It may be slightly scandalous to admit that one of my favorite sacred quotes is not from the Bible. It is, rather, from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita, the prince Arjuna is on the cusp of war against his kinsmen. He is unsure of the morality of what he must do, and he turns to his chariot driver, the mysterious Krishna, for guidance. The Gita is a prolonged conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, as the prince struggles mightily with his lot in life and desperately seeks some powerful sign of God’s presence in his midst. As to the quote I love, I’ll come back to that shortly.
Returning to our own holy texts, in 1 Kings today the great Prophet Elijah is as conflicted as Arjuna. He has stood up for God against powerful forces, including King Ahab of Israel and Ahab’s pagan wife, Jezebel. Jezebel has threatened Elijah’s life, and Jezebel always makes good on her threats. So Elijah flees across the border to Judah, in hopes that he might be beyond Jezebel’s reach. Elijah is afraid—terrified by his circumstances in life—and he wants confirmation that God is with him. (Whatever our lot and whatever our challenges, I think we can relate to that.) He keeps traveling south until he gets to Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai. Catch that: Elijah is so desperate for God’s presence that he goes to the place he feels sure God will be, the very mountain on which God appeared repeatedly to Moses centuries before, where God was in the ominous mist, and shone so brightly that Moses had to wear a veil, and spoke audibly when granting the Ten Commandments. With the possible exception of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Mount Horeb was the one place on earth where God was sure to be in bombast and power. That’s where Elijah determines to go.
On that mountain, Elijah waits in expectation for the thunderous arrival of God. And thunder comes. On the mountain, Elijah encounters a great wind, so strong that it splits the rocks around him. The cyclone is followed by an earthquake that shatters the mountain at his feet. And after the earthquake, a fire erupts that engulfs anything in its path. With each in turn, Elijah thinks, “Surely this is the revelation of God, this demonstration of raw, unbridled power.” But each time, as the phenomenon passes, God is not there. Finally, after the fire, a stillness settles on Elijah and the mountain so completely that scripture calls it “the sound of sheer silence.” (The King James calls it “a still, small voice.”) And there, in the silence, in the stillness so subtle as almost to be missed, God is. In the smallest thing, Elijah meets the divine.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna eventually comes to realize that his chariot driver is actually an avatar for Vishnu—God—and across time, space, culture, and religion, Arjuna begs the same as Elijah. In his predicament, Arjuna wants to meet God in reassuring power, in overwhelming bombast, in confidence-inspiring noise and wonder. To an extent, Krishna obliges. “I am earth, water, fire and space,” Krishna says. But then he stills himself, and Arjuna encounters the same calm as Elijah on Mount Horeb. Krishna then says, “I am the taste in water…[and] I am the sound in ether.”[i]
That is the quote I love: “I am the taste in water.” This truth is universal, embraced by our Judeo-Christian faith and the Eastern faith of Hinduism. We seek God in the wondrous, in the miraculous, in the bombastic and big. In our lives, we want God to part the heavens and still the seas. But we may be looking for God in all the wrong places. It may be that God is primarily to be found in the smallest and subtlest of things, in the calm, in the sound of sheer silence, in the taste in water.
Many of you know that I have only just returned from leading a Cathedral pilgrimage to Northumbria and Scotland. Much of our time was spent on Iona, the island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland where St. Columba established his monastery in A.D. 563. For centuries, the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides served to some extent like a human Scottish Galapagos. While not completely separated from the rest of civilization, the Hebrides were only tenuously tethered to the mainland. Generation after generation of Scottish fisher folk were born, raised, and died with little contact with outsiders, especially on the smaller islands. Consequently, the ancient Celtic songs and prayers of Scotland were preserved on these islands that dot the North Atlantic. In the mid-nineteenth century, Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael spent twenty years traveling the Hebrides collecting these songs and prayers. He compiled them in a book entitled the Carmina Gaedelica, or, in English, “The Hymns of the Gael.” The Carmina is a treasure, and though in the past hundred years Carmichael has received some justified criticism for his editing of the work, the Carmina undoubtedly is our best source for the Celtic understanding of nature, the world, and the presence of God.
What is most conspicuous is what is missing. The prayers and songs of the Celts do not include noise and bombast. They are not about the great and grand, the earthquake and the cyclone. They are entirely ordinary. They are mundane. They are as subtle as the taste in water. The Celts have a prayer for making the bed in the morning, from an age when the family bed was, in addition to being the place of nightly rest, also the nuptial bed, the birthing bed, and the dying bed. The prayer recognizes the presence of God in all these things: “I make this bed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the name of the night we were conceived; in the name of the night we were born; in the name of the day we were baptized; in the name of each night, each day, each angel that is in heaven.”[ii]
The Celts have a prayer for the kindling of the morning fire. Imagine the cold of the North Atlantic wind, as one walked vulnerably out of one’s house to gather peat or seaweed to provide life-giving heat. The drudgery of that walk becomes an encounter with God, when one prays, “I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven…without malice, without jealously, without envy, without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun, but the Holy Son of God to shield me.”[iii]
There are prayers and songs for kneading the day’s loaf of bread, for churning butter, for blessing one’s children when they leave the house, for traveling with Christ as companion.
In other words, the Celts looked for God in the smallest and most ordinary things, in the sound of silence, in the taste in water. And like Elijah and Arjuna, they found God there. They noted that nothing is outside of the purview of God, not even the moments we consider incidental, or the daily tasks we consider burdens.
Perhaps we do look for God in the wrong places. Maybe because our gaze is cast out there, or up there, hoping for a sign that lights up the night like Astros summer fireworks, we fail to see that God is right here, among us always, like the air we breathe or the still small voice. How would our days change, how would our chores be enlivened, if we understood that God is present in it all? How would we move through the world differently if we recognized that by living mindfully in the quiet and calm we would encounter the God who is here?
I am the taste in water, says God. May we slake our thirst and meet God with every drink.
[ii] De Waal, Esther. The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination, 30.
[iii] Ibid., 78.