The sound of sheer silence

And after the fire, a sound of sheer silence…

This story from all the stories of Elijah carries a great weight. It’s about how God comes to us, or how God came to Elijah. And it’s full of contradictions or, as we say in theology, paradoxes. There is the sound of silence, but it’s a silence Elijah heard – can you hear silence? God comes in the silence says the story, and yet then God speaks in a voice. Some people even think that ‘the sound of sheer silence’ should be translated as something more like ‘in a great noise’. But of course since all sorts of famous hymns and songs now depend on the translation we know best, no-one is going to suggest we change it. It’s the sound of silence, the still small voice of calm… and somehow it’s deep inside most of us that silence is more holy than noise…

I imagine that most of us can remember being ‘shushed’ as children and wondering why we had to be shushed. And most of us know that when you go into a particular kind of church it’s somehow right to be silent. Even here, there’s an instruction to keep silence before the service begins as though silence is a better preparation than the bustle and noise of greeting each other.

I remember once, when I was a student, going to share in evening prayer at the Anglo-Catholic theological college in Oxford – St Stephen’s House. I went with a friend I’d met at some lecture or other. As I sat in the pew before the service began, someone I didn’t know and had never met before came up and whispered in my ear, ‘We sing sotto voce here’.. And so I sang the hymns in that rather back of the throat restrained kind of way that they do in some churches, rather than the full-throated, stick your chest out and give it large, con belto kind of way that Nonconformists normally do. I found it hard, I have to say, but it did stop me showing off and made me recognise that I was part of a group and not a soloist… And it taught me something powerful about the different traditions we Christians inhabit. For many Christians, God is not found in the earthquake, or in the wind, or in the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence.

But of course I could go to other churches, other styles of Christian worship, where I would be expected to make much more noise than  I usually do – to speak in tongues, to shout ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Amen’ during the preaching, to sing the hymn verses repeatedly, and not to be restrained by the organist but to let the sounds come forth. So does it matter? What’s at stake in this battle between sound and silence?

Christianity has rather struggled and wrestled between noise and silence for most of its history. And also between ‘words’ and ‘not words’ – for which noise and silence have sometimes stood. The real struggle has sometimes been between believing that God comes to us in words or that God comes to us in mysteries, sacraments or signs.. Or between thinking that we can know anything about God at all and recognising that you might as well say that we can hardly know anything at all, or that we can only use words to tell us what God is ‘not’. At the end of many a communion service here we say, ‘Thanks be to God for this gift beyond words’ – because we know at some moments that words just can’t cut it… even the best, most holy, most venerable words. God comes not in the liturgy, not in the sermon, not even in the best prepared words, but in the sound of sheer silence… comes in something beyond what human beings can frame.. G.K. Chesterton talked about ‘poor chatty Christianity’, seeing that sometimes God cannot be reached through our words…and that God is more profound than we can fathom.

At the moment, perhaps it’s fair to say that many Christians come out now on the side of silence. We live in a world that’s increasingly noisy and it’s harder and harder to get away from noise or words. Most of us have learned to work in busy offices or in libraries which now include the sound of coffee being sipped or computer keys tapped. You have to go a long way to escape the distant thrum of traffic or train.  And finding a quiet space in a home without the TV or radio or that tune in your head is getting harder. And so we long for silence, but cannot find it. And we forget how to be comfortable in the silence or how to stay there when we do find it. We recognise the truth of what Pascal said when he wrote that all our ‘misfortunes come from one thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.’ We all sense that we live in an increasingly noisy world with its speed and clutter, even our minds full of hubbub; twittering, tweeting, 24/7 news, e-mails, texts and memes filling our heads with a Babel of noise and communication. And we conclude that God belongs in a different world from that one, that God belongs in the silent spaces between or beyond all of this.

And so, if we aspire to deepen our connection with God, we think of going on retreat, the highest form perhaps a silent retreat, where we can find God not in the earthquake or the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence. And sometimes finding such a space, the silence at the heart of the firey heat of modern life, is a relief and a wonder. I have often been content to sink into a pew in a monastery or cathedral and let the sounds wash over me as I search for the silence beyond them, at Evensong or Compline. Or I find the quietness of a country church and listen to the silence, and find God somehow waiting there for me. Or somedays, when I can, I sit in this church when there’s nobody else here, and I breathe in and out and listen to the murmur of the traffic and the creaking of the wood – and hold in prayer the souls who have worshipped and who still worship here.

And I regret that unlike saints like Rowan Williams I have not the patience or the skill or the resolve to sit for 30 minutes in silence before God every morning, though I know that it would surely help me to put the day in perspective, to grow into God and to become a more holy person.

But I have discovered that this prejudice in favour of silence has not always been the strongest one in Christianity. And of course, if you think about it for a moment, we in this church have come from a tradition that has valued noise more than silence, and in some ways at least for good reasons. This building was not designed for people to observe silence, but people to hear speech – it’s an auditorium. The building says that God can be heard.. and that God speaks to us, that God has a message we can hear… in words. The texts on the wall tell us that words can tell us what God is saying, whether commandment or grace – 10 commandments and 8 blessings. We can hear, we can read, the truths of God. In our worship we sing here full-throated to the praise of God, and all voices are welcome – not just the minister, but all the people, not only the men, but the women too, and the cries of children if we had them. And the organ – with its great and swell – can make a goodly noise unto the Lord. We come from a tradition within Christianity that says that noise is good – that the kind of silent prayer that was once the privilege of monks should be broken by the praises of the poor and the ordinary, by people like us who live amidst the noise and chatter of the world, a world that God has made. We come from a tradition that says that the world, with all its noise and industry and traffic, is the theatre of God’s glory – not just the reverent silence of churchly aisles or retreat houses. We come from people who believe that God is as present in the fire of industry and the wind of change as in the sound of the sheer silence of a cathedral. And we come from a tradition that believes in proclaiming and in preaching, in testimony and in telling… in witnessing with words in a noisy world. We follow on from the women who witnessed the empty tomb, but we are not silent – we declare in words and with our lives what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. We are noisy Christians.

Christianity has, it seems, often wrestled between noise and silence, between words and signs or sacraments, between text and image. And we have been those who have found more of God in the noise, words and texts. Perhaps that means that we have more need than some to learn the value of the other side of this, of the silence, to recognise that the truths of God are sometimes (of course!) beyond words, and that there is a need to make space for a time of quiet and to be still before God.

But I also want to say that there is something valuable and godly in our noisiness too, that silence isn’t everything. There is a place for the noise of involvement and engagement in the world, for speaking up and singing loud, for celebrating the full voices of all God’s people. Christians in our tradition once fought hard to say that God is present in the furnace of industry and the winds of change and God is present in the world of children, a world rarely silent. Silence isn’t the only way to holiness and God does speak.

It’s striking that in the world of the Old Testament, it wasn’t silence that had the privilege of holiness, but noise. God speaks and creation happens. Worship was noisy and the people celebrated that God gave them words to say and sing in Psalms. Still if you go into a synagogue, the kind of place where Jesus learned to worship and read, you will find not silence, but plenty of noise as people read and pray aloud. And if Jesus went into the wilderness to be quiet, he battled with the Devil using the words of scripture. The Reformation, from which we come, was a period of speaking out, of singing out and of welcoming the noisy world of all kinds of people into the presence and praise of God.

I can imagine you know a kind of minority report reading of this story of Elijah. It might go something like this. Elijah goes into the wilderness on retreat, into a cave miles from anywhere, to find the silence, so that he can hear God. He takes himself away from all the noise of the world and believes that in the silence he will find God. But he sits for hours and nothing happens. So he goes back and finds the seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal – and he discovers that in the sound of seven thousand faithful voices (people of all shapes and sizes) God speaks to him at least – in the sound of sheer noise…

There have been times in my life when I’ve needed to look for silence and not be afraid to find God there. I know I could do with more of that more regularly.. But there are also times when I need to rediscover God in the noise and the activity, in the day to day activities that God has called me to. God does not belong only in the silence. God is in the earthquake, the wind and the fire. And God is in the speech you utter and the words I search for. God is not only here on Sundays, but in the Mondays and Saturdays when we are busy too…

The good news is that we do not have to feel guilty if we can’t hack the silence, or if we can’t stand the noise. We don’t have to search for God in the space we cannot find or cannot like. God is there with us and God comes to us wherever we are.. whether in the clang of cymbals or the sound of sheer silence. Thank God for that. Amen.