So often artists have helped us to visualize the Holy Spirit as a bird descending from God on high and alighting on us. At this time of year, when birds are seen and heard in abundance, they are fitting symbols for the pervasiveness of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. And of the random nature of the Holy Spirit’s work – this is not something you can plan for, or around.
Let peace, descending like a dove, make known on earth your healing love.
(Jeffery Rowthorn, 395 in The Hymnal 1982)
I have a dear friend whose husband told her, as he was dying from cancer, that she would know he was nearby whenever she saw a feather. It would be a gentle reminder that his spirit would continue to surround her as she went on with her life and did the hard work of raising their three children. One afternoon months after his death, she told me, she sat outside on their hillside property and wept in despair. When she opened her eyes there was a feather on the ground in front of her – a feather that had not been there before her tears began. A random act of nature perhaps, but a gift as well that served to remind her she wasn’t alone in her grief.
We might not always be given such an obvious symbol on which to hold, but signs of the Holy Spirit are all around us, if we only open our eyes in one way or another. Vaughan Williams’ violin meditation on George Meredith’s poem The Lark Ascending expresses the freedom we admire as we watch birds soaring in the distance, and takes me to a place I can’t describe but where I long to be.
The symbolic use of birds in describing the work of the Holy Spirit, is integral to the work of one of music’s more colorful composers – Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). He was also a deeply spiritual composer, writing much music that he believed expressed what he called “the marvellous aspects of faith”—among which he numbered Christ’s nativity, crucifixion, resurrection, transfiguration and ascension. I am only speculating, but perhaps his enormous interest in ornithology was motivated in part by a desire to musically capture that other “marvellous aspect of faith” – the Holy Spirit.