“Go out and stand before me on top of the mountain,” the LORD said to [Elijah]. Then the LORD passed by and sent a furious wind that split the hills and shattered the rocks—but the LORD was not in the wind. The wind stopped blowing, and then there was an earthquake—but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire—but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the soft whisper of a voice.
1 Kings 19:11-12
One autumn afternoon in the center of a large city, I sit on my living room couch with the windows open. I’m home alone after a day of work, craving quiet. I love my open windows; the trees outside still have their leaves and they are brushing together in the wind. I meditate on this sound and for a moment I am soothed. Until I listen more deeply. I notice the shoom of cars below. Their brakes screech as the stoplight changes. A motorcycle revs its engine. Sirens moan from a distance. A jackhammer clobbers some sidewalk down the block, church bells toll the new hour, children laugh, a garage door creaks open and closed, a helicopter hovers above, a car horn blares, and a city bus stops at the corner, exhaling loudly. This orchestra keeps time by the metronome of my own clock’s tick, which feels, suddenly, deafening.
And this is just what’s happening outside of my mind. Inside, I worry about the day that has passed. I didn’t finish the work I’d hoped to finish. I said things I regret. There was a text from a friend with bad news about her father. There was bad news in the headlines. There were the big theological questions prompted by that bad news. And there were emails from friends who want to grab a drink, come for dinner, check out a film, visit from out of town. Their voices blend with the swaying leaves and car horns below, and it’s all just noise.
I long for a single voice to guide me—to pardon me for falling short, to teach me from the day’s mistakes, to make sense of bewildering news, to discern among the myriad opportunities before me. I long to hear the voice of God.
Into the Silence
This is how I was feeling when my husband suggested we begin practicing silence together. We were overwhelmed by the city’s clamor and the clamor of our own inner lives. Even at church, songs and teachings that had nurtured me before only added to the chatter. Readings from the Bible were crowded out by so many other words. To answer the big theological questions I was asking, right now I needed not a chorus of voices offering verbose biblical interpretation, but enough quiet to hear a single voice: God’s voice. We told our close friends about this longing for quiet. They longed for it, too. So the four of us decided that we’d begin to gather for silence together, starting with a reading from Scripture to guide our thoughts.
We began in winter, with the windows closed. We’d meet in the living room, and after a snack and a bit of talk about the week’s doings, we’d each find a comfortable seat and take a deep breath. It was intimidating to embark on this silence, but it helped to have friends to do it with. Ambitiously, we decided to maintain 45 minutes of quiet. One of us was appointed the week prior to choose a bit of Scripture to read to the others—words that person discerned might speak to the needs of the group. He or she read aloud to the others. Then we smiled nervously, and shut our mouths.
In the silence, the words of Scripture began to stretch their limbs. I’d hear a phrase repeat itself. I’d picture that phrase and it would lengthen and swell in my mind’s eye, drawing up a dozen associations—another Scripture passage, a memory of my young mother, the idea to write a letter. These would dissolve from my mental screen and an unrelated thought might come with its own associations. But eventually I’d return to that first phrase. Sometimes, I’d feel distracted. Sometimes, I’d feel sleepy. Sometimes, I’d feel I had heard a holy word of comfort or instruction. But I always felt that God had been with me, through the ancient words, through the company of friends, and through the rest I experienced when I tried my best to quiet all that noise. That rest felt like the presence of God, and that presence was better than answers.
Practices for Silent Moments
If you, too, could benefit from more quiet in your life, consider gathering with a friend or two and practicing silence together. Many historic tools can help to guide your time in silence. Lectio Divina is an ancient practice in which you seek to hear from God by focusing on a word or phrase from Scripture. Centering Prayer invites you to use a holy word not as the subject of your meditation but as a tool for clearing your mind so you can commune with God’s presence within you. Using Ignatian Contemplation, found in the Spiritual Exercises you can imaginatively place yourself within a Bible story using all five senses: you are eating fish with Christ on the shoreline in John 22; you are the woman pouring perfume on Jesus’s feet in Luke 7; you are Elijah on the mountain, hearing, finally, that “soft whisper of a voice.”
Life gets loud when we leave these times of silence. At the dinner table, my husband and friends and I laugh and chat about where our minds went in the quiet. Our silverware clatters, our glasses clink, we’re cracking up about the fact that, during this stretch of stillness, one of us fell asleep while another had a holy epiphany. Our minds will soon be crowded again with noise from tomorrow’s mistakes, headlines, unread emails, and existential fears. But week by week, we’ll get better at quieting all that to hear the one voice that can speak to it all, the voice that we can discern in the ancient words of Scripture, the voice of the One who is always with us.
Thanks to the support of our faithful financial partners, American Bible Society has been engaging people with the life-changing message of God’s Word for more than 200 years.
Help us share God's Word where
Sign up to receive Bible-reading tips, tools and resources.