by Joyce Tompkins
Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections are available on the Religious Advisor's page.
You can write to Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org
What kind of bird was it? A heron, perhaps? An egret? A stork? A crane? I only thought to call it something afterwards. I only sought to name it after I came back from the woods, flushed and inspired, not from running but from watching that amazing bird. I was running along the Crum, trying to clear my mind of its busy clutter of things to do.
It was Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. A strange day for clergy- so much to get done and yet so much to feel; a dry, difficult day of waiting between grief and hope and exhaustion. There are periods of life that are like that - days, but sometimes months or even years of dry waiting with an almost-empty heart.
Suddenly the bird was there, right beside me, barely a yard away. It seemed to arise out of nowhere, its huge wings scooping out pockets of air. Droplets of water flew from its gleaming feathers onto my face. The
dog and I both stopped in our tracks, forgetting to breathe. The bird seemed suspended there for a moment between wingstrokes, and then it rose high and glided around the bend of the creek. Out of sight, yet the air continued to throb with its cleaving wings.
Was it a visitation? I thought so. I had been struggling, praying, hoping to move from Good Friday to Easter, from emptiness to hope. It seemed like a sign, the dazzling angel at the empty tomb. Of course it was possible that the bird was there many times before, even every day - and I had simply not seen it. It was possible its stunning flight before my eyes on that particular day was coincidence. Or it could have been grace. It might have appeared there just for me.
I remember one day when we lived in Milwaukee, and a parishioner came up to me after a sermon I had preached. "I have had a revelation because of your sermon," he began. I nodded expectantly, hoping to hear words about renewed faith or revived commitment. "I realize now that God is a self-actualizing concept," he concluded, before shaking my hand and walking away. At the time I was deflated. A self-actualizing concept. Was that the message I had intended to convey?
"The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes." (John's gospel). The divine spirit is like that. We cannot command it. It does not often come to fill our hearts when we most need it, calling upon it to appear. And then at some other time, our minds on something earthy like what's for lunch, it swoops down and into us, catching us by surprise, taking our breath away. At those moments there is nothing to do but receive it, gratefully, and sail for awhile in the power of its wake. What do we call it? God? Grace? Peace? Ineffable Being? Its name does not matter. It only matters that we prepare ourselves to receive it, and, when it finally comes, after however long a time of waiting, open our hearts to the cleaving of its wings.