Of Many Things

Soon after I was ordained, I drove north with two classmates to Alaska. Bishop Robert Whelan had invited me to take up my first pastoral assignment as a stand-in for Father Mike Kanicki, later himself bishop of Fairbanks, at St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kotzebue, an Inuit town 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. During our short layover in Fairbanks, Bishop Whelan, in the casual way of longtime missionaries, gave me some advice about working among the Eskimo.

“You’ll find the people quiet up there,” the bishop said. “Be patient. Stand with them quietly, and they’ll invite you in for tea. Always accept the tea.” It was good advice. Before the week was out I greeted a fisherman by the door of his home. We stood quietly at the doorway 15 or 20 minutes, and then he invited me in for tundra tea. It was the first of many cups I shared with parishioners that month.

Silence was a way of life in Kotzebue, but not everyone took to it easily. Two Irish-born religious sisters, who like me were volunteers that summer, joined me one evening in a condolence call. They could not endure sitting in silence with the mourners. After a few minutes, they broke out their beads and led us in the Rosary. The prayer done, they got up and left.

Kotzebue came to mind on a recent Sunday afternoon as I took the early fall air in Central Park. There was no escaping the noise. Along Fifth Avenue the voice of a labor organizer boomed over a loudspeaker. On the park drive a vagrant rode an ancient bicycle with a boombox hung from the handlebars blasting its beat for all to hear. At the Band Shell an evangelist alternated her songs with pleas for her audience to come to Jesus. Nearby two groups of skaters danced to competing rhythms. Under bridges clarinetists played their instruments in hopes of donations from passersby. I had set out for a quiet afternoon walk, and everywhere people wanted sound.

Walking through the woods, I heard a crooner singing familiar Italian songs. Puzzled, I left the woods, and just as I crested the Bow Bridge, out from beneath floated a gondola with a gondolier—striped shirt, straw boater and all—serenading his clients. The fantasy broke my mood of frustration over “the noise” I heard everywhere. I was a world away from the silent companionship of Kotzebue.

Cultures differ in how much or how little sound they can take. Mediterranean cultures seem to enjoy an endless round of interchange. I recall my first night in Rome walking back to our residence in the early morning after a birthday party for a friend. Even in the smallest piazza we encountered people coming out of tavernas, laughing, chatting, singing. By contrast, Minnesota’s Norwegian bachelor farmers, popularized by Garrison Keillor, are renowned for their laconic speech.

Though in this matter I lean toward my Norwegian forebears rather than my Italian ones, I struggle to find the right balance between sound and silence in my life. I confess to having my own favored sorts of distracting noise. A news hound, I listen to and watch far too much news; and on Saturday afternoons in the fall, shades of my years at Notre Dame, I need to hear the roar of a football crowd in the background.

But the noisiness of life can also be the stuff of prayer. In “Noisy Contemplation,” one of the best essays on prayer I have ever read, Bill Callahan argued that most people are not called to be contemplatives, supplied with solitude and silence. We need, he said, to pray in the midst of the noisiness of our lives. Callahan counseled that we can use the busyness of life to supply material for prayer. The example I remember most distinctly is prayer for the person who has most annoyed us that day.

For myself, I also need the silence my walks in the park provide. Silence has its own richness. I still remember with pleasure the moment on Mount Wittenberg in the Catskills when someone first suggested I listen to the silence. Beneath the birdsong, the splash and drip of falling water, the rustling of the leaves, I could hear the breath of Earth itself.

Like dream time, quiet times outdoors supply opportunity to sort out my thoughts and my feelings, to make decisions I have been putting off and imagine stands I might take in controversies that come my way. There articles get composed, and proposals for editorials and columns begin to form. On longer walks, the rush of my own thoughts slows down. I become inwardly quiet. Then I grow attentive to deeper stirrings of my own spirit and the promptings of God’s Spirit within me. It is on those afternoons that I return most refreshed to the noisy world of everyday, ready to reach out to those who otherwise seem to crowd me. There the Norwegian and the Italian meet.

10 years 7 months ago
I enjoyed your article on "Of Many Things". It brought back fond memories of my old high school coach. He and I became great friends after my school days, and spent many hours trout fishing on Wisconsin streams. He loved the solitude of the woods and streams. One day after fishing he said to me,"dick", I just spent the afternoon in God"s cathederal.

10 years 7 months ago
I enjoyed your article on "Of Many Things". It brought back fond memories of my old high school coach. He and I became great friends after my school days, and spent many hours trout fishing on Wisconsin streams. He loved the solitude of the woods and streams. One day after fishing he said to me,"dick", I just spent the afternoon in God"s cathederal.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis listens to a question from Vera Shcherbakova of the Itar-Tass news agency while talking with journalists aboard his flight from Cairo to Rome April 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The situation in North Korea, he added, has been heated for a long time, "but now it seems it has heated up too much, no?"
Gerard O'ConnellApril 29, 2017
Pope Francis greets children dressed as pharaohs and in traditional dress as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano)
Francis took the risk, trusting in God. His decision transmitted a message of hope on the political front to all Egyptians, Christians and Muslims alike, who are well aware that their country is today a target for ISIS terrorists and is engaged in a battle against terrorism.
Gerard O'ConnellApril 29, 2017
Pope Francis greets the crowd as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Air Defense Stadium in Cairo April 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The only kind of fanaticism that is acceptable to God is being fanatical about loving and helping others, Pope Francis said on his final day in Egypt.
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to journalists in the Oval Office at the White House on March 24 after the American Health Care Act was pulled before a vote. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)
Predictably Mr. Trump has also clashed with the Catholic Church and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on many of the policies he has promoted during his first 100 days.
Kevin ClarkeApril 28, 2017