The Sound of Sheer Silence

The Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
                   1 Kings 19: 11-12
Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place and rest a while.”          
                   Mark 6:31

“The Sound of Silence” is the title of a hit Simon and Garfunkel song which was the background music for the 1967 motion picture, The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman as the new graduate and Anne Bancroft, aka, Mrs. Robinson. The movie was a landmark and the song was very popular.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon God they made.
The words of the prophets are written on the subway wall and tenement halls,
And whispered in the sounds of silence.

The phrase come from one of the oldest and best stories in the Bible. The prophet Elijah has angered the queen, Jezebel, and is running for his life. He spends the night on the lam in a cave. During the night there is a frightening sequence; a violent wind storm, lightening, earthquake and fire. God was not in any of the noisy violence. But afterward there was “the sound of sheer silence,” and in that silence God did speak to Elijah.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who spent most of his adult life in monastic silence, wrote: “If you love God, you will love silence.” And in the book I am slowly reading and pondering, My Bright Abyss, Christian Wiman writes: “Silence is the language of faith.”

Every now and then it strikes me that we live in the midst of a lot of persistent noise. Someone called it “non-stop auditory overload”. City people adapt to it:, diesel buses, fire trucks, ambulances, sirens, cabs honking, motorcycles at full throttle, jack hammers, cigarette boats on the lake, boom boxes on the sidewalk, street musicians, subwoofers wompping so loud you can feel the rumble. Motion picture advertisements I’ve seen recently fit a Tribune review of one of them: “Robots clash, eardrums take a beating.” And, people my age start to veto restaurants because they are so noisy you can’t hear what your dinner partner is saying.

Sometimes I think that religion simply adds to all the noise with its constant talking, theologizing, arguing, pontificating, pronouncing. Good religion ought occasionally to be quiet, silent because the sound of sheer silence can be powerful, eloquent, compelling and maybe even holy. Most of us learn that there are circumstances and situations when words are irrelevant, distracting, not helpful: sitting by the bedside of a critically ill friend facing final mystery. Sometimes, keeping silent, holding a hand, patting a forearm, being quiet and present, is the most eloquent thing anyone can do.

In the midst of the busy, crowded, noisy life we live, find a time this week, make time and a place, to be quiet and to listen to the sound of sheer silence.

Dear God, 
Give me times of holy silence. Quiet the noise in my mind and heart and soul, calm me down, help me breathe deeply, slowly, and to listen for your voice of compassion and grace and love. 


  1. Susan Schaefer says:

    Thanks, John. This quieted my heart and mind just reading it.

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