If we imagine silence as a thing that we can sense, touch, and hear, I wonder what its texture, sound, and voice would be like.
1 King 19:9-18
Would it feel tough or tender?
Would it sound like steel or singing?
Would it have stories that burst out of its depth, or would it just be empty, void, and lifeless?
Could we befriend silence in its true form, not trying to tame it, but giving it the right to reshape us in how we behave and how we exist?
Could we be at peace with silence?
There seem to be three kinds of silence we experience in our lives.
First, the kind of silence that I spoke about last Sunday: the silence which is complicit with injustice. We need to break that silence; the oppressed need our support and solidarity, not our fear disguised as discretion.
Second, the kind of silence that marks the absence of noise, the absence of any meaningful interaction. Neutral, vacant, lifeless – like the vacuum in the frigid blackness of outer space.
Third, a different, beneficent silence: the silence which embraces the presence of the Mystery that permeates our universe and our lives. It is the wavelength of a human soul that gleams with such virtues as compassion, empathy and understanding.
The silence that I would like to explore today with you is the third one: silence as a human capacity and need to understand ourselves.
This week, I was refreshed by finding a metaphor that may help us to reflect on the many aspects of silence… Rain.
I remember that rain; I know that rain, and that knowledge led me to explore my understanding of God and the nature of silence. Here are some of my discoveries, so far:
God is panentheistic. There’s one more syllable than ‘pantheistic’, a word which we’re more familiar with, but it simply means that God is all who is present in all.
Like the rain, whether it is the persistent rain that ‘knows every hidden entrance into collar and shopping bag” – I really like that image – or it is the quiet rain that can rust a tin roof, while it eludes our notice, or it is the shamanic rain that heavily pours down – it is rain. It is Rain. Rain: the water that comes falling from the sky and soaks the mother earth. It is rain. It may have different names, but they are all still rain, just as it is God who is present in all matters, in all activities of all living things and in all of our experiences. God is, God pours, God is present, God emerges, God submerges, God resurges. Like rain, God may have different names, but God is God. God never hides. God encompasses, God permeates all matters. Our response is a matter of choice – we can witness that God is all-encompassing, or we can claim an exclusive God that does not allow many names – but that would be like saying there can only be one kind of rain.
God is never, ever dull. God refuses to be a tame concept. The idea of God is pouring. The idea of God is pregnant. It is present. The works of God are like a movement that is ever in flow and in rhythm. Even on the Sabbath, God’s world is a worksite of creation and recreation. God refuses to be just a concept. God is the vibrating core, the essence, the fluidity that keeps every living organism alive and in action. The world of God is ever growing and it consists of every experience, every bit of our lives. Whether you call the voice of God ‘shamanic’ or ‘ecstatic’, God uses a secret language that whispers to the essence of every living being, with immense love. We can only hear it and discern it and understand it when our minds are silent.
We can see the whole world dancing and whirling around us, releasing its energy, rage and joy … Only when we stop spinning ourselves.
In our scripture readings today, the similarities between the fleeing prophet Elijah and the terrified Peter are that they are both find themselves in a great predicament where they must learn that they need to stop spinning themselves in order to hear and be supported by God.
When you were a child, did you find great fun in spinning and spinning yourself around until you were dizzy? I remember the way the world span when I would come to a dead stop after twirling around a few times. Why do children like to do that? I don’t know – I should ask my sons or ask a child psychologist to get the answer. When we spin, the centrifugal force gives our body a force that pulls outward. And when we stop spinning, for a moment it feels like the world spins around us, as if we’re the still centre of a merry-go-round. The reality that we know loses its grip, and we see the world in a completely different way.
In the two stories, Elijah and Peter were drawn to where the gravity of their soul spins them into “the dark night of the soul.” They were lost on the way and on the raging sea. They accepted the reality that they can’t save themselves, that they have no real control; it is God who has created and is creating still. It is God who whispers to the frantic heart that trembles with panic. Jesus says to Peter, “Don’t be afraid. It is I. Do not fear.” Jesus’ still, small voice heals us. (pause)
In the story of Elijah, we learn another aspect of silence.
On the mountain, God was not in the whirlwind. God was not in the earthquake. God was not in the fire. God was in ‘a still, small voice’ or ‘a gentle quiet blowing” – in the sheer silence. God was in the the guise of something inconsequential, barely noticeable. In the smallest of sounds that most people would not pay attention to, Elijah listened to the whisper and interpreted it.
The most illuminating fact about silence that this story tells us is that it was a ‘human’ voice God used to reveal himself/herself. This elusive God rejected the creation of dramatic public miracles and aggressive, violent actions, manifesting, instead, in a barely noticeable wisp – the least human voice.
So back to the question I asked at the beginning: Can we be at peace with silence?
I believe that this question depends on wisdom and discretion – knowing that there can be both good and bad kinds of silence.
Can we make voices heard that are crying out from the margins, from the oppressed, seeking and demanding and claiming justice?
Can we be a witness to the pain and chaos of other’s life experiences, and be a healing gift?
Can we silently give comfort through actions, leaving words for another time?
Can we let a friend pour out her sorrow and rage, her anger and fear, and not flinch?
I am still thinking of Gaza. Can we tell the difference between a silence that is complicit with the status quo, and the silence that invites us to become part of the whole universal process for healing, mercy, empathy, compassion, and love?
I believe that we are invited to embrace the silent, soft side of our soul that makes us fully, luminously human: empathy. It helps us to be sensitive and responsive to another’s aches. Empathy acknowledges that nothing is permanent in our universe, that we need to know our own space and respect one another’s right to co-exist, that we need to be a healing presence. God has created in us the illuminating, beautiful core of humanity that knows the importance of the silence that embraces the whole of humanity. We were born with an innate capacity for compassion and empathy. When we make more time for silence, contemplation, reflection and meditation, we become more merciful, warmer, kinder.
Here are my responses to the very first questions I asked at the beginning: we need to choose the silence that is tender in texture, not rigid. We need to choose silence that is singing, not the silence that cuts like steel. We need to choose the silence that contains stories; the silence we would choose to adore is not cold and apathetic.
We are here as Christians to welcome, embrace, and interpret the whispers God speaks out of the depth of silence, out of the real lives of the people, the silence which cradles us, and helps us feel the warmth of another being.
Silence is a mystery that Christianity has spent its whole existence studying; God’s inspiration falling as quietly as rain on a windowsill, soaking us to the depths of our souls.Sermon delivered on August 10, 2014 at The United Church in Meadowood.