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Silent Accompaniment

Blog Headers 2023-24 (15)

Editor’s Note: DC Service Corps volunteer Noah Duclos shares a thoughtful reflection on God’s stillness and silence in a Bible passage and how this inspires his way of accompanying others.

This week, I’d like to share a reflection on 1 Kings 19:9-13.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, 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 sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”  

This passage is often interpreted as an invitation to find God in the quiet moments and to create more silence in our lives to better hear the Spirit.  While this is good and useful, I think that in context it is all the more powerful. 

Elijah is in the midst of a true crisis of faith; many of his fellow prophets have been killed by the queen’s men, and he was forced to flee into the desert, abandoned and alone. It is in the depths of despair that we find him at the start of this passage. 

Many translations render the way God reveals Godself to Elijah as a “still small voice,” but the NRSV translation of the “sound of sheer silence” is even more evocative. In times of suffering, doubt, and trial, we can sometimes feel like God is silent, that our prayers go unheard and unanswered. In the face of this silence, our wheels begin to spin and we fall into circular thinking, as we see in the repetitive nature of this passage. Elijah is asked twice what he is doing there, and despite encountering God and recognizing God in his very presence, Elijah’s answer is unchanged. 

We all experience loneliness, suffering, and sadness in our lives, and sometimes it can seem like our cup is overflowing with bitterness. I dislike pithy platitudes which try to disrupt these feelings, which have us look for the silver lining or which reference God’s mysterious reasons. Sometimes, when we minister to those who are suffering, we can only be silent and be present, showing our love to the other person by simply being there with them. 

The ministry of presence and accompaniment is something we talk a lot about at FMS for this reason: God does not solve all of Elijah’s problems at this moment, but instead ensures that Elijah knows he is cared for, and this is a call that we each have. This isn’t to say we don’t also try to work for justice; God takes care of Elijah’s need for food and gives him practical instructions for the immediate future both before and after this passage, and so we too must take care of our fellow humans’ needs.  In the midst of practicality, silent accompaniment is an integral component to our caring for one another.

Questions for Reflection: Have you ever felt God’s “sound of sheer silence?” When have you experienced God during a still, silent moment?

Noah is from Jacksonville, Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2019 with a degree in Classics and Jewish Studies and from Yale Divinity School in 2023 with a Master of Divinity degree. Noah is serving as the Development Associate in the FMS office and is excited to contribute to the work of FMS while living out the Franciscan values of simplicity, solidarity, and hospitality.