On a busier-than-usual Tuesday morning recently, I find myself loading my car with cases of bulky camera equipment before driving to an important event at the National Shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux in a nearby Chicago suburb. I have my headphones on listening to NPR’s Radio Lab while I hurriedly shuttle back and forth between the car and the house. It’s a long time before I notice the duck.
Summer brings beautiful views of our koi pond behind the Carmelite priory where I live along with some furry visitors during the night. On this particular morning I’ve come across an unusually loud and energetic duck that is following me step for step from the house to the car and back, watching me intently and quacking with a rhythmic fervor. The quacking doesn’t let up so I start to think that maybe she is just a very in-your-face kind of “city duck” from the Southside of Chicago where our community resides. But as I walk back to the house a final time with my new web-footed friend in tow, my curiosity finally gets the best of me. I turn around, take my headphones out of my ears, and really look at her. She lets out a steady series of quacks that sound pained and urgent.
“What’s going on, girl?” I finally ask. The duck stops quacking and stares at me. In the matter of a few moments I have gone from being a man hurriedly rushing off to an appointment to someone who stands in the driveway, talking to overly expressive waterfowl. But the duck isn’t leaving, and that makes me think she must have something to tell me.
She walks away, and then turns back toward me, and quacks as if beckoning me to follow. I begin to feel as if I’m in some bizarre TV Land “Lassie” rerun in which my new, fine-feathered friend has replaced the heroic TV canine from my parent’s generation. Nevertheless, I follow her to the end of the driveway, where she stops just before the sewer grate between our yard and the street. She quacks at me until I come closer, and that’s when I hear it: a faint chorus of peeping from the sewer down below.
I’m startled and immediately peer down and—with this nervous mother duck at my side—I determine that there are eight ducklings that have fallen into the sewer. The sewer grate cover is heavy and I’m surprised that I’m able to lift it without much trouble. I am about to lower a net into the sewer when I notice Fr. Carl—who is both a member of my home community and our Carmelite provincial—heading over. “What’s going on here?” he asks. Before I can answer he is already grabbing an extra pond net to help. Then Fr. Peter, another Carmelite friar, seeing the commotion, comes out of the house to lend a hand. Before I know it the three of us have set up a makeshift assembly line to rescue the peeping ducklings below.
In the midst of the rescue though one duckling dove away from my net into a network of pipes below the water as I tried to bring it to the surface. Now that seven have emerged, I go back to find the eighth. I can feel the mother duck watching me. I splash the net around below, hoping the commotion will bring the duckling forth, but there’s nothing. I look at the mother duck. She’s pacing, looking around, ready to leave but not yet willing.
Realizing the futility of the situation, Peter, Carl and I agree that we’ll each periodically check the sewer in case the remaining duckling pops back up again. As we speak, the mother duck assembles her seven survivors in a line. She was clearly on her way somewhere before all of this happened, and now, despite her reluctance to leave one behind, it’s time to get going again.
As she gathers her babies together, my first thought is that I’ve just witnessed the wildlife equivalent of a message that we encounter frequently in the Gospel. Whether it’s through the parable of the prodigal son, the image of the Good Shepherd or Mary’s love for Jesus, there is an incredibly fierce protectiveness to God’s love for us that I saw a glimpse of in this mother duck who crossed my path and refused to lose her children.
The ducks begin to head down the street, hugging the curb, but this time giving each gutter a wide berth. I glance back down at the sewer where they lost a member of their family. In our search over the next few days, we don’t find him, and I imagine, perhaps a bit too hopefully, that he swam down into a pipe and made it all the way out to Lake Michigan.
Walking away, it strikes me even more deeply that what I experienced was akin to Elijah’s experience on Mount Carmel—our order’s ancestral home—in the Old Testament. Elijah waited patiently to encounter God’s voice but he didn’t hear it in either the earthquake or the hurricane. Ultimately Elijah encountered God in a whisper. I smiled to myself as I thought about how often we struggle to search for God’s voice and presence in our lives when, all the while, we’re missing him quacking away right in front of us.