence, the French philosopher Max Picard maintains that silence is the central place of faith, where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it. Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation. We ‘unsay’ ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to ‘say us’ once again. In silence, we travel back in time to the day before the first day of creation, when all being was still part of God’s body. It had not yet been said, and silence was the womb in which it slept,” (Taylor, 33).
For me, this became all too clear on the morning of May 21, 1987, as the body of my daughter, Hannah, lay silent and still in a stainless steel bassinette beside me. Instead of the cry of life we had anticipated, she lay there like a limp and lifeless doll--her limbs blue, her cherubic face expressionless, her body still emanating the very heat of life which surrounded her like an aura in that cold, metallic room. Had she lived, she may well have been here today as an upper-classman seated amongst you. I am oftentimes led to wonder how she would have negotiated with her two older sisters and which of them she would have been more like. But my silent ruminations never simply end with Emily and Evangeline. I also wonder, would she have been filled with joy and laughter like Amanda, or perhaps outgoing and empathetic like Cori? Might she have studied diligently like Alyssa, written eloquently like Emily, or worked hard and dazzled us with her productions like Justine? Could she have run like Kristin with her face, body, and spirit directly into the wind or sang passionately with her eyes aglow, like Christy? To some extent, I’ll never know, for her story came crashing to a halt before it ever really began. But when I look at my two other daughters and at you, my students, I am filled with joy that the potential that died with her is somehow being realized in you.
Barbara Brown Taylor says that, “between human beings there may be no silence as loud as the silence of death. To sit beside a bed, day after day, listening to the ragged intake of breath—to hear the lungs fill, to hear the unproductive cough until finally there is so little need for air that there is only the slightest flutter four or five times a minute—no clock measures time like this, nor is it possible to describe the moment when there is a tick but no tock. The breath goes out and it does not come in again. No one knows it was the last until it is gone, and the silence that follows it is like no other sound in the world,” (36-37). I had watched that moment of death scores of times before and would and will continue to watch it many times after, but to see one’s own issue silenced in such a way strips away the veneer of any sense of objectivity or distance. And, out of that silence and from that day forward, I have become a marked man. Having encountered the ultimate silence of death in “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh,” I not only am no longer afraid of the silence but earnestly seek it out. I have come to appreciate what Richard Foster calls the “little solitudes” that fill our day, such as the morning cup of coffee before my wife, Darlene, and I head off to another day of work. A quiet spot in the park, a walk in the local cemetery, a desk in the corner of the library—all of these offer opportunities to come away from the distraction of 21st century post-modern America and to simply be quiet and learn to wait upon God. Like Elijah in this morning’s scripture text, it is often times there, in the crevices of life, that we can best hear God’s voice. And so, it is to those same quiet places that I most often point others.
And it is through the gift of these silences, great and small, that I can experience the joy that comes from the wonderful life that God has granted to us all here at Greenville College. I walk out the door of my house on my way to work to the sound of birds chirping, the sound of leaves falling, and the smell of wood burning in the air. Before 7 in the morning, this little hamlet struggles to wake from its slumber. I pass Greg moving the water sprinklers and joshing with the grounds crew as he greets me with a sense of mirth. I pass Kathy on the stairs where she is laboring to sweep up the detritus of another day’s worth of dirt and leaves dragged into Hogue Hall. Grabbing my Daily Office Book, I head back down the stairs and pass Pam Davis coming in to give another day’s service in the Dean’s Office—working to juggle the complexities of a hectic schedule, all the while calming anxious faculty nerves. I stride up College Avenue on my way to St. Paul’s, greeting my friend, Sharon Alger, as she comes from the opposite direction. I step up into the sanctuary where T has prepared the elements and turned on the lights, the sound of coffee dripping downstairs. All is quiet as the congregation slowly gathers for prayer. Here comes Andrew, having parked his bike precariously outside, followed by Keeley, whisps of blonde hair trailing her soft footfall. Marilyn walks slowly by, offering me her slight smile, trailed by Frank, his cane thump-thumping down the nave towards his appointed place. Rich swings by with his typical greeting, “Brother Brian,” while Paul and Andre come to lend their voices to the upcoming Gloria Patri. Little clans of students hurry in as we prepare to begin and, at long last, the silence is pierced by the single clang of a bell. Joe stands to sing the Introit and we all prepare to read our parts. The night is over; the day has begun. Silence has once again given way to the sounds of life and the danger is that somehow we may take it all for granted. For the glory of it all is that it is nothing but grace, another of God’s daily miracles.
I was reminded of that recently when I received a message from one of my former students, the Rev. Kari Morris-Guzman. A beautiful and talented young woman, Kari graduated from GC, went on to pastoral work, and had landed in Southern California, where she was finishing her Master of Divinity degree at Azusa Pacific University after marriage to a wonderful and loving young man. She had a great pastoral job and I remember the laughter with which she greeted me on an April morning just a two short years ago. That summer, she and Aaron flew out to attend the wedding of a friend and rented a car to drive on to the church. When they came around the curve of a two-lane road, he suddenly saw an oncoming car and had to make a split-second decision that sent them careening through a corn field, flipping the car so that they wound up hanging upside down their heads crushed against the roof of the car. Aaron managed to extricate himself and kept Kari conscious until the ambulance arrived, but the damage to her upper spine was substantial. Today, she remains essentially paralyzed from the neck down. In response to my last chapel message she said, “I've been thinking about the senses lately. My sense of physical touch is gone now. My other senses are kind of hyper-sensitive. So loud noises, even white noise, is probably somewhat exaggerated. Therefore, in order for me to concentrate on listening, it's necessary that I filter out the peripheral. I've been doing contemplative prayer lately. I believe that even my physical paralysis has increased my ability to quiet my "inner noise" so that I can listen more intently.”
Kari, and others like her, teach us just how important learning to embrace each and every day is. To not be afraid of the silence, but to enter into it with our ears open wide. So it is that I ask you to join me in prayer as we close with these words from my friend, Fr. Henri Nouwen:
O Lord Jesus, your words to your Father were born out of your silence. Lead me into this silence, so that my words may be spoken in your name and thus be fruitful. It is so hard to be silent, silent with my mouth, but even more, silent with my heart. There is so much talking going on within me. It seems that I am always involved in inner debates with myself, my friends, my enemies, my supporters, my opponents, my colleagues, and my rivals. But this inner debate reveals how far my heart is from you. If I were simply to rest at your feet and realize that I belong to you and you alone, I would easily stop arguing with all the real and imagined people around me. These arguments show my insecurity, my fear, my apprehensions, and my need for being recognized and receiving attention. You, O Lord, will give me all the attention I need if I would simply stop talking and start listening to you. I know that in the silence of my heart you will speak to me and show me your love. Give me, O Lord, that silence. Let me be patient and grow slowly into this silence in which I can be with you. Amen. (From A Cry for Mercy, 18).