This past Saturday was a day to think about legacy. Nancy and I woke at 6:00 and headed north toward Albany. Her uncle had passed away in December at the age of 95, and her cousins had postponed the memorial until more people could attend. It was worth the wait.
Her uncle had been a man of substance and character. I loved hearing the remembrances from one of his sons and one of his grandsons. Most impressive, though, were the words of a minister who had known him through many years. What I particularly loved in that eulogy was the way the minister artfully celebrated silence.
My wife’s uncle was not a showy man. He was not loud. He rarely took the spotlight or raised his voice, but that didn’t mean he lacked passion. The minister referred to a story of Elijah in the bible, where Elijah expects to encounter God in a mighty wind, a terrible earthquake, or the subsequent fire. He expects to be awed by power. Instead, he finds his epiphany in the “thin silence” that follows. To the minister there was much to glean from this line. It seemed to speak also of the people in the world who don’t dazzle or overpower, but who quietly lead a good life. That was my wife’s uncle Norm. Neither pious nor pedantic, neither pushy nor possessive, he was practical, peaceful, and sometimes poetic.
The minister also told a story that put that quiet power in another light. Norm spent a lot of time in the Adirondacks on the shores of Lake Champlain. When people visited, he loved to show them a place along the shore where a huge ledge had been carved in the granite hillside. Along the ledge, ran a train track, and Norm loved to let people guess how the rock had been cut without destroying the picturesque hillside.
It hadn’t been done with hammer, chisel or even dynamite. Instead, it had been done with water. Quietly. On a winter’s day, the engineers had drilled holes in the side of the mountain. They had filled these holes with water. Then they had waited. In the thin silence that followed, the water had frozen, and in that moment of freezing, the water had expanded, quietly, but with its own kind of power.
And cleaved a granite mountain.
Norm loved that story, and I loved the way it fit his life. I didn’t know the man well, but from the little I knew, he was both humble and powerful. He led by example.
In my classroom, I often ask the class to leave a space after someone finishes reading a piece of writing. I’ve never thought of it as leaving a space to find God, but I’ve come to believe that understanding often settles into us in that space, that pause. Now, I see it in a new way. That thin space is also the way of honoring the quiet ones, the ones who don’t blurt their wisdom, but let it seep in…and sometimes rock their world like only still water can.