Paul Simon tells us that some of his most creative moments come during the night and the silence:
Hello darkness, my old friend.
I’ve come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
and the vision that was planted in my brain
still remains … within the sound of silence.
“The sound of silence” is reminiscent of the phrase in 1 Kings 19, “the sound of sheer silence”. The prophet Elijah had retreated to a cave on Mount Horeb, after a great victory over the priests of Baal. God had put on a big show with fire upon the altar. The wicked King Ahab was impressed but not so the angry Queen Jezebel. She was just more than ever determined to destroy Elijah. He was depressed and afraid and retreated to the mountain. There was a hurricane force wind, then an earthquake and then a great fire, but the writer tells us that God was not in any of these. Then came “the sound of sheer silence” and God was in that. Elijah gathered his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave and listened. Then God spoke to him and gave him instructions what to do next. As Paul Simon wrote in the song, “Sound of Silence” the quiet times are often the times we receive our greatest inspiration. Now Elijah was ready to go forth and do battle against the corrupt powers of his time. He would need every ounce of spiritual energy and resolve for this task.
We might ask what is “the sound of sheer silence”? Here words are reaching their limit – “the sound of sheer silence” – surely silence has no sound or does it? These words are at the threshold of a different kind of reality and to travel into that reality we must leave behind all logic and reason. We must simply trust that God is there and will speak to us out of the silence.
We live in a noisy, aggressive, extroverted society. “The squeaky wheel gets the attention” is the mantra for many people. It is commonly thought that pushy, outspoken extroverts are the ones who get ahead. They make the best sales people. You have to sell yourself if you want to get ahead, we are told. Yet, 30 – 50 % of Americans are introverted and do not like intrusion in their private space. There’s a book, “Quiet” by Susan Cain, a New York Times bestseller, which takes to task the notion that the only way to be successful is to be an aggressive extrovert. She points to many very successful men and women in all fields who have been introverts, people who like the quiet, people who are shy, who are soft-spoken and humble, who are very creative and very determined. Rosa Parks who began the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Steve Wozniak who was the co-creator of Apple, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Mahatma Ghandi – these were all introverts, people who thrive on quiet.
Rosa Parks was an excellent example. She was known as timid and shy, a humble person, soft-spoken, sweet and small in stature. Her autobiography was entitled “Quiet Strength” but people said she had the courage of a lion. On that day in 1955 she was returning home by bus after a long day at work. She was aching and sore, and when told by the bus driver to give up her seat for a white person, she simply said “No.” For that she was arrested and the rest is history. This quiet, devout Christian woman changed history – she did not seek the limelight, was not trying to sell anyone anything, was not trying to win any prize. A quiet voice inside her said, “Enough is enough” and she said to the bus driver, “No.”
Susan Cain writes that as a society we are far too impressed with personality and style and presentation without regard to character and substance. We need quieter, humbler leaders who have fierce determination to see things through, who are willing to listen to and empower others rather than promote their own egos and dominate others. She has a marvelous quote from Albert Einstein: “It’s not that I’m so smart. It’s that I stay with problems longer.” That’s a recommendation for persistence and determination, if ever I heard one.
In the late 1980s I was considering leaving the ministry because I found the expectations too demanding and too extroverted. I felt a lot like Elijah when he retreated to that cave, except my retreat was to a place in the hills of Maryland, a retreat with the Shalem Institute for Contemplative Spirituality. The quiet, the respect for silent prayer was wonderful and very refreshing. I discovered that I had been ignoring a very important part of me – the need to find God in the quiet. So gradually I developed a prayer life which included time for reading, time for walks in the woods and countryside, time for appreciation of the arts and music, an occasional retreat to share with others, and spiritual friendship where the conversation with a couple of friends focused on spiritual things. Later I began the daily practice of Christian meditation, and that was God-sent, a saving grace in this busy world.
There has been a lot in the news media about the health benefits of meditation, and much of what is said is true. I am specifically interested in the Christian tradition of meditation and silent prayer, which has its roots in scriptures like our story about Elijah today. Often in the Bible when God meets with a person face to face, the person is left speechless. What other response is there? Words at that point are not needed. Just be silent. If you would like to know more about meditation, please check out my webpage, https://johnfisk.wordpress.com/meditation
There is a very strong Christian tradition of contemplative or quiet prayer. For the introvert who is drawn to the quiet this type of prayer is a wonderful resource. The extrovert needs times of quiet also. If you stay in the extroverted mode all the time, you will get exhausted. Extroverts need the balance and the depth that the quiet brings. Life is not a big show and party 24 hours a day. We need to take time to take stock and recoup and ask the deeper questions.
So I recommend that you make room in your own life for God in the Quiet. As Jesus said, go into your inner, quiet, secret room, where you will experience God in a new way.