And the word of the Lord came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
10 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”1 Kings 19:9-13
For thousands of years, followers of God have withdrawn from society to meditate “in wordless love for God.” In Elijah’s day it was common to retreat to the wilderness, a treeless barren place, where there was very little shelter from the sun. The belief was that eating very little and sweating very much would intensify one’s dependence on God.
But hours in the extreme heat of the wilderness was dangerous. Dehydration and sunstroke – called the Noonday Demon – could cut down the healthiest, most pious person.
By the 4th Century, the Noonday Demon wasn’t just the name of a medical ailment but a spiritual and mental one too. Today we’d just call it boredom.
“[The Noonday Demon] makes it seem as if the sun barely moves, if at all, and that the day is fifty hours long…he instills hatred for the place,” wrote Evagrius Ponticus, a monk around 360AD, who was very candid about how difficult isolation and mediation were for him.
Sitting or kneeling alone for hours (or even a few minutes) taxes our minds – especially if our mind is accustomed to constant stimulation and entertainment. The Noonday Demon comes to drag our attention away, floods us with hatred for the quiet space we’re in, tempts us to give up.
Our mind – our flesh – is rebellious and petulant, like a toddler kicking and pulling us in the opposite direction we’re dragging him.
Elijah, exhausted from his duel with the pagan priests on Mt.Carmel, running scared for miles from a murderous king and queen, retreated to a cave and wished he was dead (1 Kings 19:1-5). God baked him bread, gave him water to drink, and Elijah rested…then he listened.
God spoke to him in “a gentle whisper.” The phrase is hard to translate into English. Literally, word for word, it’s “small silent voice.” But how is a voice silent?
One rabbi translates it “the sound of minute stillness” and another calls it “the sound of absolute silence.”
Psalm 46:10 tells us how to know God – and it isn’t easy. “Be still” to know God is God. Literally, we’re told to “go limp.”
Relax your working hands, blank your busy mind, stop your running feet, quiet your humming concerns…and know God, hear God, in the sound of silence.
• When you are worried or afraid, what do you run to?
• Today, run to God in silence instead. Get alone and quiet for just five minutes. Sit, close your eyes, and listen to the silence and your own breath. If your mind wanders or worries, gently bring it back by repeating a favorite verse of scripture to yourself. When it stills again, go back to listening to the silence and your breath. Don’t thank or ask God for anything. Just listen.
God, we know fear, busyness, and running. We want to know you.
We are still. We are quiet. We are listening.