“His eye is on the sparrow. I know He watches me.”
– famous Gospel hymn, lyrics by C.D. Martin, 1905
I was visited the other day by a fellow who looked like this. He was like God, in disguise. He had come on an especially difficult, cloudy, moody day. He had come just to listen to my prayers, and he stayed a full ten minutes, watching me watching him.
He may have been a Cooper’s hawk, or some other mid-sized, stubborn suburban holdout species who refuses to be driven further out to the prairies and woods. But I think this sparrowhawk is him. Well, his distant cousin, anyway. Or was my visitor a female? No matter. He/she was such an immense but fleeting gift that I almost cried.
I felt honored and valued by the hawk’s trust, as it sat on a branch in my neighbor’s yard, while my dog and I stood on the sidewalk about 14 feet beneath it. I felt included in his world, like I was not an enemy but an equal, perhaps a friend.
And whether or not this was in fact God, appearing to me in His feathered costume for the moment, I still felt deeply, profoundly loved. Like Sparrowhawk’s mere presence, and its choice to remain in silent, eye-to-eye conversation with me for a few minutes, was all the confirmation I needed that God has His own eye on me, protecting me, guiding my path, always listening, even when He is also out hunting or patrolling His territory.
And I know full well that putting God in this disguise, in this frame, will have some accusing me of being too New Age-y. I do know the difference between idolatry and reality.
Yet my God, and his Holy Spirit, are too big to be fully contained in a dry, rote, suspicious and overly cautious theology that would prevent Him from coming to us in this way when He so chooses. God will inhabit His Creation in whatever ways He sees fit. And that’s why I love Him. That’s why I need Him.
I could not easily relate to a Father whom I cannot see, hear, or experience now and then in the physical world. This is also why my God had to take on flesh in the person of Jesus, in the Incarnation. For a Father who humbles Himself, who willingly takes my pain upon Himself, is the ultimate parent, lover and friend.
I think this same Sparrowhawk had been spotted from my bedroom window a few days previous, sitting on a branch in an ash tree in the park next to our house (an ash tree which the park district is cutting down today… but more on that later, probably tomorrow). I have been taking note of hawks and other raptors (birds of prey) around the Chicago area for a few years now. It started out as just an appreciation of their grace and power relative to other birds, an extension of my growing interest in birding overall.
Yes, I know my enthusiasm here is a bit goofy and cliche… the nerdy, semi-intellectual birder (don’t call us birdwatchers if you want our respect), getting all worked up about finches and juncos and peregrine falcons — instead of motorcycles, plasma televisions, lush green lawns and 401k’s. But it is who I have become. Deal with it. I am trying to love this part of myself, and I ask others to do the same.
Also, I have begun to realize I am inspired by God’s ancient Creation more than by what our own prodigious modern human technology or shallow culture have brought us. I read farmer and neo-Luddite Wendell Berry’s poems and essays, which exhibit both great connection to the earth, and a great love of God. My spirit is moved by the great wide drums of Native Americans at a pow-wow I attended last year, as if they are pounding out the heartbeat of the planet. I go through Lent holding close to my breast a T.S. Eliot poem about a talking yew tree where the voice of God can be “shaken loose” (that would be Ash Wednesday, if you’re keeping score). I have divine appointments occasionally with a family of deer that live in a nearby forest preserve. When the weather’s good, I run away to our cottage in the country every few weeks, before I completely forget what a kingfisher or green heron looks like.
I am blessed. I am part of some Great Chain of Being. And I refuse to forget it.
Of course, I am also cursed. Which is why my prayers in the presence of Sparrowhawk were of a brooding, dark, anxious nature. I have struggled with some unresolved psychological wounds lately, and sins I have not sought forgiveness about. I have limped through entire months of my life, doing just enough to get by. I am depressed, but prone to denial. I am proud. I want to get through all this without the help of God, prayers, drugs, doctors, my wife, my family and friends, and this beloved Sparrowhawk. I am a fool.
Like my favorite songwriter Bruce Cockburn once said:
“I am swollen up with unshed tears… bloated like the dead.”
But Sparrowhawk will not let me go through this valley of the shadow of death alone, feeling uncared for, unseen, my pain unrecognized. Sparrowhawk reminds me that the entire earth is doing the same strange dance that I am just now learning: the erratic but beautiful tango where blessing and curse, sin and redemption, life and death and re-birth go twirling around like a whirling dervish and occasionally knock a vase to the ground, shattered.
But unlike that vase, I can be repaired, restored to a state more whole than I was when I first heard the music. Some great poet, I think it was the Irishman Yeats, called this process one of finding my “original face”. More recently, Irish musician, healer and magician Van Morrison quoted that line in at least two separate songs: Till We Get the Healing Done, and Before the World Was Made (both from his 1993 “comeback” album, Too Long In Exile).
Here’s an excerpt from Till We Get the Healing Done, an absolutely incredible song, like medicine for the soul:
Oh till it’s Truth and it’s beauty and it’s grace
Till you’ve finally found your true place
Till you know your original face
Till we get the healing done
Oh child, till we get the healing done
Oh when everything’s going right
Till you’re satisfied with your life
Till you’re living in the Light
Till we get the healing done
Oh till we get the healing done
I can’t say it any better than that. I want to be satisfied with my life. I’m not yet, but that is part of the healing. My confessional moment with Sparrowhawk was a true experience of living in the Light. I was reminded that I am living in God’s Light at every moment, if only I turn my head and heart to look for Him.
And as if to confirm that I had gotten it, at least for that day — “it” being the knowledge that God will never be silent or absent, in my times of trouble or my times of success — the once-silent Sparrowhawk let out about seven sharp calls, just before taking off to bring his blessing to someone else.
I wanted to fall to my knees in awe and worship God. In my heart, I did. And again here, on the page, in front of God and the internet and everybody, I am doing it again.