A Still, Small Voice


elijah translation A Still, Small Voice
Isn’t it strange how deeply we mistrust quiet these days, even though silence and solitude are widely held values in most mythological and spiritual traditions?

Here’s one of my favorite examples: the Biblical story of Elijah.

Elijah the Prophet is running for his life.

He’s just destroyed a cult run by the evil queen Jezebel, and he did it by staging a loud and spectacular piece of stagecraft designed to showcase the one true God. Now Jezebel seeks revenge.

Elijah flees for the wilderness, praying to die.

God answers his prayers, but not by killing him. Instead he teaches Elijah the beauty of the soft-spoken approach.

He instructs Elijah to wait for him at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments centuries earlier.

So Elijah goes to the mountain.

A loud wind roars, but God is not in the wind.

Then, an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.

After that, a fire, but still no God.

And after the fire, “a still, small voice.”

God is in the voice. Small. Still. Quiet.

I’d love to collect more of these stories, from across religions and mythologies.  Can you help me? No need to write them all out, unless you have time and are so inclined. You could just tell me: check out the such-and-such myth. Thanks!



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  1. K.M. on 18.11.2011 at 03:33 (Reply)

    I would guess that there’s a bunch of relevant stuff scattered throughout Buddhist literature.

    One that I’ve recently come across in my studies is about Santideva, the probable author of the Bodhicaryavatara, one of the most important texts about how to live as a Bodhisattva (the Dalai Lama’s “A Flash of Lightning in the Dark of Night” is a commentary on, and takes its name from the first chapter of, the Bodhicaryavatara).

    Santideva is said to have been “quite ordinary, quite mundane” in outward appearance, “although actually a figure of immense spiritual development.” The story is that his fellow monks came to assume that the quiet guy didn’t actually know anything, so intending to humiliate him they asked him to recite scripture in front of the whole monastery. He declined, so they offered to build a teaching seat for him, and he accepted, but then they built it too high for him to reach, or so they thought. He magically lowered the seat and asked if the monks wanted to hear something old or something new. They said something new, so he recited the Bodhicaryavatara, and near the end of his recitation ascended into the sky. “Santideva then refused to return to a monastery which had not understood that spiritual depth may not always be obvious, and that we can never tell who may or may not be saints working in their own way for the benefit of others.”

    My source is Paul Williams’ introduction to the Kate Crosby and Andrew Skilton translation of the Bodhicaryavatara ( http://goo.gl/1b7bP ). Not sure where you’d find the original account.

  2. K.M. on 18.11.2011 at 04:50 (Reply)

    Also, in the Odyssey, when Odysseus finally makes it home but still has to get rid of the suitors, the success of his plan rides on his ability to keep his feelings internalized; a big deal is made of the fact that he can’t even reveal his true identity Penelope, who hasn’t seen him in 20 years:

    Imagine how his heart ached for his lady,
    His wife in tears; and yet he never blinked;
    His eyes might have been made of horn or iron
    For all that she could see. He had this trick-
    Wept, if he willed to, inwardly.

    What distinguishes Odysseus from all the other heroes is that he’s clever and creative, “the man of many [means/devices/tropes].” His great edge much of the time is secrecy, sometimes through active misdirection but sometimes just through silence. So there’s some suggestion, maybe, that superlative creativity is tied up with, if not introversion per se, then the ability to keep things bottled up, not as a matter of ignoring your thoughts and feelings but as a matter of having a sense for the proper time and manner of their expression. An Achilles could not have come up with the Trojan Horse.

  3. Juliana on 18.11.2011 at 09:02 (Reply)

    One story is that of Moses himself. Moses is chosen by God to lead the people out of Egypt and speak against the Pharaoh. When God first comes to him, he asks why he chose him and doesn’t think God should pick him. Moses is quiet and speaks with a stutter. Aaron and Miriam, his siblings, are always described as much more outgoing and vocal and often Aaron is the one who relays what Moses says to others.

    1. Susan Cain on 18.11.2011 at 22:07 (Reply)

      Yes, I love this one too, and wrote about it in my book!

      1. Juliana on 22.11.2011 at 11:27 (Reply)

        Yes, that’s actually what had reminded me about it; I had always liked when the rabbi would talk about that story, because he wasn’t as one would “expect” a leader to be. Am reading your book right now (from NetGalley) and really enjoying it!

  4. Monique on 18.11.2011 at 10:49 (Reply)

    Not a story, per se, but a ritual I have read about many times. The fasting and aloneness of “becoming an adult” in many cultures. If you want to continue in the Biblical theme, even Jesus went through an alone time now reflected in Lent. I am convinced that part of the reason “we” mistrust quiet and solitude is that it is tied to spirituality and forces us to look inward and many cannot bear to do that.

  5. Susan Cain on 18.11.2011 at 22:07 (Reply)

    These are great and exactly what I’m looking for. Thx so much, K.M., Juliana, and Monique. Anyone have any others?

  6. Susan on 19.11.2011 at 11:46 (Reply)

    Sadly, for many, our frenzied, must have the latest technological mode of communication or I’m not happy, culture does not encourage the beautiful state of being still. Everyone wants peace of mind and being, but very few know how to really achieve and maintain it. The biblical account of Elijah is simply…lovely! An example to me of just how important it is to stop and simply listen. Thank you!

  7. Jon Nuelle on 19.11.2011 at 19:56 (Reply)

    Susan, every time I read of Jesus of Nazareth fleeing from the grateful (and ingrateful) crowds (e.g. John 6) I feel great sympathy for him. I think he must have been (like many so rabbis, pastors, and teachers) an introvert who preferred quiet. Throughout the gospels he is clearly energized by solitude, and often (as in the John passage) actively seeks times to be alone or in a very small group of intimates. And just as clearly, he often seems sapped in some basic way by the press of the crowd, and can get rather snippy when his privacy is violated (e.g. Matthew 15:21).

    I get that. :)

  8. Jay Laughlin on 21.11.2011 at 12:50 (Reply)

    Sitting under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha on the night he attained Enlightenment was attacked by Mara, the equivalent of the devil in the Buddhist tradition. It is reported that Mara’s forces slung arrows and swords at the Buddha, who turned them into flowers. The Buddha remained seated in silence. Though challenged by Mara, he maintained his repose and upon seeing the morning star attained Enlightenment. One interpretation of Mara is, that though outwardly evil, is a force for good in the way that he tests the resolve of those seeking Enlightenment. Only in the midst of the noise and confusion perpetrated by Mara, can those seeking to attain Enlightenment truly find it.

    1. Monique on 22.11.2011 at 00:38 (Reply)

      @Jay: I like that story.

    2. Juliana on 22.11.2011 at 11:28 (Reply)

      @Jay: I do as well. Lovely.

    3. Jon Nuelle on 22.11.2011 at 13:12 (Reply)

      Nice. I’m still incredulous that anyone would cast Keanu Reeves as Siddhartha, but here’s one video interpretation of Buddha vs. Mara (from “Little Buddha”): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GzQxbITJcw

      Flaming arrows at ~6:30, but that’s not the biggest challenge. :)

  9. Barb Markway on 21.11.2011 at 19:34 (Reply)

    This isn’t a story per se, but in a book called, Everything Starts from Prayer, Mother Teresa’s Meditations on Spiritual Life for People of All Faiths, there is a whole chapter called Starting with Silence. A few of the many quotes and passages: “There is no life of prayer without silence.” “We need to be alone with God in silence to be renewed and to be transformed. Silence gives us a new outlook on life…” It’s a beautiful book.

  10. Jane Calderon on 21.11.2011 at 23:46 (Reply)

    My most blissful days are those I spend in solitude. I love how biblical literature reflects upon common themes of life.

  11. Karen Paull on 20.01.2014 at 03:33 (Reply)

    I am doing a course at present called ‘Bible and Popular Culture’. As I am loving your book I was thinking of exploring the relevance of 1 Corinthians Chapter 12 to it. It just seems so relevant to me - the way we are made to work together and compliment each other. But I may use the Elijah passage now! I’d love to know what you think about 1 Corinthians 12 and its relevance though.

  12. Karen Paull on 20.01.2014 at 06:36 (Reply)

    Sorry that chapter is less about stillness - more about being known and appreciated for the way we are naturally. As is this passage I was also considering using in relation to your book - Psalm 139 - yet it indicates a quietness and peacefulness in the being known by God too e.g. verse 4 ‘even before a word was on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.’ It also refers to God’s thoughts in v 17 and their vastness. I think it’s best to stop at v 18…

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1. There’s a word for “people who are in their heads too much”: thinkers.

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