The reading from 1 Kings includes the verse that is often offered to retreatants, generally on their first day, as they move into the silence and solitude of a directed retreat.
Elijah is in a cave on Horeb, the mountain of God. Those coming on retreat are in their own cave, though one hopes that it is a comfortable room in a retreat house.
God was not in any of the dramatic or obvious places – wind, earthquake and fire. God was in the sound of sheer silence, or as some translations have it, the sound of a gentle breeze.
It don’t necessarily have to be physically silent to hear that gentle sound of God, though that usually helps. I can hear that voice of God in a noisy situation – on a busy city street or a living room with the TV blaring or in a noisy coffee shop as people chatter and the music plays and the beans are ground and as the door opens and closes.
The Psalmist today expresses an important aspect of hearing the Lord. Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people.
It is because God’s voice can be so silent and gentle that we need to be discerning. First of all, the most important issue to discern is whether it is God’s voice that is speaking. Or, is it the voice of what Ignatius Loyola so fondly refers to as the enemy of my human nature?
Once I know that what I am hearing or intuiting is the voice of God, I need to ponder what the message to me is saying. That’s where a spiritual director or a good listening friend comes in handy.
The director or friend won’t give the answer about what God is saying – or, at least, they shouldn’t offer an answer. That is to interfere with the sacred relationship between the Creator and the creature.
The hope is that your listener will help to raise clarifying questions, to help you to discern the voice of God in your own life situation.
Prayer is so important as a tool of that discernment. Jesus himself offers a good example. In today’s Gospel from Matthew, the feeding of the crowd is followed by Jesus going up the mountain by himself to pray.
Afterward, Jesus is present to the disciples in their fear on the sea. They had already been dealing with the high winds and now they saw Jesus walking towards them on the sea. They thought they were seeing things.
Jesus says, take heart, it is I; do not be afraid. That is what he is saying to us in our prayer, even if a decision is required from us. Do not be afraid!
That message to resist fear is crucial. How often do we hear the voice of God and want to act on it, but we get cold feet. Peter offers a good illustration. He is fearful, and he falters – isn’t he always fearful! – but Jesus keeps calling and calming him.
That’s our story. We are all Peter. We all know fear. But we also know that still and small and silent voice of God. Let’s be attentive for it!