Tumbling in the Sand
“… 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.”- 1Kings 19: 12b-13a
As I write this, it is late. Lee has gone to bed. The cats have not yet begun their evening prowling. I hear the soft patter of rain out the window and it is quiet. I find myself pondering Elijah’s experience of silence. Tonight is far from silent, as there are many little noises … but between the noises, beside the noises, surrounding the noises I can almost imagine the silence. Maybe it dances between the rain drops?
Of course, I’ve experienced silence. It’s not as pleasant as the quiet. The silence of the graveside. The silence of the wait by the bedside of a dying loved one. The silence of eyes screaming desperation and despair. The silence of the heavens that seem to be deaf to a repeated prayer. The silence of tears tracing lines down a cheek. That silence seems to me to be a silence of absence, as though God is not there, as though God is far away.
But Elijah’s experience of silence didn’t seem to be one of absence, but of presence. I’ve been known to describe the silence here as the kind of silence where you know something is there but you suddenly aren’t so sure you want to know what it is. It’s the kind of silence that makes you silent too. And I’ve experienced that silence—this sort of holy awe and terror that is indescribable and very clearly present. It’s the kind of silence where you have no doubt, no matter how inconceivable or indescribable, of the presence of God.
But I wonder … what if Elijah’s experience of God’s silence was one of absence? What if it felt like God wasn’t there at all? What if it was like most of our experiences of wondering if our prayers simply bounce off the ceiling and are unheard by a distant God? I mean, Elijah was burnt out when he went to see God. He’d asked for God to kill him just a couple verses before this story and in this passage Elijah basically says “I quit.” Surely, that is like our exhausted silences of faith, when we feel burned out, done, ready to throw in the towel.
And yet when God felt most absent—when all Elijah heard was nothing at all—that was when Elijah covered his face because somehow he knew that then he was in the presence of God.