I woke up this morning and looked out the window. A light snow had fallen overnight on the high desert of the Navajo Nation. It was much quieter than usual in town. It was, in fact, nearly silent, perhaps because of the snow, but more likely because it was Sunday morning, and many were still sleeping.
As the sun rose and the snow began to melt, sounds emerged: water dripping from the rooftop, the low grumble of a raven perched on a lamppost, the chattering of finches and sparrows. Were I back home in Baltimore, all that would have been lost in the background noise from the busy intersection nearby. The desert is blessed with the quiet necessary to notice these subtle changes. It’s part of what keeps me coming back. Prominent among my desert memories are sounds made audible by ambient silence: the wingbeats of a raven flying just overhead, the cheery cascade of notes from a canyon wren, the roar of a Colorado River rapid around the bend, still hidden from view.
Prayer comes naturally in such moments, or rather, I find myself already in an ongoing prayer I had only to notice. I’m not the first person to associate encounters with silence and encounters with God. A long line of witnesses sought God in desert silence: Abraham, Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist. Jesus went to “remote places” to pray and was “cast out into the desert” to be tested. When Constantine made Christianity safe within the Empire, those seeking a less domesticated encounter with God left the cities and became desert fathers and mothers.
Yet, even to me, much of that seems a bit off, counterintuitive.
I was, after all, raised American. For much of American history, the desert has been a place to be transformed, rendered fertile by human effort and always-improving technology. To tame the silence, we have radio, TV, and the addicting bounty of the internet: legions of electronic diversions to keep us from the frightening possibility of even a few minutes alone with the dreariness of ourselves, much less the time necessary for quaint practices like wordless prayer. What if God actually spoke to me? What would I do?
Today’s Old Testament and gospel readings raise that question. In John’s gospel, the apostles are recruited directly by Jesus. That ought to make accepting the call easier, or at least easier than it is for us moderns. Be careful, though. Don’t diminish the sacrifices made by the apostles in leaving their families, homes, and only sources of income. Don’t forget that the Jesus who calls them is, for all they have yet seen and heard, a Galilean peasant with an admiring cousin and some interesting things to say, not the glorified Jesus seen through post-resurrection eyes.
If I knew it was the Christ himself talking to me face to face, I’d like to think it would be a no-brainer. I suspect, however, that I’m overestimating my powers of discernment. Those closest to Jesus needed constant reminders of who this was they called “rabbi.” After three years with front row seats to signs and wonders, Peter and the rest still didn’t get it. Why do I imagine I would do better?
It’s hard to know if young Samuel’s situation is closer to our experience, beginning as it does: “The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Much depends on what passes for prophecy in 2018, what criteria one uses for a vision. The boy admittedly has two advantages over us: he lives with Eli, one of the last – perhaps the last – Judges of Israel, and sleeps in close quarters with the Ark of the Covenant itself.
Still, Samuel and Eli are both confused. What’s this voice the boy’s hearing? Eli, perhaps with faded memories of his own calling, gets in on the third try and tells Samuel how to respond. Then, of course, God speaks directly to Samuel. Scripture puts God’s message in plain words, sentences that are clear and easy to follow, if a bit awkward to share with Eli. What would I do if God spoke to me like that?
My mother was the go-to person for prayer in my extended family. She would pray hard and long every day. Sometimes she would share how God responded. I never asked her how, if at all, her experience was akin to Samuel’s, but she seemed to be intuiting messages with her heart rather than hearing voices speaking in so many words. Furthermore, the content of the messages were rather like the magi’s star. Celestial lights, you see, are unlike GPS devices. Stars provide somewhat nonspecific directions and can’t actually tell you when you’ve arrived.
My prayer life is not nearly as rigorous as my mother’s. I would like to have my mother’s confidence that what I receive there is more than just the play of neurotransmitters across the fraying synapses in my brain. Undisciplined and doubting, I am forever a beginner.
But here’s what I get from Samuel’s story, and perhaps from the gospel as well. To hear God’s call, one must be prepared to listen. That’s a skill in short supply these days. For most of us, the call is subtle. Even for Elijah, God was not in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire, but in the murmuring of a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19) Background noise drowns that out. That’s one reason why the desert has so often been a place of deep prayer: fewer people, fewer distractions, less noise.
Elijah, though, already knew more about living in the desert than I ever will. Ravens not only visited him; they fed him. Retreating to, much less surviving in, a real, geographic desert is not an option for most of us. We have homes, families, jobs – just like the apostles. Nevertheless, there are very few of us who can’t find desert moments in their busy days, times to be as present as possible to the presence of God who is always already there, close at hand, waiting only for you to notice.
And pray tell, O sometimes followers of Christ, when was God every truly far from you? Hidden, perhaps, but never far. In all creation, not one place or person is rightly called “godforsaken.” Through prayer, Augustine understood that God was “…closer to me than I am to myself.” (Confessions 3.6.11, somewhat freely translated). Augustine said and wrote many things in his busy life, but he had to learn the practice of silence to hear that. Yet God was there all along, had only to be noticed.
Where are the silences and deserts of your life, waiting to be entered? What’s keeping you from going there? Why are you not there now?