The woods near where I live were thick, the home of deer and smaller animals when I first arrived here. Now the woods have thinned as people come from near and far for firewood – often their only means of cooking.
The deer are long since gone and in their place are gatherings of people chanting prayers, singing and drumming. I have discovered a way of walking through these woods without disturbing anyone but I occasionally stop to greet and the chat for a moment.
‘Why do you come here to pray?’ ‘It is a quiet place’, they reply. Even though they create a holy noise of their own they prefer this place of withdrawal to the commotion in the suburbs. Without knowing it they are following a long tradition in Christianity – and other religions – of fleeing the noise of daily life to seek God in the desert. They do not go alone but in a group and when they arrive they pitch their tent, cook their food and pray loudly.
If there seems to be a contradiction in seeking quiet in order to make noise it is beside the point. What motivates them is to seek God in their own way and pray for all their needs, the most recent being deliverance from Covid 19. Just today, we had a reading from the First Book of Kings, chapter 19, in which Elijah went into a cave for the night. He meets the Lord there, not in a mighty wind nor an earthquake nor in the fire but in ‘a gentle breeze’. Another version calls it ‘a small voice’, yet another ‘a light murmuring sound’ and still another – the one I prefer – ‘a sound of silence’.
‘Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment in every age, every day and every night he comes, comes, ever comes.
Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their notes have always proclaimed, ‘He comes, comes, ever comes’.
In the fragrant days of sunny April through the forest path he comes, comes, ever comes.
In the rainy gloom of July nights on the thundering chariot of clouds he comes, comes, ever comes
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.
Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, XLV
As I left the wood towards evening I met a new group coming in carrying food and blankets. They too will pray and sing into the night. And when they are tired they will lie down under the stars, happy to have come to search for the One who comes.