By: Mark Giszczak
A Reading from the first book of Kings, verses 19:9A & 11-13A.
Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter.
Then the LORD said to him,
“Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD;
the LORD will be passing by.”
A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains
and crushing 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.
After the earthquake there was fire–
but the LORD was not in the fire.
After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
When he heard this,
Elijah hid his face in his cloak
and went and stood at the entrance of the cave.”
What is in a whisper? When someone whispers, we quiet down, sharpen our ears and pay attention. A whisper conveys often the most important information—whether intimate words of love or secret words that tell of hidden matters. Whispers are usually more significant than shouts, but they also require more of us. If we fail to pay attention, we could miss the last words of a dying man or a key insight that could change the direction of our lives.
Whispers Good and Bad
Think of all the whispers in Scripture–Jesus’ words on the cross (“I thirst!”), the hushed speech of the lovers in the Song of Songs, the whispered exchanged between Jesus and the Beloved Disciple at the Last Supper. Of course, whispering has its dark side. Gossipers speak in a whisper. Conspirators plot in secret. Whispers, which seem designed for lovers, can be perverted into the tools of betrayal.
An Inviting Tone
The power of the whisper lies not in its overpowering thump as with a loud shout, but in its enticing draw, its invitation to draw near and lean closer. One who whispers invites us to share his secrets, to become one with him in a private, shrouded space. In the same way that lovers seek the seclusion of a long walk in the woods or a conversation behind closed doors, away from the bustle of the world, so too do those who seek God seek a kind of seclusion, a secret space away from others where He can be communed with, whispered to. Jesus invites his followers to such a private communion when he tells them to go into their rooms, close their doors and pray to the Father who sees in secret (Matt 6:6). Intimacy with God does not thrive in bluster, bombast and bravado, but in beautiful simplicity, when the soul finally takes to heart the words of Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God.” The moments of deepest prayer are usually moments of quiet awe before the throne of God.
Elijah and the Whisper of God
While we come to him with whispers both intimate and desperate, he strikingly comes to us with whispers of his own. In the reading from 1 Kings above, we find Elijah on Mount Horeb waiting for such a whispered revelation from God. The story delivers us a paradox: that God can be expected to do the unexpected. Amazingly and appropriately, Elijah journeys all the way to Horeb to encounter God. The mountain has two names: Horeb and Sinai. It is the place where Moses met God at the burning bush and where God appeared in thunder and lightning to hand down the Ten Commandments. Elijah returns to this special mountain of God’s past revelation to encounter him anew. He goes to a place where he can expect God to show up. But of course, God does not come in the expected fashion. He does not descend in thunder and lightning, nor in fire, nor wind, nor earthquake. This time, he does not shout.
Instead, God speaks to Elijah in a “still, small voice” a whisper. Elijah might have wanted a shout. He was on the run from Ahab and Jezebel who were using their political power to try and kill him. Even though Elijah had just won the showdown with the prophets of Baal, his life was in danger and there was no safe place for him to go. In his moment of desperation, he seeks out the Lord. In the end, the Lord speaks to him and gives him a mission to do.
Is God Hiding?
The story contains an essential lesson for us: God invites, not smites. We like it when God shows up with special effects and smashes rocks before our eyes. Often we want him to talk to us loudly, clearly, with power and authority, but God wants to invite us, to speak to us in an intimate whisper. He is not trying to hide from us, but trying to entice us, to pique our interest, to help us open our hearts to him.
The Secrets of Listening
To me, it is like looking at a masterpiece painting. The uninitiated can often stare and stare without understanding, without “getting it.” Only through detailed study and detailed looking can one unlock the secrets of a masterpiece. It does not give itself away cheaply. In the same way, Jesus warns us against throwing our “pearls before swine.” Finding God and being found by him do not come to those seeking an ostentatious show, but to those willing to listen in secret to words spoken by a whispering voice. Elijah’s patient attention in his moment of need and in the face of fires, earthquakes and other noisy phenomena, reveal the attitude that we want to embrace in prayer. Prayer is often a waiting game, a deep listening, a silent attending.
Much of love lies in listening. The one who can listen to another with patience and sincere attention reveals his love. Whispers invite us to listen more closely. In this case, God’s whispering calls for our attention. Learning to hear his voice is the heart of learning to pray.
Credit to Mark Giszczak of CatholicExchange.