Bread for the Wilderness

Quakers are fond of the phrase “the still small voice” to describe revelatory experiences. William Penn wrote, “Remember, it is a still voice that speaks to us in this day, and that is not to be heard in the noises and hurries of the mind.” Electronic devices put us immediately in touch with one another, but we often still do not deeply communicate. Likewise, commercial media in a time of war engage in polarizing contention, often simply for entertainment. As a result, many of us sense the tug of a deeper conversation. Some of us want to shrink from the world into inner chapels of calm.

We all need to remember that the “still small voice” is no invitation to Quietism, that isolated and isolating doctrine that spiritualizes everything so that the only issue that matters is the individual soul’s progress. As Quakers, we are engaged in group mysticism, to use Howard Brinton’s term; together we listen and together we test what we hear. Brinton puts it plainly: “Our endeavor should be to merge my will with the Divine Will, as far as I am able to comprehend it, and by obedience to become an instrument through which God’s power works in the world.” In this way, Quakers bear witness to what the “still small voice” reveals. The phrase implies a dynamic process in the same way that the word nonviolence does. Often confused with a kind of pacifism that avoids conflict, the term “nonviolence” actually embodies a lifestyle that advocates for peace and justice—but instead of using the force of outward weapons, it uses the power of love, the strength of truth.

The source of the phrase “still small voice” is the story of the prophet Elijah from 1 Kings 19, and it may be instructive for us now because Quakers are prophets. That means we are instruments, just as Brinton said, through which the Spirit makes real the equality and harmony of radical love. And so, as prophets, we can share in Elijah’s experience.

It is some comfort that most biblical prophets were reluctant. Moses said he didn’t even know how to speak to Pharaoh. Isaiah’s first words are “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.” And Jonah took the first ship he could in the opposite direction. But despite the fear and doubt that accompany a sensing of the Spirit’s demand to witness to the world about the war (for example), all that is required of us, as of these prophets, is willingness and faithfulness. Are we willing to take the next step without necessarily knowing what action we should take after that? And are we dedicated to staying with that witness until it is clear to let go? In a sense, faithfulness helps to alleviate anxiety over “results” or “making a difference.”

Another instructive aspect of the prophet’s story is that he could distinguish the Spirit’s presence from the drama of the world. On Mount Horeb Elijah witnesses a wind “so strong it was splitting the mountains and breaking rock in pieces before the Lord,” then an earthquake, and finally a fire; but “the Lord was not in” any of these. The King James Version offers the words “after the fire a still small voice” while the New Revised Standard Version puts it this way: “after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” Elijah immediately covers his face, for to look upon the Lord would mean death, and goes and stands at the entrance of a cave. He recognized and responded to the presence of God.

We might take away a sense of confidence from this part of the story because it confirms our experience. Our form of worship strives to make ourselves available to this “sheer silence,” this presence. But more subtly, many of us in meeting for worship and in spiritual discernment recognize how it is often small events—an offhand comment that sticks with us, say, or a thought that recurs, or an image that turns up in reading and later in vocal ministry—that reveal the Spirit’s invitation to take our lives into deeper meaning. We must tune ourselves to this register each day. This discernment, this prayerfulness makes true witness possible. Otherwise, peace work can become a form of violence and our social action merely an agenda or political program.

But the story has even more to teach us. In this time of endless war, many of us fear for the future and many of us are also weary. It feels like we are in the wilderness. It is time to renew our vision and Elijah is a good guide. Prior to the scene on the mountain of God’s revelation, the prophet is asked twice, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He was running for his life. He’d shown up Ahab and Jezebel’s priests of Baal and then put them to the sword (a detail I’ll get to later), so he was afraid and ran into the wilderness. He pours it all out when asked the second time, saying that he’s been very zealous even though the people have torn down the altars and put the prophets to death. “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Who can’t relate to this sense of loneliness and being a target? Others have been more active, but my own small experience may be emblematic. When I wrote to the President asking him to pray for our enemies and put aside making war to seek alternative methods of dealing with terrorism, one of my friends joked that I’d get a thank-you note from the Department of Homeland Security, grateful to be spared the trouble of tracking down such internal troublemakers. Our time of terror is an age of fear, as well. Isn’t it tempting to give up? These are days of despair.

Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who died in 1968 (at the height of a different U.S. war), wrote in Thoughts in Solitude that “Everywhere is a desert. . . . The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. . . . This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope. . . . That war is our wilderness.”

In the story, Elijah had fled into the same wilderness in which the people of Israel wandered for 40 years after being set free from Egyptian bondage; he sought his roots, the sources of his tradition. He fell down under a broom tree and prayed to be killed then and there. Giving up, he fell asleep, but was awakened by an angel with a cake and a jug of water. Again, he slept and was disturbed by a ministering angel who said, “Get up and eat, or else the journey will be too much for you.”

Who are your angels? Our community, our small tribe of fellow travelers, is a necessary part of our journey. Who looks out for your vision, reminding you of it while still bringing you nourishment? This means we must try to articulate our prophetic mission, our vision of the beloved community to each other, and we must also assist one another to stay faithful.

To speak our vision, we must experience it. For that to happen, each of us needs patches of solitude. While this was forced on Elijah, we may have to work at it—find days of reflection at nearby retreat houses, or seek out hiking paths suitable for a solitary stroll in receptive silence. Some get up early to have quiet before the household rouses, while others put the others to bed then light a candle and open their journal. We must claim this time for ourselves, and we must encourage each other to take it as well. Each one of us must go into the wilderness of our own souls and be nourished by the cakes “baked on hot stones,” as the Scriptures say was the case for Elijah. Making a habit of this solitude will help us distinguish the storms and earthquakes from the still small voice.

What drove Elijah into the wilderness was deadly conflict over worldviews, as so much in our current era is. But it’s a timeless struggle. It doesn’t matter if it’s the War on Terror or the Civil War. It doesn’t matter if the one in power is George Bush, George Washington, or King George. There is no war between Christianity and Islam, between civilization and the force of chaos. We must look through those outward forms and recognize our brothers and sisters. William Penn says, “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion,” and Jesus said that all who visit those in prison or feed the hungry are extending that kindness to him. And so, the struggle—the war, if you want the dramatic language of the world—is always the same: To live a life of love. Quakers are called to live in “that Life and Power that takes away the occasion for all war.” We strive to make real the unity the Spirit instructs us in, the one we recognize as the fundamental truth of the Genesis story of creation: We are all one family. I don’t need to go in search of conflict or to drum up a culture war because these values put me at odds with that part of myself that wants my own comfort and safety even at the misery of others, my own freedom at the torture of others. Friends’ historical testimonies and the testimony of any who live out this “pure principle”— no matter what nation or religion—show us that these values confront human selfishness in order to declare another way, a different lifestyle, a new society.

Between here and there, though, between now and then, we live in a world of war and commerce, of waste and excess. The prophet Elijah—who fled into the desert and was ministered to by an angel, who returned to the source by climbing Mount Horeb and experienced the Eternal Presence in the “still small voice”—has a final lesson for us. Elijah was given another task: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus.” He was assigned to anoint new kings and a new prophet to replace him.

Though not everyone is called to declare a hunger strike or civil disobedience, once we have been called we must take action. We must listen to the promptings of love and truth in our hearts, just as George Fox advised. Or, as Douglas Steere wrote, “Only in vital action, symbolic or direct, does thought ripen into truth, and the modern mind would do well not to confuse religion with a state of consciousness.

. . . We become what we do.” When we are faithful to our leadings, it doesn’t matter if we organize a protest or cook the soup for the potluck afterwards. It doesn’t matter if we are performing civil disobedience or praying for those jailed. What matters is that we take the step to which we are led because, as Goethe says, “Action has magic, grace, and power in it.” Our time in the wilderness can prepare us so that, refreshed and humbled, energized and renewed, we, too, will descend the mountain or emerge from our worship and community to continue the work of the Spirit, to trample despair, and to build a culture of peace.

Edward A. Dougherty

Edward A. Dougherty, a member of Elmira (N.Y.) Meeting, teaches at Corning Community College. He has published a book of poems, Pilgrimage to a Gingko Tree. He has a website,