Hidden in a cave on Mt. Horeb, something wonderful happens to the prophet Elijah.
A violent wind storm rips the mountain and crushes its rocks. The earth shakes. Then a fire blazes. Elijah survives all this. But that is not the wonderful thing that happens to Elijah. He had been commanded by God to stand on this mountain. One natural wonder after another had passed by. But God was not in any of these.
Then he hears it.
“A still small voice.”
That’s how many translations render 1 King 19:12. The wonder is that God was not in these natural wonders, as one commentary notes:
It was in the midst of such terrible phenomena that the Lord had once come down upon Sinai, to inspire the people who were assembled at the foot of the mountain with a salutary dread of His terrible majesty, of the fiery zeal of His wrath and love, which consumes whatever opposes it (see at Exodus 19:16.). But now the lord was not in these terrible phenomena; to signify to the prophet that He did not work in His earthly kingdom with the destroying zeal of wrath, or with the pitiless severity of judgment. It was in a soft, gentle rustling that He revealed Himself to him (The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament).
Here it is the God of silence that is encountered, as other translations bear out. The New American Bible describes what Elijah heard as a “light silent sound.” The Douay-Rheims Bible likens it to “a whistling of a gentle air.”
There is a certain kind of intimacy that is only possible in silence. What is incredible, then, is not the natural phenomena that rocked that mountain but that the Creator of those phenomena—no, more than this, the Creator of that very mountain, its foundations, the atoms and forces that bound them together into a monster of rock, the earth that was its foundation and the sky that stretched beyond—would step out behind the curtain of nature, so to speak, to be present to Elijah, in the intimacy of a great silence.
But Elijah heard something. It was not quite silence. There are three words in the underlying Hebrew: daq demamah qol (pronounced: dak dem-aw-maw’ kole). Individually, in order, these would be perhaps best be translated as small, still, and voice, with the latter of these, qol, being the standard Hebrew word for voice. But demamah really has the sense of a calm silence. And so we really have more of a paradoxical expression.
The New American Bible describes what Elijah heard as a “light silent sound.” The Douay-Rheims Bible likens it to “a whistling of a gentle air.” Other variants include: “a gentle blowing,” “a gentle air,” and “a low whisper.”
As readers, rather than try to solve the paradox, it may be better to embrace it. And then we are at once confronted by something new: Elijah heard God’s silent speech. Or, put another way, from out of that silence God spoke to Elijah. More to the point: the silence was God speaking to Elijah.
Silence is indeed a sort of language all its own. It is a something rather than a nothing. This is the great insight of the mid-twentieth century Swiss Catholic writer Max Picard: “Silence contains everything within itself. It is not waiting for anything; it is always wholly present in itself and it completely fills out the space in which it appears” (The World of Silence). In other words, to paraphrase one reviewer of this book, silence is not an absence, but a presence.
In our biblical scene, set on a forlorn, storm-ruined mountain, the presence signified by such silence is the presence, God Himself.
This silence ‘speaks’ to Elijah, drawing Him into itself. Here we have encountered the mystery of God in most marvelous way. As the note to the New American Bible, Revised Edition, well puts it:
Though various phenomena, such as wind, storms, earthquakes, fire, accompany the divine presence, they do not constitute the presence itself which, like the “silent sound,” is mysterious and ultimately ungraspable.
The whole encounter between God and Elijah here may seem wholly beyond our reach. And yet, the essential reality at the core of the story opens up for us a way to touch this mystery: silence. That’s something we can and do experience. As Picard notes, silence is essential to any normal, healthy conversation:
When two people are conversing with one another, however, a third is always present: Silence is listening. That is what gives breadth to a conversation: when the words are not moving merely within the narrow space occupied by the two speakers, but come from afar, from the place where silence is listening.
So it is, in a way, with God. He does, after all, actually converse with Elijah (see verses 13 and 15 to 18 in 1 Kings 19).
The place for us to begin seems to be prayer. Most obviously, it seems that an essential fertile soil for prayer is silence. Silence not only teaches us to be better listeners; it also makes us better speakers. As Picard wisely notes, words that are spoken out of the silence of the heart are more meaningful, rather than words that come from the “noise of other words.” Cultivating an interior silence thus seems to be an essential preparation for prayer.
Then there is the act of prayer itself. Sometimes we consider the silence that seeps into our prayers—as with our ordinary conversations—a deficiency of speech, a failure to find the right words, or, perhaps, a shameful loss of stamina when it comes to completing a recited prayer, such as the Liturgy of the Hours.
Perhaps instead we should welcome such moments. Rather than spaces in which the proverbial phone line to God has gone dead, they are precisely the opposite. For the story of Elijah teaches us that it is in the silence of words that we enter into the presence of the Word.
image: Landscape with the Prophet Elijah in the Desert by Abraham Bloemaert