Years ago while in third grade, I made a pact with God. A Catholic child, I was educated by the nuns who read us stories of the saints. The martyrdom of chaste young women and the Virgin’s apparitions to devout children terrified me. Goodness and devotion seemed to lead to a life of prayer in a convent or an early death. Neither figured into my plans. I was considering a career on Broadway or as a Wiki Wachi Girl in the Florida Keys. So, I turned to prayer. Before entering a darkened room and snapping on the light, I would squeeze my eyes shut and humbly beg, “Please Mother Mary, my Lord God and Jesus, do not appear to me. I am unworthy.” For fifty-eight years they honored my request.
However, one winter day, when the air was unreasonably warm and the sun had not yet burned off the strips of gauze shredded on a flat dull sky, I followed a path that led up and around the crest of a stout hill. A blue jay complained as I headed into the trees below. New growth greened the twigs in the highest reaches. On each twig clung a waxwing murmuring as it rocked on a southerly front; dark crested silhouettes against a stark sky.
The blue jay launched from its branch, repeating its warning.Conversation ceased. As one the waxwings rose, fanning out, wheeling, swooping, spiraling.Gathering in mid-air, inky shadows reunited in a primal dance that folded, opened, flowed and changed course to swing across space.
I have read that in ancient times gods sent swarms of birds to foretell the future or to interpret the past.These oracles of change carried omens- a king born, a battle lost, a death imminent- linking earthly cares to divine realms beyond ordinary experience- the journey of the soul. But I am no interpreter of omens.
Silenced by wonder as nature unfolded before me; speechless as the birds returned to their perches, my mind quickly rushed in uninvited, shoved awe aside, and seeking sense, took control: “Hey, hey, I got this one. I understand what is happening here.” My mind then proceeded to explain an extraordinary experience with facts, leaving me vaguely unsatisfied.
I know that in these modern times scientists study swarms of birds to compute their numbers and analyze the data. Waxwings pursued by predators group into flocks- safety lies in numbers, evasive maneuvers- linking survival behavior to the science of physics beyond ordinary experience- the evolution of the species. But I am no interpreter of data.
I alternate between thinking of the catwings as prey- fleeing and outwitting the foe- or as messengers- carrying an indecipherable warning.Today I lean towards the latter view.
Who among us is able to read omens or to translate wonder- our natural response to beauty, startling events and astounding theories? In these modern times, we have been taught to answer questions in one language- the language of science. How to satisfy the restless heart‘s search for meaning? Can we use reason to go beyond the mind? How would the good nuns respond?