Silence is Golden

When a person has Alzheimer’s Disease, it is generally believed that there is a lack of amylase, an enzyme that breaks down proteins in the brain.  The proteins therefore build up on the dendrites and cause what they cause plaques and tangles.  This results in a short circuiting of neurochemical transmission leaving the person confused and unable to recall memories.  Doctors try very hard with different medications to slow this process, if not reverse it.  Family and friends, however, are more focused on another task – namely, “getting through” to their loved one.  They look for some sign that the patient is hearing and understanding them.  I like to think of this as the God in me communicating with the God in you.  Here’s why:

When I was about 10 years old, my great-grandfather was in the nursing home in the end stages of Alzheimer’s.  He could not recognize anyone and the few words that he could say made no sense.  I would sit by his side and have “conversations” with him in whatever language he was using for the day.  We had given up on being able to communicate with him and were resigned to the fact that the man we knew and loved was no longer in there.  BUT . . .  One day, shortly before he died, he held up a picture of me as a baby, looked me straight in the eye, and said “This is you.”  I couldn’t control my crying or my wonderment at his ability to reach out from where ever he was in there.

I have heard other stories like this.  I met with some chaplains last week who were hospice chaplains and also worked with dementia patients.  These were patients who had been given up on for any possibility of meaningful communication.  There was no way that these people any longer understood what was being said to them or even comprehended who they were or what was going on around them.  That is, until a chaplain started playing the piano and singing old hymns and one of these patients started singing along.  Or the chaplain who was charting after seeing a patient.  She was holding a children’s book, The Giving Tree, and handed it to an end stage AD patient who hadn’t spoken in years and was assumed to be completely “gone” so that she could do her charting.  When she looked back it appeared that the patient was actually reading the book.  She said, “Are you reading that?”  The patient nodded.  “Ok, I’ll give it to you.”  The patient said nothing and appeared to keep reading.  Sarcastically, the chaplain said, without looking up from her computer, “You could at least thank me.”  The patient replied, “Thank you for the book.”  The chaplain wept.  When technical, medical, and rigorously tried methods did not work, the God in the patients were able to communicate with the God in the chaplains – right there in the silence and simplicity.

One of the most intriguing passages in the Bible, I think, is 1 Kings 19:11-18.  Elijah is on the mountain because God has sent him there telling him that God will pass by:

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but theLord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but theLord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ “

Wow.  There is something like Zen to this passage.  A “sound” of sheer silence.  This sounds like a koan.  God was not in the loud cacophony, or where God was sought, or expected to be.  God was right there in the silence.  We are constantly searching for something – assurance, peace, affirmation.  No matter what name we give to this particular sense or feeling that we are seeking, I think it’s safe to call it God.  We seek God daily and try to get some sense that God is present.  We get in the car and crank up the Christian radio station so that we can feel God.  Listen for the voice of God in the thunder to give us some proof that God is there.  Isn’t it ironic then, that if God is there in the silence speaking to us, that the very methods we use to find the Divine are the very things that prevent us from finding or hearing God?   Hmmm . . . .

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