Receiving God in silence

Mar 7, 2018 by

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“And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks 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 the sound of a low whisper” 1 Kings 9:11-12 (NIV) (In other versions called a “still small voice”).

In March of 1990 I was living in Hesston, Kan., when a powerful F5 tornado ripped through, destroying a third of the town. I watched from my basement window as debris whirled around the black cloud that passed only two blocks to the north west of my house. Although only one life was lost, many people suffered significant damage to their properties and the psychological scars cut deep. It was an extremely frightening event.

In April of 2012, I was with a group of students in Mexico City looking at the street below from the observation deck on the 44th story of La Torre Latinoamericana, one of the tallest buildings in the city. Suddenly the building began to rock significantly. It was more than the gentle sway when a strong wind buffets such a building. Below, people were scurrying out of buildings like rats fleeing a sinking ship. We were stuck in a skyscraper in the middle of a major earthquake. Even though there was little damage nor loss of life from the earthquake, it was an extremely frightening event.

In June of 1994, my family had just moved to Harrisonburg, Va. Esther had bread in the oven while we all were huddled in the family room in the basement watching a TV show. Suddenly, the smoke alarm in the kitchen went off. We hurried to the kitchen to see smoke billowing out of the oven. Soon the whole upstairs was engulfed with smoke. We called 911, and miraculously our neighbor was monitoring his scanner and rushed over to our house long before the fire trucks arrived. He was a volunteer firefighter and knew exactly what to do to contain the blaze to our oven. Apparently accumulated grease in the oven by the former owners caught fire and except for the quick action of our neighbor, our house could have been burned to the ground. It was an extremely frightening event.

I was at a silent retreat in rural Pennsylvania. A group of about 40 contemplatives huddled in a small room practicing centering prayer for 20 minutes. I was used to practicing silence alone, in an isolated place, not with a group of people. I expected lots of distractions with so many people in the room. However, the silence in the room, despite the presence of so many people, was so thick you could slice it with a knife. Time stood still. The hunger for God in that small space was palpable. I was moved to tears. When the chimes sounded signaling the end of the 20 minutes, I could hardly believe it. I wanted to remain in silence, united with 40 other souls basking in the eternal embrace of God’s love. It was an extremely rewarding event.

My personal life has not only gone through literal tornadoes, earthquakes and fires, as described above, but also many emotional upheavals. I often wished I could hear the voice of God speak to me in dramatic forms like in the wind, an earthquake or a fire. Like Elijah, I needed a direct message from God telling me what to do during my times of emotional stress and uncertainty. In spite of the wake-up calls that God gave me in the literal winds, earthquake and fire, they were not events that helped me to find the message I needed to hear from God. Indeed, the fear those events produced made me aware of the awesomeness of God’s presence in nature and sovereignty, but not the inner voice I needed to hear to assure me that I was indeed made in “God’s image and likeness,” and that I was “beloved of God.”

The event that spoke to me more directly was the “sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) experienced at the silent retreat I also described above. What is “sheer silence?” It is: utter silence, complete silence, total silence, and absolute silence, to use synonyms from the dictionary.

Few of us ever experience such silence. We are surrounded by noise. We are scared of silence. When we enter a room and are alone, we turn on the TV, a radio or a streaming music service to keep us company. “Sheer silence” makes us afraid. We are afraid that we must face the inner demons that surface in silence. Our culture supplies us with many noisemakers beyond those used to celebrate the New Year.

Throughout the silence that I experienced during the centering prayer exercise, I felt a unity with those around me that I had never experienced before in the same way. There were numerous denominations in attendance, and I’m sure many different interpretations of Scripture and political persuasions. That didn’t keep us from being one in silence, and I believe in mind.

The “still small voice” that I heard in silence challenged me not only to spend more time in silence, but also to find unity within myself and with others. There are myriad voices within our psyches from our socialization that pull us in many different directions. In fact, when we are tormented by them, they could easily be represented symbolically by the wind, the earthquake and the fire. To still those voices, and to try to attain wholeness within (unity), we need silence.

Perhaps God speaks to us through a storm or some earth-shattering event. In my experience, however, God has spoken most clearly and at the same time most enigmatically, through the “sheer silence,” or the “still small voice.”

Don Clymer recently retired as an assistant professor in the language and literature department at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He is a writer, spiritual director and leader of intercultural programs in Guatemala and Mexico. He blogs at Klymer Klatsch, where this originally appeared.

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