If you were to make a list of the top 10 characteristics of our current society, I don’t think silence would make the list. It may not even make the top 100. We live in a culture that is bombarded by instant messages, saturated by social media, and obsessed with 24-hour news cycles. Silence is mostly absent in our lives.
Deep meaningful conversations have been replaced with ridiculous tweets that give no time and space for wonder or humility. We pause only long enough to frame our response to rebut the last statement and assert our own position.
Some people take pictures of their meals while texting friends instead of sharing a silent glance at friends or their spouse over the perfect glass of wine. Our lives are filled with far too much that means far too little. Such a posture leads to superficial relationships that easily crumble under the pressure of stress and the inevitable discomfort that we try so hard to avoid.
While so many of our means of communication do allow us to get a message out or share what might be a meaningful insight or reflection, if I am honest with my own social media use, more than a few of my own posts are laden with a smidge of my ego’s desire to know and be known.
Here’s the thing: This desire to know and be known is the realm of deeper spiritual practice. It is the space of contemplation, because it allows us the opportunity to reflect on our deeper desire and connection to God, the true source of our life. St. Augustine reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God, but our hearts often get distracted by the glitter and sparkle that entices our egos to wander off course so easily.
You’ll remember the story in the First Book of Kings when Elijah was fleeing from pesky Jezebel. He sought refuge in a cave when the crazy ruler came after him because he dared to question her power. God asked him to go and stand in the mouth of the cave and bear witness to God’s presence. A series of commotions passed by — a great wind, an earthquake and a raging fire — yet God was not to be found in any of these.
“And after the fire, a sound of sheer silence,” the text says (I Kings 19:12). Silence.
It was in the silence that Elijah truly encountered God’s presence. It was in the silence that Elijah truly had room to stand at the mouth of the cave and bear witness to God’s persistent presence.
It seems to always surprise us that God’s power is made manifest in stripping away the egotistic busyness that so often marks our own grasping and ambition for power. No matter how hard we try to squeeze Jesus into the pattern of our own lives — to rationalize our own self-centeredness — in the end, we’re left with silence. Silence.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham is the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in downtown Gainesville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.