Back in the mists of time, when I was in fifth grade, my parents told me that it was time for me to get a job — which meant delivering the morning paper in Milwaukee, a city that is rather cold and snowy in the winters. I would walk to my pickup point, a little over a mile from my home, and wait for my papers to be delivered to me, which was usually about 5 or 5:30 in the morning. Then, once I had finished making deliveries I had to walk home, clean up, eat breakfast — and then walk another good mile to get to school. I had maybe 50 papers to deliver, one to each fourth or fifth house, so it meant a lot of walking and a lot of carrying a relatively heavy weight for my age in weather that was not always perfectly delightful. I was less than thrilled by my job.
As the years have gone by, though, I have come to treasure what I learned there about responsibility, coping with problems, and just plain stubborn steadfastness. I also gained a particular respect for the police, firemen, hospital staffs and all those who labor while others sleep, unaware of what others were doing to care for them.
What has surprised me in all of this is that above all else I have come to love rising early, sitting down in the absolute peace and stillness of the night, and giving myself entirely to some tasks that need real focus and presence on my part. I am fresh from sleep, rested and ready, as I go to prayer with a cup of coffee at hand: the distractions are few, and even those that do appear are appeals for my attention to valid concerns that need a voice in my prayer.
In the freshness of the pre-dawn, the waiting quiet, I have the chance to focus on what is important, on what is absolutely essential to who I am and how I choose to grow in grace, and I can hear and watch myself processing whatever I find before me. It is not only the result of that work that is of interest but equally seeing how I go about it: I find that I can fool myself far less and get away with fewer cheap excuses because I am attentive to the way I think and to how and why I move from one thought to another.
In the last 100-150 years we Americans have had to start coping with increasing levels of wraparound “noise” of all kinds, whether that is actual sound or just the activity of the streets and our work, the bombardment of advertising, or whatever calls out to our senses and fatigues our attention. The progressive encroachment of city life, newspapers, the telegraph, recorded sound, the telephone, radio, movies, TV, computers, social media and all the rest — they all fill our attention and drive out, at least temporarily, our feeling of incompletion, emptiness, or loneliness.
Many of us would say that that is a good thing, better than turning to alcohol or drugs to achieve the same end, yet have we considered that facing that constant void within ourselves might be as necessary to us as our urge to eat and our need to breathe?
If I am always talking, I can’t focus on what is most important to me, and it is as dangerous for me as texting while driving when what I have trickling into my ears is a mere recording or when I fill my eyes with the trivia of Twitter. Such things might be sweet and tasty, but they can stunt my growth and damage my health as much as tobacco, sugar, salt and fat do; they can positively harm me.
Walt Kelly, the author of the classic Pogo comic strip, proposed that “The eighteen months of the Fizzickle Year, wherein we have plumbed our depths and flung moons into the stars, could be followed by a Year of Man, a never-ending year devoted to the study of inner space. For, as has been said before, how can we understand the outsider if we do not know the stranger who is in our skin?” (G.O. Fizzickle Pogo, included in Pogo’s Will Be That Was).
Some people live in a “desert” of silence because of their bad choices, and they suffer loneliness, thirst, frustration, etc., and see nothing but loss of direction, starvation and death ahead (e.g., the Jews under Moses). Others go to the desert because they are driven (such as Jesus after His baptism), and still others because they are seekers, looking for John the Baptist or that “still point of the turning world” (T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”). And then the Lord beckons others there to share His heart, free from interruption (Hos 2:14). Silence is not emptiness, it is a time of openness, of listening, of waiting to be completed and filled. For true and patient seekers it is a readiness for growth in mind and spirit.
What do I really value? What or who am I seeking? I can only find that in silence, sitting with Christ and His Spirit (Jn 1:35-40, 3:1-21).
FATHER KESTERMEIER, S.J., teaches two sections of World Literature (Ancient) in the English Department, and he also serves as the chaplain in Deglman Hall at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.