Advent II: Seeking the Holy Through Sound and Silence
Advent II: Seeking the Holy Through Sound and Silence
December 5, 2021
from Luke 3:1–6: John went into the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
If last Sunday’s Gospel appealed to our sense of sight, this Sunday’s appeals to our sense of hearing. John the Baptist is busy “proclaiming.” He points back in time to the words of Isaiah, who spoke of a voice in the wilderness crying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Now, thousands of years later, what do we hear, and how might it point to God?
Among the things I most enjoy hearing are birdsong, music, and, of course, the voices of beloved family and friends. Also, the wind in the trees, the water of the York River lapping against the land, the snoring of my dog Joey, the whisper of falling snow, and the crackle of a cozy fire. And, when I am very still, the in-and-out sounds of my own breathing that remind me that I am alive, my breath given to me as a grace. It is easy for me to think such sounds are holy ones.
What sounds do you love to hear? What sounds do you consider holy?
Later today I will hear pots, pans, and dishes clanking, and the hum of the microwave oven turntable revolving. I will hear tap water running from the spigot and soap squishing between my fingers, and the clatter of the ice maker dumping the latest batch of cubes. Throughout the day, I will hear human voices, face-to-face, or over the phone. If I run errands, I will hear the click of my car unlocking and the mechanical sound of its engine starting and running. I may hear horns or a siren, and it is possible I will hear an airplane or helicopter in flight. Somewhere I will probably hear the tinny sound of Christmas songs blasting from store speakers. In my car or my kitchen, I will listen as NPR commentators give the news, weather, and traffic reports. These are all ordinary sounds. I think of them as sounds of sufficiency, for they indicate that I am surrounded by what I need to sustain me. They are sounds I take for granted—and they are also sounds of privilege. Not everyone gets to hear these sounds, much less to call them “ordinary.” They are thus sounds that, when I stop to think about them, remind me to feel grateful. Any one of them might also be a holy sound that could convey something about the providence and mercy of God.
As I write this, however, it is early morning, and I actually hear very little with my ears. My dog is asleep in another room where I cannot hear his snoring or his dreamy yips. I mainly hear the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard as I type, the muffled hum of distant work traffic, and the raucous cry of an occasional crow greeting the day. Are they holy sounds, too?
Probably. However, at the moment, I am not paying them much attention, for there is quite a noisy conversation going on in my head. That is what I hear most right now: my own inner chatter. To be honest, it does not seem very holy, though I am hoping that it will give me enough nudges and hunches to get some words written down for this week’s Advent reflection. In my mind, I hear not only Isaiah and John the Baptist but also living prophets and priests who have also spoken about God. I even hear bits of my own voice as I remember past years when I talked about staying awake during Advent. I get into an inner argument about whether I have anything to say this year, and I try to ignore the voice telling me I don’t. I also hear the highly convincing claim that in 2021, no one needs any more words, for we have all heard too many this year—too many analyses, too many dire predictions, too much misinformation, too many lies, too much blaming, too much hate, too much desperation
Aha! Perhaps that is exactly it. Perhaps what is needed is not more words but more silence. The 16th-century Christian mystic St. John of the Cross wrote that “silence is God’s first language.” Four centuries later, Howard Thurman, a modern Christian mystic, wrote that “[I]n the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.”
There. That is what I want to hear this morning—that whisper of the heart that Thurman describes. I admit that, when God speaks in the “first language” of silence, I am not a very good translator. However, even if I do not understand the “words” of silence, I can sit in silence. Will that whisper of the heart come, and if it does, will it give strength to my weakness, courage to my fear, hope to my despair? I will not know unless I listen. And so, for a few minutes, I lift my fingers from the keys. I lean back in my chair and close my eyes. I sit in the silence and wait.
What about you? What have you heard today, whether from sound or silence, that reminds you to be alert to the Holy coming into your life? Again, if you are a journal keeper, write down the words, or the sounds, or the moment. Then add a few sentences, or questions, about what you think God is saying to you, or asking of you, or hoping for you. Sit in silence for a few moments, holding those thoughts lightly. Then get up and go about your day, open to discovering what will happen next.
"Still, Still, Still"