I appreciate dreary weather on Good Friday: it fits the solemnity of the day. But this year (2008) it’s a Chamber of Commerce day for So Cal, and I’m enjoying warm sun at St. Michael’s Abbey, just five miles from my home. I attended a short midday service chanted by the monks and then walked around the church to enjoy the day and the beauty of the abbey setting.
Above a statue of St. Michael slaying a demon, above the bursting calla lilies, I heard odd guttural bird sounds, almost like the grinding of teeth. I looked up to see an entire complex of swallow’s nests, the mythical swallows you can only read about now at my beloved San Juan Capistrano Mission nearby. I’d never seen this!, so I watched the show ’til my neck hurt. Then I grabbed a chair nearby and now I am sitting in the sun, in calm 70-degree perfect weather, just enjoying the show. At times, my jaw drops open spontaneously.
Right now, it’s quiet. The dark faces of momma birds peer from each hole in these trademark mud igloos built on top of one another, plastered under the eaves of the church. Busy white beaks glance this way and that against the dark peephole opening, while papa swallows zoom back and forth with more supplies of mud or food.
A few minutes ago, a church attendant opened the nearby sanctuary windows, and most of these bird-apartment dwellers flew off, returning a few moments later in a tornado of swirling, chirping activity.
Amazing. And beautiful.
There’s something else that strikes me, something I have in common with these feathered friends: we both want to hang around the Lord’s house today. This is Good Friday, and it’s a good day to be here.
Now a lone human voice is added to the sound of birds and fountain, and Latin chants with a holy reverberation come wafting out those open windows to mingle with the chirp-and-grind from above. And I suddenly remember a song we used to sing at church, taken from Psalm 84, one of the “songs of ascent” that pilgrims would recite as they climbed toward the temple in Jerusalem, the city on a hill, “City of Peace.” The psalm starts with “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty” and is filled with love-lines worth reading about the Lord’s house. The modern rendition was inspired by verses 3-4, that even the birds find refuge in the house of God:
Even the swallow has found a nest
A place to lay her young
And we are longing to find that rest
So into your courts we come
Into your courts we come.
Guess I’m not unique. The psalmist found the same connection between swallows, rest, and a holy place. And maybe it’s no coincidence that swallows seem to hang out (literally) at churches, missions, temples. And why churches are also called sanctuaries.
And I am longing to find that same rest. So into your courts I come. Into your courts I come.
One other group tends to be found worldwide around churches and other “holy sites” — beggars. Seems they understand the connection between faith and compassion. Sometimes, while visiting a religious site in places like Ethiopia and Russia, I feel I’m “running the gauntlet” through those in need, and I cringe inside.
Yet, another part of me is grateful… Grateful to realize that “everyone knows” our commitment to God and our compassion for the poor are supposed to go hand-in-hand. And grateful to be in the same place, all of us bound together, our very presence declaring us all beggars in need of bread.
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