On summer nights in the forest, the call of a Great Horned Owl rises over the cacophonous layer of crickets and katydids. To identify its long, mournful hoot, ornithologists have devised a mnemonic, imagining that he’s slowly calling, “Who’s a-wake? . . . Me too.”
On the other hand, the Barred Owl belts out a cutting call, demanding, “Who cooks for you? . . . Who cooks for you-all?” The species is highly territorial, and when two such owls come near to each other they make a wide array of alarming screeches, screams, and shrills, ascending and descending in pitch. Years ago, as a counselor at a Virginia summer camp, I frequently had to reassure terrified youngsters who awoke to the sounds of competing Barred Owls. “No, Johnny, we are not being attacked by a sasquatch army…” These campers feared the nocturnal sounds of the forest.
Personally, I’ve always found these summer sounds more annoying than scary. Wintertime, on the other hand, brings a silence that always unsettles me. Once, as a boy on a cold, still January night in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I awoke in my tent alone. Everyone else in my group remained asleep in their own separate tents. No crickets or katydids hummed over the frost. No owl announced his territory. I could see far into the void of the forest of bare trees. Despite the cold, no snow softened the ground. The silence was acrid, scarier than any noise I have ever heard in the forest. I was alone.
Compare this experience to the Christmas hymn “Silent night, holy night.” We crave the quiet stillness of Bethlehem. However, when truly encountered, we can find the silence jarring and intimidating. In his book The Power of Silence, Robert Cardinal Sarah observes, “Noise wearies us, and we get the feeling that silence has become an unreachable oasis … [Nevertheless] without noise, postmodern man falls into a dull, insistent uneasiness. He is accustomed to permanent background noise, which sickens yet reassures him.” Because of our unfamiliarity with authentic silence, we find it difficult to gather “round yon Virgin.”
During the last few weeks, have we experienced the peace of the silent night, or have we allowed the business of the holidays to contribute to the background noise of our lives? If we are worn down by commotion, we are fortunate that there remains another week of the liturgical season of Christmas. The Holy Family continues to dwell in Bethlehem, resting with God. Furthermore, the coming months may be the least busy time of the whole year. Do we have the courage to sit quietly, waiting for God? Perhaps, as in Psalm 46, we will hear him say, “Be still and know that I am God, / exalted over nations, exalted over earth!”
This week I will be going camping again in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even after all these years, I remain a bit uneasy with the winter silence. However, I also know now that God dwells in that stillness. If I awake in the silent hours of night, I will respond, “Bless the Lord.”
Image: Piet Mondrian, Gray Tree