Silence and the Sacred
In the coming weeks of December, we will likely hear a song with the words: “silent night, holy night.” The pairing of these descriptors for a particular night is no coincidence. It seems that holiness and silence go together beautifully, and yet we often miss the significance. Even more, we can become fearful when we think of those two words.
For many of us, silence means that we are left alone with our thoughts or perhaps silence was used punitively when we were children. Noise and words can distract us from the hurts and unpleasant thoughts we often carry in our hearts. However, on the other hand, silence can actually move us into a place of receiving and experiencing the very presence of love. Noise and words can serve the purpose of “protecting” us but they can also block out the love which can heal and transform our woundedness.
We often want a big show that will show us that God is speaking to us and present in our lives. But, God usually doesn’t present Himself in that way. In the Hebrew Scriptures (1 Kings 19:11-13), we read:
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.And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It was in the quiet sound of a “low whisper” or perhaps “silence” (the Hebrew word could mean either) that God spoke. We might think, “why doesn’t God make it more obvious?” God’s presence in our lives is most often in silence because He never wants to force Himself on us. He desires to be gentle and humble in His way. (Matthew 11:28-30) Simply being present with us is the love we crave and we come to perceive that love when we get quiet.
In the recent movie about Fred Rogers, there is a scene in which Mr. Rogers asks a reporter who is interviewing him to simply be quiet for minute. The film doesn’t just represent a minute of silence, there is actually a minute of movie silence and it is powerful. He asks the reporter to call to mind all the ways in which he had been loved. It was transformative experience for this man.
When we are quiet and devote ourselves to periods of reflective silence, we experience the holy or the sacred. Holiness can also be a word which scares us but it simply speaks of that which is transcendent and most real. Love itself is the most holy reality in the universe because God is love.
Brother Thomas, the Canadian monk and artist, wrote: “Once we become aware of the Holy, we part company with words.” Perhaps the inverse is true as well: when we part company with words, we become aware of the holy.
As we learn silence, we learn presence …being present to God’s love in real time. As we are silent and quiet with others, we are giving them presence, or love.
During these weeks of “much noise,” take just a minute each day (or if you are slightly more daring, more than a minute) and simply embrace silence. In the silence, reflect on the ways that God is loving you. Touch on past expressions of love and look ahead to His future for you, but stay as present as possible. How is He loving you right now? Listen for the low whisper.