Most of us are familiar with the story of the prophet Elijah, who is particularly famous for his dramatic confrontation with the priests of Baal. My favorite part of Elijah’s story comes after that, though, when he realizes that not much changed as a result of his demonstration of God’s power–the people are still worshiping idols, and the wife of the king has promised to assassinate him. Elijah, despairing and suicidal, travels to Mt. Horeb (more famously known as Sinai, the same mountain on which the Lord appeared to Moses) and waits. The voice of the Lord then comes to him and asks him a simple question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
It’s easy to sense some frustration and anger in Elijah’s answer. “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah is despondent, and wants to die.
Elijah is told then that the Lord is about to pass by. Elijah looks out from the mountain and sees a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire. God, we are told, is not in any of those, but is in the “still, small voice” that follows. This phrase, “the still, small voice” is used a lot in our common LDS discourse, everywhere from conference talks to hymns to testimony meetings. We generally use it to refer to the subtle “pricking” of our hearts that signifies the influence of the Holy Ghost. As the children’s songbook says, “Through a still small voice, the Spirit speaks to me; To guide me, to save me from the evil I may see.” I think this is indeed how the Spirit feels to us sometimes.
But I think there can be an even deeper and more interesting meaning in Elijah’s story, particularly if we consider alternative translations. Consider how the NRSV renders this passage:
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (emphasis mine)
“A sound of sheer silence.” It’s a strange sort of paradoxical statement, but one that is kind of fun to play with. Elijah heard God’s silent speech. The silence was God speaking to Elijah.
Silence is not always comfortable. As any serious meditator will tell you, sitting in silence for an extended period of time is hard, sometimes brutally hard work. The first time I tried to conduct a silent meditation exercise with teenagers, it was only about 30 seconds before I thought they were all going to jump out of their skins. I remember when I was in graduate school, a professor of mine noticed (as she was observing me in session with a client) my propensity to fill moments of silence with nervous conversation, advice, or reassurance. “Stop rescuing people from silence!” she admonished me. I’ve come to realize the wisdom of that advice in the years since, even as I still struggle with it. As modern-day humans, we often try to relieve the anxiety of silence with noise or shopping or the internet or other distractions. It is in those times of silence, however, where we are left to wrestle with the reality of who we are, and what we really desire. This is not a comfortable process, for most people, but I think it is a necessary one.
As for Elijah, we are left to wonder what he experienced in this moment, but we can imagine. What I imagine God saying through the voice of silence is this:
What is for you here, Elijah, when all of your preconceived notions of who God is or how He speaks are torn to shreds? Who are you here in the desert, when your sarcasm and righteous anger mean nothing, and where, unlike with Moses, the wind and fire and earthquake are empty? Who will you be, in the absence of adoring crowds to praise your miracles? Is your pride so strong that you are truly willing to lay down and die, rather than give up this story you have of yourself as a prophet and miracle-worker?
And in those moments of God-infused silence in our own lives, I wonder if we might hear echos of the same questions. Who are we, when we are left alone with our fears, our hopes, our desires, and all our worldly accomplishments mean nothing? Who are we when God’s presence seems to provide no comfort or direction? What is for us here, in the place where our stories of how we should be cut us off from what God would make of us?
Who are we in the silence?