Storks of the Midwest

“What’s a robin?” I asked my mother.

“It’s a special bird,” she told me. “When you see it, you know it’s spring. It sings beautifully. And it has a red breast.”

Every spring my mother would talk about those special birds and how much she missed them. Over the years I pieced bits of information together, and formed my picture of the robin.

We lived in the Middle East. I wasn’t familiar with many migratory birds. The pigeons and sparrows stayed around all year. There were, however, storks. Each year they would appear from nowhere and announce spring by building large nests atop telephone poles and aqua-duct ruins. The storks were huge birds and somewhat solitary. They weren’t rare, but they weren’t common either. Seeing one was, for us children, an event to report.

Robins, I decided, must be like storks, only more impressive. I wasn’t quite sure what they looked like, but I was pretty certain they were a good 18 inches tall, bright red, and very rare. I dreamed of the day that I might, if I was lucky, see one.

Then I moved to Iowa.

Robins, I soon discovered, were not much bigger than sparrows, a rather dull red (and, that, only the males), and appeared in flocks. I didn’t have to search for a solitary herald of spring. Robins were everywhere! If I managed an hour without seeing one – or ten – that might have been something to talk about, but seeing a robin . . .

For years I shook my head and laughed every time I saw robins. I laughed at how un-stork-like they were. I laughed at how small they were. I laughed at how many of them there were. And I laughed at myself for having come up with such an odd picture of them, for having thought they were something special.

But today, I saw a robin – no, not a robin. I saw The Robin, the first robin of spring. And I jumped up and down and squealed with joy all by myself in the middle of the marsh.

If I were to raise children in a land without robins, I too would tell them about the special bird, the one with the red breast and beautiful song that comes each spring.


Truth Is a Person

As we make the Spiritual Exercises we ask for various graces. Recently I have been asking for the grace to admire people.

It started with a seemly simple assignment a couple weeks ago: List the people you admire, people you would like to imitate.

I had a hard time making that list. In fact, it took me a week to think of one person that I very conditionally admired and might want to imitate in certain aspects.

I could, however, quite easily list qualities that I admire, skills that I want to develop, and character traits I would like to emulate. That’s not what I’d been asked to list, but I figured it was something, so I started writing:

courageous, fierce, just
joyful, spontaneous, still
voiced, diligent, kind, gentle
nurturing, loving, blessing
patient, laughing
feeling emotions, open to God
generous, honest, humble
open to people, open with time

As I wrote “open to people” the Spirit nudged me:

“Embody, Helen –
not theory, never pure virtue –
‘I am the truth.’

“I am . . . the truth.”

Jesus’ claim shakes me.

It wouldn’t bother me if Jesus said, “I always tell the truth,” or “I live an honest life.” Those statements would fit my understanding of reality. But “I am the truth”?

I tend toward idealism. I don’t mean that I tend to set impossibly high standards (though I do that too). I mean I tend to think that ultimate reality is in ideas and thought, to value a concept above a person, and to think of truth and love as abstract.

Basically, I tend to think that there’s an ultimate standard of goodness that God conforms to and is, therefore, good.

In so doing, I idolize goodness; I idolize my understanding of goodness; I idolize my understanding.

Then Jesus steps in and says, “I am the truth.”

And my idol crumbles, vaporizes, vanishes in thin air. Truth is a person.

I am undone.

I want to love this person, admire this person, emulate this person. I want out of the idealized world where flesh and blood are shadows. I want to live in physical reality. I want to enter stories, not theories. I want to admire people, not ideas. I want to know Truth.

in the middle

“What has been on your heart this week? What are your reflections on the materials from the week? or on this evening?”

Every eye in my small group was on me, waiting for me to speak. I started talking, meandering through the last couple weeks of life, Lent, and the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. I began telling the story of what God has been revealing and changing. Then, in the middle of the story, I paused, my hands open.

The story was not finished, but I was. I didn’t know what came next because, whatever it was, it hadn’t happened yet. I was in the middle of the story, and I’m still in the middle of the story.

I’m uncomfortable being in the middle. I want to know how the story unfolds, and I want to know now. When I pick up a novel I read the first chapter, then the last chapter, then the rest of the book. I can’t enjoy the story unless I know how it ends; and, even then, I am frustrated by the suspense of a winding plot. I won’t go to bed for the night until I’ve reached a comfortable pause in the story. But life doesn’t work that way.

Years ago I sat up late one night, pouring out my heart to a friend. I was in the middle of a different story then, and I desperately wanted to resolve the problems and find the end. Sometime after midnight I stopped talking, exhausted.

“Helen,” my friend said, “you didn’t get here in a day, and you’re not going to find your way out in a day. Get some sleep. Eat. Do your homework. Live life. It’s going to take a long time to work through this story.”

I’ve remembered her words many times. She was right. I could have tried to figure out that story for three weeks straight and would have gotten nowhere. I had to live the rest of the story. I had to enter the twists and turns and suspense. I had to go to bed every night for years without knowing the end.

Now I am in another middle: the middle of Lent, the middle of the Spiritual Exercises, the middle of major decisions. As much as I would like to finish telling the story, I can’t. I just have to live it.