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Be Quiet!

October 24, 2010

Bible Reading

At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “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.” 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; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 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?”

(1 Kings 19:9b-13a)

They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

(Mark 1:21-28)


Several years ago my parents moved into a new house set back in the woods, in front of a vernal pool. You might imagine that this would be a quiet setting, but on a spring evening, the calls of spring peepers and tree frogs can be almost deafening. I read in a nature book that these frogs can be startled into silence by sudden loud noises. And in fact, if you scream at them to shut up, they will. (I tried it—it’s fun.) But soon one calls out again, then another answers, and before long all are peeping and chirping again.

The racket of the frog chorus is a good correspondence for the inner chatter that preoccupies so much of our moment-by-moment conscious lives. For instance, those who have done self-esteem work will be familiar with the inner critic. This is an anxious, fault-finding inner voice which finds everything we do or say to be somehow inadequate. Closely related to this is the voice of the inner worrier, ever alert to anything, however remotely possible, which might go wrong. And there many other forms of inner chatter as well: the stewing over irritations and resentments, the reliving of old conversations, fantasies of revenge . . .

For our personal growth, for our own happiness, and for the sake of our ability to be truly present with others, it is important to learn how to quiet these voices. In the early stages, it may even be necessary to yell at them to “shut up.”

Swedenborg, as well, was familiar with these voices. He says they come from hell. And truly, at their worst, when they become obsessive and take on a life of their own, we are right to call them “demonic.” This is reflected in everyday conversation when we refer to what we call our “inner demons.” The Gospel promises us, however, that when we turn to the Lord in prayer, Jesus comes and says to our inner demons, “Be quiet! Come out of him!”

Perhaps “demons” sounds like a strong word. But I ask you to consider. Do you not, during most of your waking moments, find yourself involved in an inner monologue, at least? And very often an inner dialog, an inner debate, an inner Babel . . . How many times has being wrapped up with the inner chatter caused you to forget what you came into a room looking for or to drive past a turn you had meant to take? We call this absent-mindedness, but effectiveness in the task at hand always requires present-mindedness, and present-mindedness requires inner quiet.

This inner quiet is the theme of our reading from 1 Kings. Elijah found God, not in the drama of wind, earthquake, and fire, but in silence. There are interestingly different translations of the key phrase. In the version we read this morning, the fire is followed by “the sound of sheer silence,” while the King James Version offers the translation which has become proverbial in English, namely, “a still, small voice.”

“A still, small voice,” “the sound of silence,” are both evocative expressions. The Hebrew phrase here is quite ambiguous and allows of either translation. I wonder: can the two interpretations be taken together? Could it be that the voice of God is not so much a voice heard within the silence, but rather IS the silence itself?

You know, we are always in the presence of silence, if we choose to direct our conscious attention to it. Light is visible only because it shines in what otherwise would be dark and empty space. So too we hear a sound only within a silence that embraces and contains it. You cannot hear a normal human conversation over the sound of a jackhammer. And that jackhammer itself would be inaudible against an even more ear-splitting racket. Any sound is audible only against a backdrop that is relatively quiet.

Whenever we hear a sound, we are also in the presence of that implied silence. Indeed, the silence we encounter in the deep woods is often oddly intensified by the call of a bird or the snapping of a twig. In that situation we quite spontaneously “hear” the silence that contains the sound.

Being ever in the presence of silence, we are also always able, if we choose, to hear the voice of God. Listen!

I must confess that I personally live day to day with an ongoing level of inner chatter. I do have and savor moments of relative quiet, and I pray you do too. Still it is always a relative quiet. Inner quiet, I’ve noticed, is easier to achieve in a setting of outer silence and serenity. This is why hikes in the mountains and walks along the beach can be so restorative. But these are not necessary. The true test of serenity is whether you rest in inner silence even in the midst of noise and confusion. We can learn little by little to still the inner chatter in all situations.

How, then, to quiet the inner voices? I find I can yell at the worst of my “inner demons” to shut up. This often works, but it has a major drawback. Like the spring peepers, they start up again after a brief pause. Alternately, I can reason with some of the inner voices. For instance, by taking an objective view of what might go wrong in a given situation, and by taking reasonable precautions for the most likely contingencies, I can reassure my “inner worrier.”

There is, however, an even gentler way to still much of the inner chatter. I can choose to listen to the implied silence in which the voice of God is always present. I find that when I can remain attentive to the ever-present Divine Silence, the chatter subsides on its own. This attentiveness is a form of prayer, and within that prayer it is as though Jesus bids our inner demons to be still, sternly if need be, but ever more gently, I believe, as we gradually outgrow our obsessions.

May the inner chatter cease! And may we all become ever more richly alive to the Divine Silence. Amen.


The noise
that prevents us hearing
the voice of God
is not,
is truly not,
the clamor of man,
the racket of cities,
still less
the stirring of the wind
or the whispering of water.

The noise
that completely smothers
the voice of God
is the inner uproar
of outraged self-esteem,
of awakening suspicion,
of unsleeping ambition.

- Dom Helder Camara, A Thousand Reasons for Living

Rev. Dr. Jonathan Mitchell