Sacred Song, IV: The Sound of Silence
1 Kings 19:11–13
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.
My claim in this sermon is that silence is a spiritual necessity. Whether you seek it out, or simply fall into it, we need sacred silence for spiritual renewal.
The summer before my freshman year in High School, I went on a two week caving trip that I’ll never forget. We went spelunking. We went deep into the earth. I got sticky mud over every inch of clothing I brought with me. Donning headlamps, we saw bats, made it through underground passages I could barely fit through, and saw underground passages bigger than a football stadium. It was certainly a strange trip: One night we slept in a cow field because it was cave adjacent. One night we literally slept in the cave itself.
Once we paddled a canoe into a cave. It was truly the only way in, the cave entrance was a small river. And when we were inside the sound of water and the echo of the earth’s walls sent shivers down your spine. We’d been traveling together for days, and even though we were a team of teenagers who'd never met prior to the trip, we’d already moved past the awkward-silence part of group bonding. We could be quiet without awkwardness. One of our guides had a beautiful voice and she started singing Simon and Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence. Her voice filled the cavern, making it feel warm and welcoming, and when the song was over, there was only silence. We turned off our headlamps and just listened. The darkness and the silence were a gift to each of us.
I hope you’ve had an experience like that, a moment of sound punctuated by silence. Sometimes the symphony can usher in a silence like that, or a rock concert. French impressionist composer Claude Debussy says that music is not the notes but the spaces between them. Miles Davis says the same: “it’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” And then there's American experimental composer John Cage who famously wrote a seemingly absurdist piece of music called 4’33’’—a song of complete silence—in which the “performer” sits down at the piano, opens the sheet music, counts out 4 minutes and 33 seconds of rests, and then stands up from the piano and exits the stage.
John Cage wrestled with the idea of sound and silence so much that he visited an anechoic chamber, a sound proof, reverberation-free, underground room, seeking out an experience of absolute silence, only to be disappointed by two loud sounds that he just couldn’t shake. Asking the sound engineer afterward, he was told that those two sounds were in fact his own body. The higher pitch tone was the ringing of his nervous system and the low noise was his blood circulation, at which point Cage realized that he had always assumed that silence existed somewhere, but even his own body carried sound within it.
And so he decided, “no silence exists that is not pregnant with sound.”
For me, it might be more important to put it this way: no silence exists that is not pregnant with sacred sound. And at least in part I think you might agree. For example if I were to pick two hymns that were universally in the top ten at Kenilworth Union Church I’d have to include Silent Night and Amazing Grace. They are both inescapable classics; ubiquitous; quintessential; time-honored; approachable. When it comes to Silent Night, we’re a bit like Miles Davis: it’s not the notes you play: it’s the notes you don’t play. Humming the tune of Silent Night on Christmas Eve pushes us toward a wordless attentiveness to the divine that allows us to welcome silence, even and especially in the bustle of Christmas. And Amazing Grace calls grace a sweet sound. A sweet sound we’ve never literally heard, and so a sound to me at least, that must hold some room for sacred silence.
Does silence matter? I think it does. We need quiet places, spaces where we can disrupt the general experience of noise. Music is not the notes but the spaces between them. It’s not the notes you play, but the notes you don’t play. Silence is an entryway into the divine.
Our scripture for today says something similar. The main character Elijah, is a biblical character of myth and legend. He’s larger than life and walks in the legacy of Moses. Elijah had remarkable powers to enact miracles. He was charged with religious and political command at a time when urgent conflict was tense, and heightened between Yahweh, the God of scripture, and Baal the “enemy” God. Elijah warned the king and queen—Ahab and Jezebel—that a famine was coming, but they were notoriously wicked rulers, with a marked disregard for God’s word, and made no preparations for the coming famine.
So Elijah and all the people suffered hunger. Elijah barely survived but was taken in by a widow and her son who saved him, making bread with a small portion of flour. As if that wasn’t enough, Queen Jezebel threatens to kill Elijah, and feeling the emotional whiplash, and physical exhaustion of starvation, and political peril Elijah goes off alone to the wilderness and is on the run, isolated, afraid, and alone.
He is stressed, physically depleted, without resources, and up in a cave. He’s about to give up, and in fact at one point he even prays for death. He feels abandoned without a way forward. And that is when God draws near in a new way. For Elijah’s whole life God has shown up in dramatic ways, but this time God is not in the powerful wind, the exaggerated theatrics of earthquakes and fire, but instead God is in the ancient gentle whisper, the still small voice, the soft whisper, the low murmur, the sound like a gentle breeze as close to divine silence as we can muster. The word of God comes quietly to Elijah up there in the wilderness, an ordinary whisper livening the prophet drenched in sorrow.
Sometimes the world puts undue, unmanageable pressure on us. Sometimes we put even more pressure on ourselves. And I expect that, given the reality of the pressure you’re under these days, given the significance of all you’ve experienced these past weeks and months, given the amplification of isolation for some if not all, given the undue sorrow and unexpressed grief, you too like Elijah, have spent time in a wilderness-like state, wondering what the way out will look like. We too have the capacity to listen for God in the low whisper, in the gentle silence, in the still small voice. We too will see God unveiled after the storm, after the fire, after the earth-shattering. These are hard days. Not quite impossibly hard though some are tempted to say so. And in the silence, in the holy spaces between the cacophony and wild noisy din, there is a divine song being sung, if we just walk out from where we’ve been sheltering to hear it.