The Way of the Still, Small Voice

Wendy McDowell

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earth-quake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice (1 Kings 19: 11–12, RSV).

Elijah at Horeb has been one of my favorite bible passages since I was a child, and this story continues to unfold and unfurl itself to me.

Who can deny how poetically pleasing these verses are (even in translation)? The anaphora achieves its intensifying effect—“and after the wind,” “and after the earthquake,” “and after the fire”—followed by the simple phrase “a still, small voice,” lovely in its consonance but powerful in its percussiveness.1 Like a soft drumbeat, the phrase arrests us as readers or hearers, so we are sympathetic to Elijah, who is stopped and reoriented by the voice he hears.

The narrative is equally compelling. Elijah has just vanquished his foes, but he is at a crisis point physically, spiritually, and vocationally. Who is he, and what is he to do now that Jezebel has ordered his arrest? Enervated, afraid, and down on himself, he asks for death. An angel restores him with food and drink, enabling him to travel to “the mount of God.” We expect Elijah to be rewarded and celebrated at Horeb, so we are as surprised as he is when God asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

Elijah states his proud case, caught up in his fears and in blaming the people of Israel for their unrighteousness. God tells him to “stand upon the mount,” where he witnesses whirlwind, earthquake, and fire. God’s voice is not in any of these disasters, though. It comes after the storm and fury, in “the voice of fragile silence.”2

We have been living through a time of destructive winds, earthquakes, and fires: Puerto Rico and Texas, Mexico City, California. As I write this, news is pouring in about a powerful earthquake on the Iran/Iraq border that has killed hundreds and injured thousands. We shudder to hear of entire families being swept away, burned, or buried alive.

Meanwhile, we have been experiencing a political whirlwind in the U.S., with seemingly daily scandals and what E. J. Dionne, Jr., calls a “cold civil war.” It certainly has been the noisiest, most fractious time in my adult life.

It’s easy to get caught up in the clamor. I’m not alone in suspecting this is a deliberate strategy: if we spend all of our time ratcheted up about the constant, outrageous insults and threats, we might miss the unjust things being done. The small voice is silenced.

But Elijah only hears God once he listens to a sound that is so fragile, it could easily go unheard. After Elijah hears this voice, he stops being a zealot and warrior. He hands over his power and becomes a fatherly mentor to the younger prophet Elisha.

In an online Jonathan Sacks commentary, the British rabbi and author describes what this textual moment means to him:

The supreme power cares for the powerless. The creator of life loves life. The voice that summoned the universe into being is still and small, hardly louder than a whisper. To hear God you have to listen.3

Elsewhere, Sacks interprets God’s actions in 1 Kings 19 as supporting a model of the compassionate prophet. He calls this “the way of the still, small voice.”4

This is the way proposed by many authors here. Leymah Gbowee listens to a voice that comes to her in that liminal state between sleep and waking. It says: “Wake up and gather the women to pray for peace.” Her minister assures her that “the dream-bearer is always the dream-carrier,” and this reluctant leader is set on a path of mentoring an interreligious group of women in Liberia who pray and protest for peace until it is realized.

At the heart of Matthew Potts’s reflection on preaching, “this peculiar form of public speech” is a call to listen. As a pastor, Potts has learned that to comfort another in a moment of great suffering is “to allow the world to remain broken, to sit speechless with another in her loss and misery, to offer no solutions, to express only sorrow, using words only when necessary.” This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak or act, he stresses—we can and must—but that we should accept “our own finitude and failure,” recognize the limits of our language, and strive for poetry.

The dialogue section, on four enduring philosophers, also counsels empathy, humility, and attentiveness. Jin Li details how important “empathetic capacity” was for Mencius, as was the ability “to put aside one’s emotional arousal for empathy, and take action to actually do something about the suffering person.” Likewise, Margaret R. Miles describes Plotinus’s teaching that “one of the most important human capacities is empathy,” which “strengthens one’s identity with soul, the bearer of life, resulting in intensified identification with universal life.”

In Origen’s thought, Charles M. Stang explains, “Whenever we successfully pay steady attention to this or that, we inch closer to contemplation, and we blaze just a little brighter.” Similarly, Stephen C. Angle relates Zhu Xi’s advice to cultivate “reverential attention” in our daily lives so “we can eventually ensure that the emotions we experience tally with their life-affirming source.”

A beloved example of this is Thoreau, who found “all the motions of nature” to be the “circulations of God,” as Richard Higgins illustrates. José Cuellar also engages in reverential attention. In learning to play a collection of ancient ocarinas, he immediately recognizes each instrument as a sacred, spiritual entity worthy of his respect and care. “I learned that you can’t overblow on some or it hurts them,” he shares.

The still, small voice is alive in the review section, too. Timothy L. Gallati explores what it means to pay attention to silence and to allow that attention to change our orientation in the world. And Eliza Griswold’s close reading of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita describes a “reordering” in which she learns to “bend her mind below her heart” and thereby to “drop below the harried nonsense by which she defines herself.”5

My seven-year-old son likes to ask me, “Guess what instrument is my favorite?” I play along and guess: “Your violin?” “No!” A trumpet? “NO!” “A glockenspiel?” “NO!!” Finally he bursts out, “My voice!” He tells me each time, “Your voice is an instrument, and it’s always inside!”

May we listen to the still, small voices in our midst and sound our own instruments in response to them.

 

Notes:

  1. All three words, “still,” “small” and “voice,” are accented, an example of spondaic meter. One purpose of spondaic meter in poetry is to stir an emotional response—e.g., the Keats line “And no birds sing.”
  2. I borrow this “metaphorical but grammatically strict translation” from “A Desert Reading,” by Michael Comins, CCAR Journal, Spring 2001.
  3. Elijah, and the Prophetic Truth of the Still, Small Voice,” July 7, 2017, rabbisacks.org.
  4. Elijah and the Still, Small Voice (Pinchas 5775),” July 6, 2015, rabbisacks.org. Here, he proposes that “the midrash and Maimonides set before us another model, . . . a prophet [who] hears not one imperative but two: guidance and compassion, a love of truth and an abiding solidarity with those for whom that truth has become eclipsed.”
  5. This is the inaugural essay in a new review category we’ve titled “In Scripture,” meant to be one author’s reflection on or appreciation of a scriptural passage.
 

Wendy McDowell is senior editor of the Bulletin.

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See also: Editor's Note