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.