the still, silent voice

I’ve written for the Age today. i don’t think it’s on line, but it goes like this:

There’s an ancient story about a man, Elijah, who was running for his life. He ran into the wilderness, lost and bewildered, until he came across the shelter of a cave where he prayed to hear the voice of God. Instead, the world fell apart around him. First there was an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake. Then there was a great wind, but God wasn’t in the wind. Finally there was a fire, that destroyed everything before it, but God wasn’t in the fire. And after all that, Elijah heard the sound of sheer silence. And he knew that was the presence of God.

There have to be a dozen different kinds of silences that we encounter every day: companionable silences, where everything has been said that needs to be; awkward silences, where we no longer dare to speak; the resentful silences of non-negotiated demands. I imagine, though, that Elijah’s silence was one that most of us never encounter – that comes as we face the things for which no human thought or experience has prepared us, when we encounter the things for which no words have yet been created. It’s a silence that’s a vast, unending and terrifying wilderness, that makes a mockery of our best theology and philosophy.

I only realised recently that the core of the word ‘wilderness’ is the same as that of ‘bewilder’. In the wilderness of devastation’s making we find ourselves walking in a familiar landscape, but nothing is quite like it was before. The signs have shifted, and the landmarks keep moving. We wander the wilderness looking for something that will make sense; some kind of familiarity – some certain belief, a moment of grace – but the places or words that were guaranteed to bring them are now like strangers. Any talk of hope, here, only echoes off the scarred landscape, like a hollow promise. Everything we know is tested against the relentlessness of the wilderness, exposed to the hard light of the desert sun. The clichés and platitudes, so necessary to the teller, are found unfathomable to the listener.

Elijah’s story doesn’t end with the silence, nor does it end with platitudes. God doesn’t comfort Elijah, instead Elijah is forced to face the question ‘what are you doing here?’. A friend of mine says that in the dark, terrible hours after the fires had ripped through his community on Black Saturday, the question the silence asked him was ‘who are you’?

The hardest questions of faith aren’t about God, they are about ourselves. Faith in the wilderness isn’t defined by belief, it’s defined by having the courage to turn up in the silence of the aftermath, and to trust that here, maybe, we might find something, some way that will allow us to continue. We know we will never again know ourselves as we did before, but perhaps we just might survive.

If words of hope rub raw when we’re walking lonely, stories of survival are another thing altogether. If the wilderness is the only reality we know right now, then it might be the poets who can bring us home:

‘For the heart with no companion’, Leonard Cohen sings,
‘I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere.’


  1. Drew

    Cheryl, I thank God for your gifts in writing words that touch people! Thank you for sharing it!

  2. In the wilderness I often feel in more danger than I do anywhere else, but I also feel closer to God than anywhere else.

    My connection with God seems to require a seemingly constant sense of risk!

    If it be your will
    That there is a voice
    From this broken hill
    I will sing.


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