Like so many English-speaking Christians, I grew up immersed in the words and rhythms of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. So much of the language and lyricism of that 17th century translation of scripture has become integral parts of our cultural lexicon. Like the smart-aleck who said he refuses to read Shakespeare’s plays because they were filled with clichés, we can sometimes be startled and surprised by the sheer cultural familiarity of phrase after phrase of the KJV — “Let there be light,” “the valley of the shadow of death,” “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” “throwing pearls before swine,” “the blind leading the blind,” — the list could go on and on.
What also surprises me, as someone who nowadays tends to study more contemporary Bible translations (I prefer the NRSV but also use the NABRE) is when a verse that I know so well from the KJV is rendered in a noticeably different way in a modern version. Without getting into the scholarly issues of which translations are more faithful or more accurate, let’s just say that sometimes verses translated in different ways can serve to open our eyes to just how rich the original language was. A case in point is I Kings 19:11-12 — the story of Elijah, seeking the presence of God on the “Mountain of the Lord.” You are probably familiar with the story: Elijah does not find God in a mighty wind (interesting, considering how the wind is often linked to the Holy Spirit), nor in a powerful earthquake or a blazing fire. At that point, the King James Version offers another one of its oh-so-familiar phrases:
… and after the fire a still small voice. (I Kings 19:12, KJV)
A still small voice! What a paradoxically powerful image for the presence of God: a God whose communication comes not in thunderous power, but in what Elijah experiences as the most delicate whisper.
But consider how this gets translated in other English versions of the Bible, such as the two I mentioned above:
… and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (NRSV)
… and after the first, a light silent sound. (NABRE)
While I freely admit that the poetry of “a still small voice” is not matched by either of the newer Bible translations, I also have to acknowledge that my sense of the meaning of the verse is immeasurably enhanced by these more contemporary renditions.
We’re dealing with three Hebrew words:
- דַקָּֽה׃ (ḏaqqāh), which means “small” or “light”
- דְּמָמָ֥ה (dəmāmāh), which means “still” or “silent”
- קוֹל (qōw), which means “sound” or “voice.”
Put all this together, and we begin to get a glimpse of how the author of I Kings understood the rich way in which God — and the sound of God’s voice — can be encountered: in lightness and smallness, in stillness — and in silence.
Silence: An Endangered Species?
One does not have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that silence is often in short supply in today’s world. We are plugged in to one another — and to the world — thanks to our smartphones, our laptops, and other portable electronic devices. These handy little tools provide an endless supply of information, entertainment, advertising, news, opinion, social media, music, movies and television, and other assorted types of content. Many people keep their earbuds in pretty much all the time, listening to whatever it is that happens to be streaming at the moment. But silence? No thank you — that’s “dead air,” as the media world defines an interrupted broadcast.
Not everyone sees silence in such a negative light. Monasteries — the homes of intentional communities of Christians who have devoted their lives to the worship and study of God — have long been ecosystems of noiselessness. Bernard McGinn, in The Growth of Mysticism (volume two of his nine-volume history of western Christian spirituality), quotes a medieval monastic theologian, Peter Damian, who compares silence in the human soul to the presence of God in the heart: “While the rumble of human speaking ceases, the temple of the Holy Spirit is being built in you through silence.”
The Bible is clear that the human heart is, or at least ought to be, the temple of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). What we sometimes miss is the idea, long espoused by Greek Orthodox Christians, that the heart equals the “inner room” of Matthew 6:6: “whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” To many Orthodox commentators, the “room” of which Jesus speaks is understood as a metaphor for the heart — the temple of the Holy Spirit, “being built in you through silence.”
Monasteries and convents are not as prominent in our culture as they were 800 or 1000 years ago, but they still exist throughout the Christian world, and the monks and nuns who dwell in them function, among other things, as custodians of silence. For those of us who live busy and often noisy lives in our hyper-connected world, a retreat into the serene silence of a monastery can be a profoundly moving experience — deeply restful and often moving in its quiet invitation to sink into the inner room of the heart and to pray — listening, in other words, for that light silent sound — that still small voice.
Join Carl McColman and Debra Weir for Be Still and Know, an ecumenical contemplative retreat at Sacred Heart Benedictine monastery in Cullman, Alabama, May 2-6, 2022. This retreat will celebrate silence as a way to draw closer to God. It is open to both men and women, and no prior experience at a monastery or with contemplative prayer is necessary to attend. The retreat is sponsored by the Center for Lifelong Learning of Columbia Theological Seminary. For more details and to register, click here.