Out of Sheer Silence

At the conclusion of a recent performance of a symphony, a few seconds elapsed before the audience burst into applause. During the ensuing intermission, a handful of patrons remained and sat still, quietly relishing the exquisite sounds they had just heard. The majority, however, quickly whipped out their cellphones and checked voice mail, texted or talked. The need for constant communication won out over the momentary gift of contemplative silence. Today’s readings invite us to choose to enter into spaces of silence, where it is easier to hear the one who is constantly communicating divine love to us.

In the first reading, Elijah is discouraged and afraid for his life. He has fled from the deadly intentions of Jezebel into the desert and has plopped himself under a broom tree and asked God to let him die. God has other plans, however, and an angel provides him with food and drink. Twice the angel has to urge him to eat and drink. He finally does so and is thus fortified for his 40-day trek to Mount Horeb, also called Sinai. At this same mountain, God had been revealed to Moses, who likewise stood in a cleft in the rock as God’s glory passed by (Ex 33:21).

At a time of deep fear and distress, Elijah goes to the place that connects him again with the roots of Israel’s covenantal bond with the Holy One. But God is not manifest in devouring fire, like that which surrounded the mountain at the giving of the law to Moses (Ex 24:17). Nor can Elijah hear God in the fierce, crushing wind or in the earthquake. It is in “a sound of sheer silence” (see NRSV; the NAB translates qol demmamah daqqah as “a tiny whispering sound”) that Elijah hears the voice of God.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” is the probing question that invites Elijah and us to reflect on whether our actions and choices are leading us to fulfill our hearts’ deepest desires for oneness with God and God’s purposes (1 Kgs 19:13). The subsequent verses sketch out how God strengthens Elijah for the remainder of his prophetic mission before he dies.

In the Gospel, we see Jesus likewise retreat to a mountain by himself to pray, following the noisiness of healing and feeding a crowd of more than 5,000 people. That previous episode began with the note that Jesus had just heard of the death of John the Baptist and had withdrawn to a deserted place by himself (Mt 14:13). But the crowds find him and he breaks out of his solitude to respond compassionately to their needs.

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus’ effort to retreat again. Even at night, the peoples’ need for him does not abate. His disciples have been in distress in their boat on the lake ever since he left them at evening. He does not go to them immediately, however, but waits until the fourth watch of the night—the last watch, about three hours before dawn. We can surmise that although he is aware of the strong wind that is tossing them about, he remains in solitude, in the necessary inner stillness, where he experiences oneness with God and becomes strengthened to continue to minister compassionately.

Coming to the disciples at last, he shares with them his gift of fearlessness. Although his beloved mentor has been executed, and although he can see a similar fate awaiting him as well, from the still center of his heart set on God, he can do what seems impossible. The disciples, too, when they grasp his outstretched hand to come to him, find in him the still center, where his contagious courage dispels all fear.

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