Monty Knight: The Sacred Sound of Silence


In the 19th Chapter of I Kings, the ancient Hebrew prophet, Elijah, is having a proverbial "nervous breakdown." He's depressed. So depressed, in fact, he wants to die. "It is enough," Elijah wails, "O Lord, now take away my life." (v.4) Perhaps you've heard this plaintive lament sung by the baritone soloist in the oratorio by Felix Mendelsohn, a marvelous musical composition that bears Elijah's name.

In the previous chapter of this portion of Hebrew scripture, which is set in the 9th century B.C.E., some 900 years before the birth of Jesus, in that primitive account Elijah is engaged in a classic cultic confrontation with the prophets of Baal, the most prominent of fertility deities among the ancient Canaanites, Israel's sworn enemies. Though greatly outnumbered, Elijah has emerged victorious, prompting the wicked Queen Jezebel (dominant, controlling wife of the weak Israelite King, Ahab, and a devoted Baal-worshipper herself), to announce her intent to have Elijah killed.

So, Elijah - here in 1 Kings 19 - he's running for his life. If he is frightened, he is just as exhausted. Being afraid: it can wear you down - if not out! Not surprising then, Elijah falls asleep. "Under a broom tree," the Bible says. When he awakens, an angel explains to Elijah that he needs something to eat and to drink. Which, dramatically, God provides for Elijah in a jug of water and some freshly baked bread that appear before him.

Some years ago, I received a phone call from a clinical staff member at a nearby psychiatric hospital. This person knew me from my having conducted, for a number of years, a pastoral care and counseling seminar for local clergy at that hospital. It seems a woman patient in their facility had been hospitalized due to a psychotic episode. And she was refusing to eat, claiming that it was God, no less; that indeed it was God who was telling her to engage in that particular hunger strike. So - assuming my "pastoral authority" perceived at least by the person requesting my services - I was asked if I would meet with this patient to see if I could talk her into eating something.

That's when I took a Bible with me, including of course the Hebrew Bible (our Christian Old Testament) and turned to 1 Kings 19. I asked the woman to read this portion of scripture out loud, with me listening along, and by the time she had finished reading this notably dramatic Bible story, she agreed, if reluctantly: she agreed to start eating, asking for at least a cup of coffee and a piece of toast.

For that woman, scripture seemed to have an "authori-tarian," if not something of a magical quality to it, admonishing her to, as it were, heed as well God's wise and practical counsel to Elijah. Not that I read the Bible quite as literally as that woman seemed to read it. For, if I find scripture "authori-tative," I hardly find it "authori-tarian." And there is a difference.

In fact, from a less literalistic reading of 1 Kings 19, there is revealed, nonetheless, some rather applied psychological advice. At least if one understands that the root word for our modern term "psychology" - psyche - that psyche is in fact the Greek word in our Christian New Testament translated into English as "soul."

Hence God's just as practical "spiritual" counsel to Elijah, delivered as it is by an angel. It goes something like this: "You see, son, you've managed to get yourself burned out. So, you need the therapy of something as reasonable as some rest, not to mention something to eat and to drink."

It is none other than St. Paul who, in our Christian New Testament, exhorts the Galatians with this maxim: "Be not weary of well-doing" he declares in Galatians 6:9. Except, if you read the last part of the 11th chapter of another of Paul's letters, 2 Corinthians, it sounds there like Paul - given his rather exhaustive litany of suffering and misfortune on which he elaborates in considerable detail in that portion of scripture 2 Corinthians 11 - it would appear that Paul has himself gotten pretty "weary of well-doing."

As has Elijah here in 1 Kings 19. And one of the insights into Elijah's crisis at least: it concerns his grandiosity. As when he exclaims "I have been very jealous for the Lord...for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant; they have torn down thine altars and slain thy prophets...and I, even only I am left...."

Except, later in this same narrative (in verse 18, to be precise), God chides Elijah; indeed, God reminds the prophet that there are in fact several thousand other Israelites who aren't idolaters either. Or as the Bible says it: those who also "haven't bowed a knee to Baal."

It can happen to any of us, when like Elijah, when - in our "well-doing" - we take ourselves too seriously; when in our grandiosity, when we start "keeping score," thinking that we're the only person at work or at church or in a marriage or a family, even a friendship, when we're the only one doing a decent job; when we start believing that no one else is working as hard or cares as much, nor is nearly as faithful and committed as are we.

Not that there aren't some people who don't take themselves seriously enough, who tend to be more care-less than care-full. They are not, however; such folk, I suspect, are hardly among most of us who listen to radio programs like Day 1 or engage this ministry online. Those of us who tend to so sincerely try so hard and care so deeply.

I actually once wrote a book in which I expose this irony, the tragic dimension of hyper-conscientious, chronic over-functioning, the sub-title of which is: Don't Let Your Strength Become Your Weakness. For in that book (entitled Balanced Living, published by Wipf and Stock Publishers in 2009) - in that book I ask the question, "How seriously do you take yourself?"

It's important, you see, important to take ourselves seriously - but not too seriously. And if you don't believe that is so, ask Elijah. Or as someone has said, "Lighten up, so that like the angels, you may fly!"


Here's yet another lesson before us today. It comes from the portion of 1 Kings 19 I read earlier. "But the Lord was not in the wind...nor in the earthquake...nor in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice." Or, as Hebrew scholars translate it more literally, "a sound of gentle stillness."

So have I entitled this sermon, "The Sacred Sound of Silence."

For we tend (most of us, it would seem) - at least in the contemporary America I know - we tend to live otherwise - if you will, in a more characteristic and predominantly eruptive, harsh and noisy, in-your-face, "Sound and Fury" kind of world. As in, for instance, the violent "wind, earthquake, and fire" images from the scripture lesson before us.

Even too much religion, I'm afraid - even of the kind we may call Christian (certainly in the cyber-sized world of these days) - too often such religion would seem to trade even more so on the dramatic and disruptive, perhaps even ill-mannered, than on the subtle, the softer, kinder, gentler and more sensitive; on the more coercive, rather than on the necessarily cooperative, much less comforting and sustaining; perhaps even on the voyeuristic as against the introspective; not to mention the entertaining over the substantive.

Except the truly sacred - according, at least, to this Elijah story here in 1 Kings 19 - is more often found; or rather, the profoundly sacred more often finds us in that rare "sound of gentle stillness." As in the words of Phillips Brooks' beloved Christmas hymn: "How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given."

Nowhere has such a dimension of genuine, of authentic, yea of deep and transformative moral and spiritual living, nowhere has such quality of character been captured more vividly than in a brief poetic rendering by the writer, Brian Doyle, a short piece which I first read last fall in an issue of The Christian Century (p. 11, October 12, 2016).

He begins by describing his sixth grade teacher in parochial school - Sister Everard - as, and I am quoting, "stern and somber and orderly and firm and rigorous and organized and blank and unemotional. I never saw her smile," Brian Doyle continues, "or laugh or cry or lose her temper or snicker or groan at the profligate idiocy of her young charges."

To summarize, Sister Everard was to the young Mr. Doyle, again I'm quoting, "as stern and rigorous and dry as a skittered leaf." Until one day the narrative continues, when the Monsignor interrupted the Sister's class to call her outside for a conference in the hallway. When she returned, she approached a girl in the class whose father was terminally ill. "All the rest of my life, I think I will remember the way the girl didn't look up at Sister. Nor did Sister say anything," Brian Doyle continues, "her hand gentle on the girl's shoulder. We heard someone start to sob, but it wasn't the girl, it was Sister Everard. No one moved an iota or an atom or an the girl who had just discovered that she was now a fatherless child, as she held Sister Everard's head under her chin, as Sister sobbed quietly, a sound we had never heard before nor would ever hear again.

"Finally, the girl and Sister walked out of the room together, while the rest of us sat silently until the bell rang a few minutes later. We sat so still and quiet," Brian Doyle concludes, "so still and quiet you could almost hear the silence." And he adds, "Some silences have great weight."

"But the Lord was not in the wind...nor in the earthquake...nor in the fire," the Bible says. "[But] after the fire, a sound of gentle stillness."

Indeed, "The Sacred Sound of Silence."

Let us pray.

Go now in peace, to love - and thus to know - to trust and to serve God. Sing like you're in the shower; dance like no one's watching; work like you don't need the money; and love like you've never been hurt. For Christ's sake, to the glory of God. Amen.