Raids on the Unspeakable
One of the gifts of vacation is to change up one’s prayer ritual.
Normally, Pam and I sit for prayer in a corner of our bedroom. There are two chairs, a small table for an oil lamp, a few sacred books, and a timer that sounds a Tibetan prayer bell when our orison is over.
Here on a mountain overlooking Ingonish Harbor on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, we have none of that. Early in the morning we go out on the deck and sit looking at the endlessly rolling water and the pine covered mountain towering on the other side. It feels as if this scene has been here for a million years, but since this rugged landscape was gouged out by retreating glaciers it has probably only been on view for twenty-five thousand years.
It is still, and yet it isn’t. The tree boughs undulate with the breeze and the water ripples continuously as the tide flows in. There is no silence. The wind sussurates quietly in the trees and birdsong is tossed back and forth antiphonally: now the Waxwing, now the Great Cormorant below; here the haunting loon, there the jarring caw of the crow.
We read, set the timer bells of my iPad, and sat still. After a time the breeze became a sudden gust. The birds began to squawk all at the same time and a tree squirrel set up a chatter. I heard the beating of enormous wings and Pam said, “David.” I looked up. “There,” she whispered, “in that tree. A bald eagle.”
She pointed. I saw a dark shadow behind a pine bough. Not thirty feet away. We looked at one another, afraid to move. Now the bird chorus went quiet and the squirrel retreated and the wind died. It was as if the LORD had appeared in this his holy temple. “Let all the earth keep silence before him.”
After a minute I got up. Quietly I walked off the deck and around so that I could see. There he perched with his back to me, regal, commanding. I was so close I could see the feathers of his white head ruffle. He preened his wing pinions and looked over his shoulder at me below. His dark eyes bore down over his sharply hooked beak. Not the least worried, he continued grooming his coat then looked out to the harbor.
I motioned for Pam to come, thinking any second he would disappear. But he sat on that pine bough for—was it ten minutes? Pam and I stood motionless. It seemed like a few seconds; it felt like eternity. At once he dropped from his perch, unfurled his mighty wings and rolled into a steep turn, dropping down closer to the water. He disappeared behind the trees and we looked at one another as if to say, “What was that?”
Our first and best intimations of God are in nature. Here we are free from words. Mysterium tremendum et fascinans: the pull of its beauty, the dread of its power. We sense both that we are insignificant bystanders and that the whole creation dances only for us. It all happens before we can think about it, thank God. As Teresa of Avila said it, “The important thing is not to think much but to love much.” Why is that so much easier when we are in the wild?
In a few days I will go back to my corner in the bedroom. Prayer does not live by wild theophanies alone. All I can hope is that my sitting still in a chair will sharpen my senses, ready me for the rare moments when the eagle swoops in and lands practically in my lap.