The naturalist Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, tells of a year in which Helen wrestled with the reality of her father’s death by attempting to tame a particularly fierce kind of hawk. Early in her time with the bird, Helen has to teach it not to fear all the stimuli that are part of the human world, but which it would not have encountered in the wild. And so she puts the hawk on her gloved hand and walks it through the streets of Cambridge, England, day after day, week after week, past the women pushing prams, past the children on bicycles, past the students hurrying to class with their academic gowns flapping in the wind, past the cars, past the beeping horns, past the laughter, past the punks, past the bird’s fear, until the bird can wit quietly on her wrist without even blinking at the temptations and alarms of the world.
I often think Advent is like that. We are told it is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, to deepen our prayer, open our hearts, but at the same time we are surrounded by the human world at its most alluring: the trees, bright with lights; rich foods; the scents of cinnamon and of chocolate pouring from a bakery door; parties, presents, the joys and demands of family — and, if you are in the working world, the ever-present question of what you will earn next year.
It is easy to feel as if our soul is a wild bird, constantly trying to fly off in the wrong direction. A thing that needs to be tamed and brought to heel. And yet, the truth is that we are not falconers, but merely creatures held in the love of God. All the time that we walk through this world, all the time that we are seeking God so earnestly or so intermittently, we are being held in God’s on hand, carried through our lives, one day, one encounter, one prayer at a time. And the faithfulness that brings us to each new day is not our own, but that of the Almighty, who holds us gently, teaches us to love Him, and allows the grace of flying free, hoping — always hoping — that we will return.