The power of a quiet life

“We live in an age of noise.” Some years ago, a tall, quiet, and rather austere man spoke those words on New Year’s Day to a group of people gathered in a small inner-city church.Image

He went on to talk about the value of silence, and as he did, I pulled out pen and paper to record some of what he said. In the years since, as I have tried to find more spaces of quiet in my life, I have occasionally returned to those notes, especially after deciding to write about what I have come to call “quietkeeping.”

When I met the man who spoke that day, I was a newspaper reporter doing an article about his church. As I got to know him better in later years – and became a member of his parish – he would say in his wry way, “Judy, write me a nice obituary.” After I left my newspaper job, I regretted that I would not have that opportunity. However, when he died last week, it occurred to me that this blog would be a fitting place to honor him by writing a little about the reservoir of quiet that was his life.

At his funeral, it was said he had been a private person with few friends. Yet, as was evidenced by the attendance, many people were drawn to him, not because he was the proverbial “nice guy,” but because of something magnetic at his core – a steely resolve that made him just a little hard-headed at times and allowed him to speak truths that were not always comfortable to hear. In speaking and preaching, he was a master of brevity and economy, crafting simple, pithy sermons that sent listeners home with a thought to ponder or an action to take. He believed in conveying whatever he had to say in seven minutes. “Anything more, put it in the bulletin,” he counseled a deacon who spoke at his funeral. Still, he packed much wisdom into that short span of time and his New Year’s Day sermon on silence was a perfect illustration.

The message he spoke that day obviously came from someone who was acquainted with silence and made room for it in his life. Lamenting that we had come to a place in our culture where “even our computers have speakers,” he said we don’t appreciate what can happen in silence. He suggested taking 15 to 20 minutes a day to be silent and to listen to the voice of God – a sound he said is easily drowned out by noise.

On the day before this man’s funeral, I read words that echoed his. They were from 14th-century theologian John Tauler, who said, “When the wind howls, and the doors and windows clatter, one can hardly hear the voice of man. As to the voice of God, that fatherly, whispered, secret word, uttered in the inmost depths of your soul – if you will hear it, you must be deaf to all the roar of the world without, and hush all the voices of your own inner life.”

At the church where the man I am writing about served, a sign on the inside door asks those who enter to remain silent. The worship services there are on the quiet side with very little in the way of announcements or spoken exchanges between people – that is, until after the service ends and everyone spills outside. Because of what happens inside, however, going there is truly a respite from the madness that often marks our lives and an opportunity to focus on something bigger than ourselves.

My husband and I were drawn to this place precisely because of the quiet – and the quiet man – we found there. He is gone now, but the lessons he taught that New Year’s Day – and in his simple, uncluttered life – endure. He was able to still himself to listen to the voice of God and let it guide his thoughts, his words, his silence, and his actions. Encountering him left you wanting the peace he possessed. Thankfully, he left instructions.

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The still life of a birdwatcher

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Blackburnian Warbler. Photo by Kim Smith

The year I ventured into the world of serious birdwatching, I probably spent as much time observing the birders as the birds.

Something about the people who were able to discern the presence of a particular bird, first with the naked eye or ear and then through binoculars, fascinated me, as did the near-magical atmosphere of the wildlife area where they had flocked to seek out birds during the spring migration.

I saw serene, thoughtful countenances, felt a sense of quiet anticipation, and heard a whole new language spoken mostly in subdued tones: “Cooperative male Canada warbler with a nice necklace. Around 10 o’clock, where that branch with the clump of leaves forks. See? He just dropped down. There, to the right of that tangle.”

Like a star-struck groupie, I was drawn to these longtime avian enthusiasts who had the air of experience about them, yet would take time to help me through my early awkward efforts at birding, guiding me to my first sighting of a spectacular bird.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak by Kim Smith

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. Photo by Kim Smith

They won me over not with flashy personalities, but with serene and generous spirits that beckoned me to share in the knowledge they had developed over years of keen observation. Although like every other group, birders are diverse, I noticed that some of the best are quiet types who don’t have the trappings of a big personality or the gift of clever repartee. They seem to possess an inner repose and so bring to birding a receptive spirit that settles in to listen and watch, easily tuning out distractions.

From watching and interacting with these tranquil beings, I wanted to be more like them, much as a young disciple looks to a spiritual father or mother as a model. I remember especially a man with a disabling physical condition who identified a Prairie warbler for me during my first year of birding. In succeeding years, he has no longer been able to easily navigate through the clusters of birders on the trail and so has done most of his birding from a folding stool, but whenever I see him, I am assured of hearing a report of some splendid sightings. I always have the sense that he sees and hears things the rest of us miss because we have to keep moving.

Regardless of their religious beliefs, birders have confirmed what my own spiritual tradition teaches: that the stillness, quiet, and attitude of listening birders bring to their pursuit are essential if we are to hear or see anything of lasting value. As Rumer Godden writes in the book, In This House of Brede, referring to an artist who has come to the monastery to work, “It was the silence of Brede that pleased him. ‘I can hear life,’ he said.”

White-throated Sparrow by Kim Smith

White-throated Sparrow. Photo by Kim Smith

In a world numbed by its attachment to technology and noise, the birders I have observed and emulated hear and see life, whether they are delighting in finding a tiny Blackburnian warbler with its brilliant orange “fire throat” or an American Woodcock whose brown camo coloring allows it to blend into the woodland landscape.

I share in this richness of the bird trail when I slow down enough to listen to the simple, soothing song of the White-throated Sparrow on these spring days, notice an Eastern Phoebe patiently waiting for the movement of an insect in my garden, or spy a Rose-breasted Grosbeak on a branch outside the kitchen window.

But I reap even more when I apply the lessons of birding to my daily life: when I am willing to wait and watch for something wonderful, when I listen for the sound of a distant song, and when I am still enough to believe in the Goodness of it all.

 

Where the birds are: If this post has piqued your interest in birding and you can travel to northwest Ohio, known as the “warbler capital of the world,” a great once-a-year opportunity awaits you during the Biggest Week in American Birding, which begins Tuesday, May 6, and continues through May 15. Also, Kim Smith, who blogs at natureismytherapy.com and graciously provided photos for this post, will be blogging from the Biggest Week and coordinating the efforts of the event’s blog team.