Shh! Do you hear that? Listen carefully for a moment.
I enter the Cathedral sometimes during the week, when no one else is here. I do so for the silence. It envelopes. It protects. There is a reason that many Christian traditions refer to the entire space of the church building—chancel and nave—as the “sanctuary.” Its sacred space provides a place of womb-like safety from the outside world.
Granted, on Sunday mornings it is rarely absolutely quiet in the Cathedral, nor should we expect it to me. The rustle of leaflets, the creaking of pews, the murmur of children—and adults, for that matter—are all the natural sounds of gathered worship. But think of the things we don’t hear, God willing: cell phones, the ping of an email inbox, talking heads on blaring televisions, the general stridency that marks our world.
It is that, I think, from which this space protects us. It protects us, and provides a respite, from a world inundated by noise.
If you’ll excuse the tendency toward the oxymoronic, in our world noise is no longer merely auditory. The noise with which we are inundated is multi-sensory. It is a visual, tactile, and auditory cacophony, constantly bombarding our lives, leading to attention deficits in our children and anxiety in our adults. Noise unsettles and distracts. Noise throws us off kilter. It serves first as an impediment, and sometimes as a willful excuse, that prevents us from stilling ourselves.
It is a revealing exercise to ask yourself how much time you spend in stillness and silence, without sound, or visual stimulation, or the hubbub of the street. “I haven’t time for that,” we say, “There is too much to see, to hear, to absorb. If I don’t check the internet, or turn on the television, or have talk radio on in the car, I might miss the truth.”
And yet, more noise does not equal nearer proximity to the truth. Our truth is ever and only God, and God is rarely found in the noise of our lives. This is conveyed both in our tradition and in others. In 1 Kings, the Prophet Elijah looks for God in vain in the earthquake, the fire, and the mighty wind, only to discover God in “the sound of sheer silence.” In the great Hindu epic Bhagavad Gita, the hero Arjuna recognizes God in the noisy bombast of the world, but God reveals to Arjuna that God is also “the taste in water,” the most subtle of all things, the thing we miss entirely if we’re unwilling to stop and dwell in stillness and silence.
In Exodus today, Moses climbs Mount Sinai to receive God’s law. There are fireworks, to be sure. We are told that “the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain.” But when it comes time for God to speak and for Moses to hear, when the time comes for truth to be shared, something else happens entirely.
The rabbis tell us that the first Hebrew letter in the Ten Commandments is aleph, and aleph is a silent letter. The rabbis say that to Moses, God first spoke silence. God stilled the creation, and only in the pregnant stillness did God offer words.[i]
The same is true in the Gospel, which today is the glorious story of the Transfiguration. Like Moses, the disciples climb the mountain to be in the presence of God. This time it is God Incarnate in the person of Jesus. Like Moses, the disciples are first mesmerized by the display they see. The scruffy Jesus who ascends with them becomes something altogether different on the mountaintop. It is as if in the thin air, with less atmosphere to obscure Jesus’ nature, the veil that separates his humanity from his divinity becomes transparent. Jesus’ face shines like the sun, and his clothing is rendered dazzling white. Standing with him, the disciples can make out two other men, long dead. The first is Moses, and the second is Elijah, both of whom I mentioned earlier as among the select few to whom God has revealed himself directly.
Peter, who, like us, tends to believe that more noise must equal more truth, immediately begins moving around furtively and speaking at the top of his lungs. “Let me build dwellings for you!” he says, “Let me add my two cents and get in on the action and move stuff around so it looks like we’re accomplishing something!”
And again, God speaks aleph. “Be silent and still,” says God, “Listen.”
Why is this? The best explanation comes from an unlikely and obscure source. U.S. President James A. Garfield, arguably our most intelligent chief executive after Jefferson, and one whose life and term in office were tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 1881, offers this: “There are times in the history of men and nations, when they stand so near the veil that separates mortals and immortals, time from eternity, and men [and women] from their God, that they can almost hear their breathings and feel the pulsations of the heart of the infinite.”[ii]
We intuit the world differently when we are silent and still. We hear things otherwise missed. We see through the porous veil between the hard materiality of the world and the enlivening divine energy that permeates it. And most importantly, we sense what it might mean for our hearts to beat in rhythm with God.
For Peter, James, and John, when they center themselves, they can see what it means for God Incarnate, Moses, and Elijah to be together on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses, the recipient of God’s law, represents truth. Elijah the prophet represents God’s justice. And both of these cleave to—they disappear into—Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s very love. In the stillness of that presence, the disciples recognize that truth and justice find their home only in and through the love of God. Eventually, they and the others who follow Jesus will find that place where their hearts are in sync with his. They’ll conform their entire lives to that rhythm. And that transformation begins this day, when they pause in the stillness and silence.
James Garfield speaks of men and nations; he could easily have substituted “church.” We, too, as individual Christians and as the gathered Body of Christ, yearn to find completeness, to be contented in our lives, to know God’s deepest desire for us and to follow it. But too often we do our searching like Peter on that mountaintop. We begin to make noise, to move and bluster and bombard our senses with visual and auditory filler, and the predictable result is usually heightened anxiety, confusion, discontent, and fear.
And yet, we know in the marrow of us how necessary the silence is. We Episcopalians may intuit this more deeply than others. We elect to worship in a manner that begins with aleph. We step out of the world and initiate our communion with God in the silence of this sacred space, and we center ourselves in prayer before we commence the sounds of our praise. Throughout our Eucharist, there are pregnant moments of stillness and silence, and it is in these moments that God is most likely to provide God’s clarifying word, to instill in us God’s deep peace.
The Cathedral is that respite, that sanctuary from the world’s noise. Its silence has enveloped and protected those seeking God’s truth for one hundred seventy-five years this very month. It has been a place in which God’s truth and God’s justice have been proclaimed. It is a place in which these and all things have been interpreted through the lens of God’s love in Christ.
As the world outside these doors gets noisier and noisier, the necessity of the Cathedral only increases. Again, today, God speaks to us first in the stillness and silence. Again, today, God commends to us his Son, whose love saves us, and lures us, and makes us whole. This can be the day we hear our hearts begin to beat to the divine rhythm, and when we find that pulse, we can take it from here with us. This can be the day we walk down the mountain and back into the world transformed by the aleph of God.
[i] This nugget was given me by Lauren Winner, who spoke the Diocese of Texas clergy conference in October 2013.
[ii] From Candice Millard’s fantastic book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.