The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him. — Habakkuk 2:20
I remember little about the song, but I will never forget the look on his face.
You see, our high school choir director had included something unique in the repertoire for the spring concert — a song about “Silence.” We had practiced its poetic words and music to perfection. But spare time and mischief got the better of our fertile minds. We laid a secret plan to be hatched only on the night of the concert itself.
That evening, all went according to the program until the fateful moments arrived. Turning his score to the “Silence” song, our beloved leader looked at us, smiled and raised his baton expectantly.
We were ready, with barely suppressed mirth. The baton swept down, and we began silently mouthing the words of the first stanza. We were silence personified. Not a peep came forth.
His jaw dropped. The baton sagged and then stopped in midair. We could hold back the grins no longer. Gales of giggles poured forth, as the audience and (fortunately) our conductor caught the joke and joined in the cathartic moment. We made amends by singing it through the normal way, but those who remember that night recall the silent “Silence” the best.
Silence is a complex thing. It can be awkward or appropriate. It can mean disagreement or consent. John the Baptist was beheaded because those who knew better remained silent. Yet, because of silence, Elijah heard the still small voice of God.
To be sure, silence can seem like a void, an empty pitcher that needs to be filled. The uncomfortable pauses of a first date, the question “why” that hangs unmitigated in the cancer ward, the echoing emptiness to the lost hiker in a vast forest — these are times when we long for the perfect phrase, the right word, an answering call.
Silence can feel like a punishment. Is it just me, or are there others who can recall being granted “quiet time” alone in their rooms for some childish infraction? Is this how we relate to perceived silence from God? A punishment? A time for penance? Perhaps.
But from my childhood Sam Campbell books I learned to perceive the quiet peace of nature as a gift. In repeated hiking and camping forays into the forest, I learned the luxury of standing in a verdant glen or on top of a mountain ridge or underneath the star-studded canopy of the Milky Way. There the strident quandaries of my busy little world were diminished in the vastness of creation.
The silence of God may not be a void or a heavenly refusal to answer, but rather an invitation to a deeper, richer walk — an opportunity to understand his counsel to "be still and know that I am God." Barbara Brown Taylor observes the possibility that, “Silence is as much a sign of God’s presence as of God’s absence — that divine silence is not a vacuum to be filled but a mystery to be entered into, unarmed with words and undistracted by noise — a holy of holies in which we too may be struck dumb by the power of the unsayable God.”1
In the deepest relationships, not a word need be spoken.