the still small voice of calm
On my last trip to India I wound up getting almost crippled from an injury to my hip, so much so that my brothers and sisters at Shantivanam sent me away for a week in an Ayurvedic hospital in the nearby city of Trichy. My anecdotes about my stay there are another story, but aside from the discomfort of the treatments themselves, it wound up being a wonderful solitary silent retreat since I had a private room, barely anyone spoke English and I rarely saw the few that did. I didn’t bring much with me to read, just a novel I was reading, my Bible and the Upanishads. The Upanishads, for those of you who don’t know, are some of the sacred writings of India. Briefly put, they are esoteric writings that are attached to the end of the larger scriptures known as the Vedas. The distinctive feature of them is that they don’t deal with calling out to gods and goddesses “out there” or with hymns or sacrifice or ritual––they are devoted to the interior way, the way of meditation, finding the Divine in the guha–the cave of the heart. It’s not that this interior way is not explicated in many of our own Christian mystical texts, but there is something special about the way the Upanishads speak about it that is very dear to me. What was interesting about having just them and the Bible (mainly to read the psalms and the Gospels) was to juxtapose the two––the inner and the outer—, because, all things being equal, our own Scriptures don’t necessarily speak of the interior way in the an explicit fashion, it’s more hidden, perhaps just under the surface. What we generally identify Christianity with is the extraverted way of ministry, of service, of our God in heaven. What I came to by the end of that week, in a way that it had never occurred to me before, is wondering if what was described in the Upanishads was similar to what Jesus himself experienced in the solitary days and nights that he spent in the desert and on the mountains when he slipped away to commune with his Abba in silence and solitude as we so often hear about in the Gospels, as in the first part of today’s Gospel passage.
We don’t know much about Jesus’ way of praying except what he reveals in the Gospel when he is teaching his disciples how to pray, for example: ‘…whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Mt 6:5-6) We’re taught always to see Jesus prefigured in the Jewish Scriptures, and so Moses as a type of Christ, Isaiah’s suffering servant as a type of Christ, Jonah and Jeremiah as types of Jesus. In this reading from 1 Kings, I see Elijah as a type of Jesus in a very literal kind of way: want to insert the story of Elijah on the mountain right into this story from the Gospel of Matthew.
After he had fed the people, Jesus made his disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, Jesus went up on the mountain by himself to pray. … And he came to a cave where he took shelter. Then the Spirit said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain for your Abba will be passing by…” And there was a great wind, and there was an earthquake, and there was a fire, but his Abba was not in the wind, the earthquake or the fire. But after that, there was the sound of sheer silence. When Jesus heard this, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
The story of course doesn’t end there, but this is the part that is always missing for us, what happened to Jesus in those lost years, in those unrecorded moments, what he experienced, how he prayed. Maybe this is why the Church offers us this reading from 1st Kings in conjunction with this Gospel; someone may have had the keen idea that this is what Jesus experienced, something like what Elijah had experienced. There’s a 19th century English hymn writer named John Whittier that thought so. He wrote a text that is very famous hymn in England, the third verse of which goes like this:
O Sabbath rest of Galilee!
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love.
“The silence of eternity interpreted by love”! In his Sabbath rest of Galilee, on the calm of hills, is this what Jesus experienced, what the hymn writer later calls, “the still small voice of calm”? Is this what Jesus experienced on the mountain, in the desert, in the wilderness, the God beyond all names and forms of the Upanishads? The God of the sound of sheer silence, who Gregory of Nyssa and John of the Cross say is the God who dwells in darkness––a holy darkness––rather than in light the more we approach the summit of the mountain? I guess we won’t ever really know exactly but we do know that Jesus himself said to the Samaritan woman, ‘… the hour is coming when true worshippers will worship neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem but in spirit and truth’ because ‘God is Spirit and those who worship him worship in spirit and in truth.’
But again it doesn’t end there, and that’s very important. “The silence of eternity” is always “interpreted by love,” love for his Abba and compassion on the crowds who are like sheep without a shepherd. Every time we see Jesus alone in prayer it’s always followed by some kind of manifestation of his power to save or heal or feed. Just before this in Chapter 14 we heard of the crowds following Jesus to his deserted place. He doesn’t send them away and tell them that he’s on a Desert Day: he cures them and then he feeds them. And he does the same thing again in Chapter 15. And right after that story in Matthew we hear of Jesus’ transfiguration after which he comes down the mountain and he heals an epileptic. Now think of this story in relation to the story of Elijah again. Just before this in the Book of Kings we hear that Elijah is scared; he’s running from wicked Queen Jezebel, fleeing for his life. That’s when he goes to the mountain and has this experience. And the next thing Elijah does after this experience of meeting God in the sound of sheer silence, is go back down the mountain, continue with his prophetic mission and throw his mantle over Elisha––he regains courage and then passes the experience on. And what does Jesus do? Even his walking on the water isn’t all about him. His first words to the apostles in the boat are, “Don’t be afraid!” and then he invites Peter to walk on the water with him. Out of his experience, as the Tibetans say about monks after the three-year retreat, he comes back to the world “with bliss bestowing hands,” with that still small voice of calm enabling him to stay above the troubles of the world, not that they aren’t there or aren’t important––but even though they rock the boat and as they do sink Peter, they don’t sink him. Peter still hadn’t found the Spirit in the cave of the heart—so Jesus calls him a “man of little faith!”—so he still has to reach out to Jesus until he learns to dig deep to find the love of God that is poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us.
Perhaps we could say that this is where Jesus dwelt in his solitary moments, in the cave of his own heart–the guha, and in that cave of his heart what reigned was that gentle breeze, the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice of calm. But I don’t think it was just a psychological tool or even a self-powered trance like state, but what the hymn writer calls “the silence of eternity / interpreted by love,” a deep seated knowledge that this silence, this gentle breeze that was the ground of his own being and consciousness was also in some marvelous way intentional and loving and benevolent––like an Abba. And that is Jesus’ gift to the world, to invite others to walk on the water with him and to trust the benevolence that is the source of the universe and the ground of their own being and consciousness, too.
In our daily lives and in our place in the world and history, this may be one of the specific gifts that Christians have to offer––our own experience of this benevolent God of Jesus; and even more we in the contemplative tradition are to lead others too to this experience of God in the cave of the heart, the loving silence of eternity that is the ground of being and depth of the soul. Especially in a society driven wild by consumerism and consumption and a world gone mad with aggression and vengeance, someone has to walk on the waters and assure others that there is mercy in this world. Especially in this day and age this is what we need and this is what we need to be.
This is the last most famous verse of that hymn:
Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire,
O still small voice of calm.