Lebh Shomea sits in deep south Texas, not far from the border with Mexico. Located in the Texas wilderness; amid the oak mots, buffalo grass, and mesquite trees, Lebh Shomea—which translates “listening hearts”—welcomes all those who would pray with Solomon “Give your servant a listening heart, so as to be able to discern …good and evil.” (I Kings 3:9)
For years, people have journeyed to this piece of Texas wilderness. They have come, in the words of today’s Psalm, as those with souls disquieted and heavy; thirsty for the living God; seeking the presence of God.
The continual community of pilgrims, joining their hearts to the hearts of the resident contemplative community, have made Lebh Shomea one of earth’s thin places; where the richness of human silence and yearning touches the palpable stillness and presence of God.
I made my first week-long silent retreat at Lebh Shomea in 1988; completely unprepared for the totality of the quiet. The community—anchored by three hermits—keeps silence 24/7. People did not travel then with the things we consider essential today; no smart phones, I-pads, laptops. Just me and my small bag of clothes; encountering Lebh Shomea; all stillness, all silence, all solitude.
On the third day, standing in line and waiting to receive the Eucharist, I fell over like a tree in the forest; flat on my face. I hurt myself: fracturing a tooth; biting through my bottom lip; severing the muscles. Returning to awareness, I had a large knot on my head and a terrible headache. The good sisters of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate took me to the ER to get patched up. For a long time, I considered this experience as a purely medical moment. I thought I had fainted. Having gained more experience with silence, I realize that the quality of the silence and the prayer and the palpable nearness of God in this thin place completely overwhelmed me.
Not all silence is the same: Thoreau retreats to Walden Pond; into nature to be alone and discover himself in solitude; a kind of transcendental silence. (Winner)
The silence God bids us enter differs. The work of this silence extends beyond an invitation to self discovery. This silence opens questions of our identity. For God calls us to a silence so profound we are overwhelmed by the assurance that we belong to God, to one another, and to all creation; now and forevermore. To enter this silence, writes Margaret Guenther, requires a tedious ascent, a courageous inward turning, a surrender.
Lauren Winner points out that the first letter of the first word of the Ten Commandments is, in Hebrew, a silent letter; suggesting that silence marks the beginning of the servant’s journey into faithful obedience.
Consider Elijah: his life all up in a heavel. Having prevailed against the prophets of Baal, Elijah executes the pretenders. Jezebel does not appreciate her employees being bested by an upstart. She puts a bounty on Elijah’s head. Fearing for his life, Elijah runs; runs 100 miles before stopping, exhausted. He would rather die than keep running.
God thinks otherwise: and sends an angel to wake Elijah; to give him food and water; to push him to journey another 200 miles, to ascend Horeb, mountain of God. It takes Elijah forty days to reach the mountaintop, where he finds a cave, hides, and waits in silence. God plans a meeting.
And at first it seems that God will come to Elijah as God came to Moses in this very place. Lightening flashes; wind howls; and Elijah braces himself. No Yahweh. The earth quakes so violently Elijah crouches in fear. No Yahweh. Fire breaks out, smoke so thick Elijah loses his bearings. No Yahweh. Not a word; not a tweet. (Vidakovich)
After all the hoopla, silence settles over Horeb; the sound of sheer silence, a soft whisper on the heart (Thurman). Elijah encounters the very stillness of God.
So often we think of silence as comfort and peace. Notice what happens next. God completely ignores Elijah’s spiritual distress; offers not one word of comfort. Instead: examination. “What are you doing here Elijah?” God calls Elijah from his hiding place. Twice. Examination and assignment: Elijah is told to return to the geo-political fray; to complete three tasks. Having waited in silence, God speaks, and Elijah’s life receives new direction.
When it comes to keeping silence, many of us struggle with a way to begin. Sue Monk Kidd takes her cues from that profound contemplative Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown and Lucy are sailing on a cruise ship. Lucy, being the great philosopher that she is, says “You know, Charlie Brown, life is like a cruise ship. Some people take their deck chairs to the back of the ship to see where they have been. And some people take their deck chairs to the front of the ship to see where they are going. What kind of person are you, Charlie Brown?”
Charlie Brown pauses; reflects; and then says “I’m the kind of person who can’t get my deck chair open.”
What do we do when we cannot figure out how to open the deck chair of silence? We can notice the cacophony of noise in our life; beginning with outer noise. Sitting on my porch in the early morning, I notice sounds. Squeaking brakes, car horns, sirens; construction saw, construction debris being thrown into an empty dumpster; car radio—loud!, dog barking, runners yelling at one another with I pods in their ears; church bells, about a dozen kinds of bird calls, squirrel feet on bark; tea kettle whistling, a mom calling her children, my husband’s waking sounds; turning on WETA, music on WETA; whir of ceiling fan, creak of wicker chair. So much sound! So much noise!
Researcher Les Blomberg says that nature’s own wonderful quiet is preserved in only 7% of the Grand Canyon. 7%. (Smithsonian Magazine)
Noise has addictive power. Even when we claim to be “getting away from it all”, we carry our noisemakers with us. Alone, quiet, watching a spectacular sunset, I find myself invaded by people allegedly present to the sunset while describing it at the top of their lungs to someone on the other end of a cell phone.
And cameras! “Gotta get this!” Click. A theory: could excessive picture taking be a way of avoiding where we really are?
We enter silence in present tense. It reveals itself as we give whole-hearted attention to the present moment; choosing to rest in the here and now; settling in and settling down into our deck chairs, and waiting on the visitation of God.
Silence requires the absence of speech. And we do love words. Have you ever wondered how many words we text, type, tweet, speak, or read in a single day? God would speak to us. And yet for God to speak, at the very least we must stop talking!
Quakers raise good questions about words: Will our speaking benefit all friends? Did God mean the insight that arises in silence for us individually or for all? Reflect, they counsel. Then speak only if the words spoken will improve upon the silence.
We turn our attention to inner noise, experienced as distractions. Distractions help us avoid the deep questions God would raise in the silence; an honest examination of the things we have done and the things we have left undone. We give shallow answers, avoiding a radically honest reflection upon the deep wounds we inflict upon the heart of God.
Some liken distractions to twittering sparrows; Jesus calls them demons in today’s Gospel. “What’s your name?” he demands. The man flinches before one who sees to the center of all being. He dodges. “What have you to do with me, Jesus?” Distractions are not harmless, for they chain our hearts and lives to places of death.
The distracted life; unexamined, unprayed, unconfessed, unstill, unquiet, unhappy, soon becomes “an absorbing and elaborate game of Trivial Pursuit.” (Guenther) Endless energy expended on things that do not matter at all in our life with God.
An elderly woman works at prayer with all her might, without sensing God’s presence. Wisely, her pastor counsels her to go to her room each day and for fifteen minutes to knit before the face of God. The pastor forbids her to say a single word of prayer. “Just knit and try to enjoy the quiet of your room.”
Receiving this counsel, the woman thinks “Fifteen minutes to do nothing and not feel guilty!” Slowly she begins to enter the silence created by her knitting. And she begins to perceive, she says “That this silence is not simply the absence of noise; this silence has substance. It is not the absence of something; rather, it is the presence of something.”
Continuing to knit, she discovers “at the heart of silence, there is God; who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.” (Anthony Bloom)
We all need to go to Horeb from time to time; away from the noise and the words, the twittering sparrows and demons asking for our attention, in order to encounter the essence of God. Let us each find our Horeb: wilderness place, literal mountain, knitting room. And let us go there often; allowing the wind and the earthquake and the fire to pass by. And let us wait for the sound we know will come; the sound of sheer silence.
For God is not in the wind. And God is not in the earthquake. And God is not in the fire. God lives in the silence: the sheer and shimmering silence.
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Lauren Winner, Advent Reflections delivered at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC, 12-05-08
Howard Thurman, Mediations of the Heart
Mary Ann Vidakovich, “The Search of God”, AliveNow, March/April, 1997
Richard and Joyce Wolkomir,”Noise Busters”, Smithsonian Magazine
Margaret Guenther, “Embracing the Silence”, Christian Century, 6-7-95
Sue Monk Kidd, Firstlight, GuidePostsBooks, 2006
Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray.