Because it contains a lesson that I believe is critically needed today, I would like to focus on this reading from the Book of Kings, about the prophet Elijah and his unique encounter with our Almighty God.
Elijah was one of the most renowned figures of Israel’s history and one of greatest prophets of the Old Testament. Elijah’s name means, “My God is Yahweh (or Lord).” He was considered the father of prophets. In our story, he is hiding in a cave from King Ahab, one of the most wicked kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and his wife, Jezebel.
Jezebel was a pagan and worshipper of the Phoenician god, Baal.
According to Canaanite mythology, Baal was the god of the sea, causing storms and destruction when irritated. Baal was considered the most powerful of all gods. The worship of him was rooted in sensuality and human sacrifice. Jezebel’s husband, the king, had built a temple to Baal in Samaria. Further, she strongly promoted her paganism with 450 prophets dedicated to Baal.
Elijah was the only non-pagan prophet left alive in his time — yet he challenged the 450 prophets of Baal to show the power of their god versus the power of the true God of Israel. Elijah made a fool of these pagan prophets, with Yahweh’s intervention, and ended up killing all 450 of them. Thus, we meet Elijah as he flees from King Ahab and Jezebel — who are out to kill him.
We find Elijah hiding in a cave on Mount Horeb. This cave still exists today and is seen by pilgrims on religious tours to Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, close to the city of Haifa.
Elijah, in a panic, is feverishly searching for God to ask His help. God is not in any way “powerful and loud,” like the heavy winds that are crushing rocks, like the earthquake, or the fire. No — God passes by Elijah in a very soft and tiny whispering wind. This is the only way in which Elijah can truly find and encounter God — because God reveals Himself to us only in silence.
This story is very significant for us, according to Robert Cardinal Sarah, the Catholic Church’s prefect of the congregation for divine worship and the discipline of the sacraments. Today, he is one of the most important and highly educated cardinals in the service of the Papal Curia in Rome. Furthermore, he is one of the most gracious, humble, and truly holy servants of God.
Cardinal Sarah has written a book that I highly recommend, called “The Power of Silence,” which is a series of answers to 365 questions asked of Cardinal Sarah by a French journalist. The cardinal’s answers are extremely articulate, direct, comprehensible, and beautifully worded.
Cardinal Sarah says, “Today, modern men and women have been taken over by a dictatorship of noise. Without noise, man is feverishly lost. Noise gives him security, like a drug on which he is dependent … This noise is a dangerous, deceptive medicine, a diabolic lie that helps man avoid confronting himself in his interior emptiness. This awakening will necessarily be brutal.”
Further, he explains that “persons who live in noise are like dust swept along by the wind. They are slaves of a turmoil that destroys their relationship with God. On the other hand, those who love silence and solitude walk step by step toward God; they know how to break the vicious cycles of noise, like animal tamers who manage to calm roaring lions.”
He goes further: “Without the mooring of silence, life is just depressing movement, a puny little boat unceasingly tossed about by the violence of the waves.” I would add that we, too, are being pounded by waves, but by sound waves — or more appropriately, useless but constant noisy waves.
According to the cardinal, there is one great question all Christians should ask themselves. That is: “How can man truly live in the image (and likeness) of God?” His answer: “He must enter into silence. When he drapes himself in silence, since God Himself dwells in a great silence, man is close to heaven. He allows God to manifest Himself to him. The more empty you are of yourself, the more you love God. Infallibly, silence leads to God — provided man stops looking at himself.”
In the answer to the 118th question, Cardinal Sarah writes: “In silence, God’s joy becomes our joy. Being silent, the presence of God is almost being like God.”
If you won’t take the cardinal’s word for it, or God’s example in the story of Elijah, we can look at the life of the prophets. All the prophets went off to the desert to meet God. Saint John the Baptist himself spent 30 years in the desert, and even Jesus was silent for 30 of His 33 years. Why? So they could find silence and have a true encounter with God.
Silence is difficult — but it enables man to let himself be led by God. Also, silence is a perquisite for love and it leads to love; therefore, we cannot love God, much less begin to know God, without silence.
Again in his own words, Cardinal Sarah says: “In my prayer and in my interior life, I have always felt the need for a deeper, more complete silence. I am talking about the kind of discretion that amounts to not even thinking about myself but, rather, turning my attention, my being, and my soul toward God. Days of solitude, silence, and absolute fasting, nourished by the Word of God alone, allow man to base his life on what is essential.”
The most effective method that Satan uses to keep us from encountering God is constant noise.
If we look around, we see adults, children, young adults constantly wired to noise. People of all ages are connected mindlessly to electronic games or searching for social media entertainment. We cannot be without TV, radio, or many other distracting media. We seem to be even afraid of silence and the peace of quietness. From what are we running?
I believe that the most effective method that Satan uses to keep us from holiness and encountering God is constant noise. Let us learn today, from Elijah and from Robert Cardinal Sarah, to break Satan’s trickery in addicting us to useless noise. Satan tries to make sure we have no quiet time of peace to encounter God.
We have been lured by the devil into numbness. To protect our faith and spread the truth of the Catholic Church, which is at risk of shrinking, we need to listen to Elijah and Cardinal Sarah and to take this message seriously to heart and wake up! Our changing of these habits is the difference between life or death for us and our church.
In Cardinal Sarah words: “Man must make a choice: God or nothing, silence or noise!”
Harry Flavin was ordained a permanent deacon in May 2015 for the diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming. He also served in prison ministry for a joint venture of the Texas criminal justice system and the Oblate School of Theology Dolph Briscoe Unit of Texas State Prison in Dilley, Texas. This piece is adapted from his homily of last weekend.