The Tiny, Whispering Sound

Elijah on Horeb by Daniele da Volterra

I have long loved the cycle of stories in the first book of Kings dealing with the prophet Elijah. In fact, I’ve often told people who are just getting interested in the Scripture to commence with the fascinating, adventurous, and often comical stories concerning this prophet. His name tells us all we need to know about him. “Elijah” is the Anglicization of the Hebrew Eliyahu, which means, “Yahweh is God.” People can be named from what they worship, what they hold to be of highest value. Thus, someone who values her work above all is a “company woman,” and someone who prizes his family above all is a “family man;” someone who seeks pleasure as his highest good is a “good-time Charlie,” etc. Elijah is a Yahweh man, for he worships the God of Israel. Once we know this, we know all we need to know about how he thinks and how he acts and reacts. Because he is a Yahweh man, he stands athwart the idolatry of King Ahab; because he is a Yahweh man, he is forced to flee the persecution of Queen Jezebel; because he is a Yahweh man, he seeks refuge on Horeb, the mountain of God.

While sojourning on Horeb, he hears that the Lord will be passing by. A mighty wind, an earthquake, and a devouring fire ensue, but the Lord, he knows, is not in those events. Then, he hears “a tiny, whispering sound,” and he knows that the true God is about to speak. What is this barely noticeable sound which Elijah finds infinitely compelling? It is, I submit, the voice of the conscience, that instinct of the heart by which we determine the difference between right and wrong. John Henry Newman referred to the conscience as “the aboriginal vicar of Christ in the soul.” Newman held, of course, that the Pope is the legitimate Vicar of Christ on earth, and yet he thought that the conscience is a more fundamental, a more elemental, a more interior representative of Christ. Now I realize that, as post-Freudians, we are all too willing to write off the conscience as the internalized voice of our fathers, as the inherited prejudices of our society, or as the bitter fruit of all of our irrational repressions and hang-ups. Nevertheless, try as we might to dismiss it, the conscience quietly but firmly reasserts its authority, rewarding us when we do something morally praiseworthy and rather sharply punishing us when we do something immoral.

A comparison might enable us to see the distinctive profile of the conscience more clearly. When I compose a column (which I do weekly), I usually have a sense, born of many years of experience, whether the piece is relatively good or relatively weak. My writer’s sensibility, accordingly, either “rewards” me or “punishes” me for my effort. Much the same could be said of a golfer’s inner sense that tells him whether he has swung smoothly or awkwardly. Now if I have written a less than stellar article, I might feel disappointed and regretful, and I might feel the obligation to get back to work and improve what I’ve composed. But my writer’s sense never makes me feel ashamed of what I’ve written. But the conscience, which accuses me of immoral behavior, produces precisely this sense of shame, the kind of feeling I have when I have hurt someone that I love. Concomitantly, when I perform an act of great generosity, forgiveness, or compassion, my conscience produces in me a feeling of satisfaction akin to that which I have when I have pleased someone that I love.

This is because the conscience is much more than a sensibility or a criterion of judgment; it is indeed the representative in us of Someone that we love. And this is why, Newman concluded, we refer quite rightly to the voice of the conscience, though we wouldn’t be tempted to refer to our aesthetic or athletic sensibilities as voices. It is the voice of Someone who is himself the final criterion of right and wrong and who is capable of probing the human heart in its deepest interiority and finding us wherever we are: “Lord, you search me and you know me; you know my resting and my rising. You discern my purpose from afar. Before ever a word is on my lips, you know it, Lord, through and through” (Ps. 139). In our culture, we have all been strictly trained to notice and deplore neurotic guilt, but we are often slow to appreciate the appropriate guilt which is the fruit of a robustly functioning conscience. The sense of moral desolation should not be automatically covered up, denied, or medicated, for it can be tantamount to a keenly felt experience of God.

Elijah could hear the tiny, whispering sound of God’s voice, even amidst the clamor of so many competing sounds, precisely because he was a man of Yahweh. His heart and mind and feelings were attuned, above all, to God. As has always been the case, people today (especially young people) hear myriad voices promising joy, peace, success, fulfillment. Sex, pleasure, ambition, political power, wealth — they all have avatars who shout in the public arena. But the only voice that matters is the tiny, whispering sound of the conscience, and you will hear it clearly if you become another Elijah, another man or woman of God.


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About the Author

Father Robert Barron is an author, speaker and theologian. He is also the founder of the global media ministry Word On Fire, which reaches millions of people by utilizing the tools of new media to draw people into or back to the Catholic Faith.

Father Barron is the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, award winning documentary series about the Catholic Faith. The series has aired across the country on PBS and EWTN, and has been seen and broadcast in parishes, universities, schools and media outlets throughout the world. The documentary received a Christopher Award for excellence. Father Barron and Word on Fire also released the documentary "CATHOLICISM: The New Evangelization" in 2013.

Father Barron currently serves as the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary University of St. Mary of the Lake. He was appointed to the theological faculty of Mundelein Seminary in 1992, and has also served as a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame and at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas. He was twice scholar in residence at the Pontifical North American College at the Vatican.

Ordained in 1986, he is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago. Father Barron received a Master's Degree in Philosophy from the Catholic University of America in 1982 and a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Institut Catholique de Paris in 1992.

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4 Comments

  1. Ahh, the tiny whisper. How many of us know all to well about that voice from within. I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago and there is a quote that I wish to refer to that explains alot of things. ” In our culture we have all been strictly trained to notice and deplore neurotic guilt, but we are often slow to appreciate the appropriate guilt which is the fruit of a robustly functioning conscience. The sense of moral desolation should not be automatically covered up, denied, or medicated, for it can be tantamount to a keenly felt experience of God.”

    This moral desolation is acted out all over the globe, in everyday and everyway. Drugs, alcholism, promiscuity, out of wedlock child births, abortion, cohaditation, homosexuality, same sex unions, corruption, lack of ethics in all phases of business, television, movies, print media, pornography, ad infinitium. People are running, running to what or from what is the question. I suggest that they are running from themselves, from the inner whisper inside themselves that is telling them, they are not living up to the beings they were created to be by their Creator. Trust me when I say, at moments in the still of a sleepness night, everyone questions themselves in their existence.

    See, God created us in His image and likeness, so we are all made of the same natures as God. We are also fallen, and it is this fallen nature we run from God and to evil. In Genesis after Adam abd Eve ate of the fruit from the tree od knowledge there were two things that immediately occured, one they now noticed they were naked, and secondly they hid from God. As God shows us in the breezy time of the afternoon, He found Adam and Eve hiding in the bushes. Now we go to Elijah on Mt. Horeb and how does God speak to Elijah, in a whisper.

    When I stopped running, when I faced myself and what my life had consisted of, reviewing all my life story, confessed my sins and began to live life in a state of grace that only God will provide, I was reborn a free man. The world is in the condition it is in for one reason, and one reason only. Collectively the world has turned it’s back on God and is running scared. Pride dominates thinking and action, humility has no place for people in todays culture. I will testify to God’s Love all the days of my life and fear no more.
    God Bless
    Gary

  2. Gary,

    Excellent points.

    >>but we are often slow to appreciate the appropriate guilt which is the fruit of a robustly functioning conscience.< < So true. We need to teach our kids and ourselves that knowing thyself is essential to improvement. And knowing our faults is as important as knowing our victories. >>Pride dominates thinking and action, humility has no place for people in today’s culture.< < A perennial problem. >>See, God created us in His image and likeness, so we are all made of the same natures as God.<< Just a slight quibble, though I think I understand what you mean. God's nature is one Spirit. Man's nature is his body and spiritual soul. They are different. We were made in His image (rational and free) and His likeness (good). We lost the likeness at the fall and the nature was damaged. Thankfully Christ came to make all things new although the preternatural gifts Adam and Eve were given were not restored. Deacon Mike

  3. Thank you for the input Deacon Mike. I am no theologian, but I am learning. To my point about being of the same nature as God, what I mean by that is, yes, our fallen nature blockes us from God. God gave us the gift of free will, to chose between Him or Satan. When we chose Him, and I mean really chose Him, not just when we are in a pinch, but when we live in a state of grace through the Sacraments, it is then that our true self becomes a realization over time. We will never get there completely, at least not here on earth, but with some cleansing in purgatory, we become fully realized in heaven, as God created us to be.
    I hope this makes sense.
    God Bless
    Gary

  4. Good morning Deacon Mike. I failed to thank you properly for your time to respond to my orginal comment. I am sure you are a busy man, and to take time to help me understand the teachings of our faith is greatly appreciated. I am relatively new to these things, for being a fallen away catholic for 40 years, I have been back for a little over a year now. One precept of our faith is to learn it. I have spent much time doing so in the short amount of time since my reversion, you might say I am fully engaged. So again, thanks for your time and kind words.
    God Bless
    Gary

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