I’ve always been fascinated by certain moments of quiet, like during a worship service in a sanctuary with a bunch of people in it and everything becomes so hushed, as if a veil of silence has descended. It’s not just that it’s quiet. It’s a noticeable, palpable moment of time that feels pregnant with mystery and possibility.
Such a moment happened last Sunday during worship at Old South. The sanctuary wasn’t anywhere near full, but we had more people in person for a Sunday morning service than we’ve had since March 2020, including a couple of children (a total of about twenty-one people). Even with a much smaller group, the sanctuary is rarely quiet during worship. There is always some sort of noise, whether it’s the noise of talking, singing, sniffling, coughing, shuffling through something like a purse, or the noise that comes in from the outside. The sanctuary is not, most of the time, a place that conveys silence, unless it is empty.
Last Sunday was a communion Sunday. It was also Remembering Sunday (when we remember those who passed away during the last year). And, it was Story Sunday, a practice that I started a couple of years ago, where I occasionally share a children’s story during the homily slot, a story that connects nicely with the scripture passage of the day.
Sunday’s focus scripture from the Narrative Lectionary (which we are following this fall) was 1 Kings 19:1-18. In the passage, Elijah heads to the wilderness and encounters, in verse 12, God’s—depending on the translation—”sound of sheer silence” (NRSV) or “still, small voice” (KJV). To accompany this passage, I read The Quiet Book by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Renata Liwska (thanks to https://storypath.upsem.edu for the suggestion). The book highlights the “many kinds of quiet” in a child’s life (and, by extension, the life of most adults), like “pretending you’re invisible quiet,” “swimming underwater quiet,” and “before the concert begins quiet.”
In the midst of sharing this book, and its illustrations, the sanctuary became more and more hushed, until it became completely and utterly silent between the sounds of my voice reading each page. The silence was so captivating that I began to slow down my reading, and the spaces between pages. I didn’t want to read the last page at all, as if I could keep the quiet and make it last.
Since I was facing the congregation and looking at them as I shared the illustrations, I knew full well that the quiet was not the result of sleeping parishioners. In fact, everyone looked fully engaged and connected.
It was one of those moments that I wanted to capture in some way. I also wanted to pause and ask if everyone was perceiving what I was perceiving and what they thought about it. What was in that silence, for each of us and all of us together? Was this one of those “thin places” that is described in the 1 Kings passage as a “still small voice” or the “sound of sheer silence” in and through which God speaks? And, if so, what was God saying to us?
I don’t know what was said in the quiet that descended upon worship last Sunday. But I know to be grateful for it and to recognize it for what it was: holy.