By Cathy Hird
Last time we flew through Paris, there were sparrows flying around the food court at the airport. It felt like we were out in a park despite being enclosed in a secure space. This reminded me of a restaurant in Mauritius. The building had a two story high open area, and the roof was thatched. Right at the top, there was a bumble bee hive. All through the meal, bees the size of half a fist flew above us. They ignored the people; we tried to ignore them.

Because we live in the country, we get creatures inside the house quite regularly. The weasel who found itself in the house escaped as quickly as it could, but when birds, bats, squirrels, mice or rats come in, we work hard to clear them out. Despite the number of wild visitors we get, we believe these creatures belong outside.

Which is why this line from one of the ancient Hebrew psalms has always surprised me: "Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of Hosts." (Psalm 84: 3, NRSV) I can imagine that in the complex of courtyards, there would have been places that swallows would love. But the psalmist declares that the birds are welcome right at the altar. Something shifts when we open our sense of holy space in this way.

When I worked at Cape Croker, the woman who lived beside the church followed the traditional path, and while she sympathized with the work of looking after our building, she would point to the trees and birds and sky as she said, "But look at where I get to worship."

The standard United Church service includes music and prayer, but the focus is on teaching the mind. Even though many would say that the music speaks most deeply, still the sermon is considered essential. We privilege intellect.

But even a United Church will take it services outside on occasion. There may be a once a year picnic service, and an Easter sunrise service takes place outside to observe the dawn. The power of a new beginning sinks in deeply when the resurrection is celebrated as the rim of a red-yellow sun rises.

Traveling in Europe, visiting old churches the air of the space smells different. Soot has built up from thousands of candles. In the worn stones of the floor, we sense the generations of people who have come to this place to experience the presence of God. Standing in an old church, we remember that our life is but a breath, that our troubles are small in the scope of time, that we are held in a long, faithful tradition.

Traveling in India, it is Hindu temples that we visit. There we see images of Ganesh, of Ram and Sita, of Krishna and Radha. For those who come from a Christian tradition, we may not know the stories that accompany the images. But if we listen to the chants, we are drawn out of ourselves. In the drumming, we sense divine energy. Watching the energetic movement as someone circles a shrine to Shiva, we sense the drive to pray. I once saw two women light many small pieces of camphor in limes until the floor in front of the goddess Kali was covered with light. I sensed that a deep need drove them.

An Orthodox church can feel just as strange to a person used to Ontario churches. The incense is pungent. Gold frames the pictures, and some images have added gold feet. Often, when people murmur their prayers, they will touch these feet so that they become soft and worn. The shape of the faces in the icons is not what westerners expect in the picture of a person. But when we set expectation aside, we find that an icon draws us out of natural life into the divine. A favorite image in Greece is the image of Mary and a young Jesus where the child reaches up to caress his mother's face with his hand. We see a divine love that is tender, loving, gentle.

The swallow who made her nest at the altar in the ancient temple reminds us that the voice of the divine speaks with infinite variation.

Cathy Hird is a farmer, minister and writer living near Walters Falls.


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