In the spirituality of the Contemplative Carmelite order, Elijah is a foundational figure. Carmel finds particular inspiration in 1 Kings 19: 9 – 14. The prophet has been sent to Mount Horeb to encounter God. He experiences a mighty wind, the splitting of rocks, an earthquake and fire, which, although traditional signs of an encounter with God, are empty of God’s presence. It is in the still small voice – the ‘sound of sheer silence’ as the NRSV has it – that he discovers the presence of God. In response, Elijah wraps his cloak around his head, and stands before God.
Yet this is an encounter within an encounter: the same dialogue occurs both before and after the sequence of signs. God asks Elijah: ‘What are you doing here?’ and Elijah responds: ‘With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of Host (zelo zelatus sum pro Domino Deo exercituum).’ These words are the motto of the Carmelite Order.
St John of the Cross (Father of the Discalced Carmelite reform) writes poetically of the need for silence in the life of union with God in words which echo the encounter of Elijah: ‘The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul. … What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language He hears best is silent love.’
Keywords: sound and silence, Carmelite monastic tradition, desert, God speaking in the sound of silence