Wednesday, January 4, 2023

January 4: "Whistling Swans," God's Silence, Soughing

Mary Oliver on God's silence . . . 

Whistling Swans

by:  Mary Oliver

Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
     up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don't worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.
Even when the swans are flying north and making
such a ruckus of noise, God is surely listening
     and understanding.
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn't the return of spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?
Yes, I know, God's silence never breaks, but is
     that really a problem?
There are thousands of voices, after all.
And furthermore, don't you imagine (I just suggest it)
that the swans know about as much as we do about
     the whole business?
So listen to them and watch them, singing as they fly.
Take from it what you can.

Life would be so much easier if God just talked to us, wouldn't it?  You're wondering if you should eat that leftover pizza in the fridge, and God whispers in your ear, "Don't do it.  You'll be up on the toilet all night."  Or you're contemplating just one more Bramble on Rose at the local brewery, and God taps you on the shoulder, says, "There's a slick stretch on the road home tonight.  Not a good idea."  Or you're missing your dead sister so much you can almost hear her voice, and God sits next to you on the couch and chuckles, "She's one of my favorites."

But, the universe doesn't work that way anymore.  God may have sent angel messengers to Mary and Joseph, appeared to Moses in a burning bush, but, these days, God is a little more inscrutable.  Mary Oliver is right--God's silence never breaks.

Last night, a heavy, wet snow fell in my neck of the woods.  Then, about 3 a.m., the city plows came through and shoved a frozen wall into the bottom of my driveway.  So, I found myself outside, shoveling and grunting, at 5:30 this morning.

The snow had stopped, but there was a hissing in the trees.  It may have been the fog and frost settling in the branches, turning the white banks into slick marble.  There wasn't any traffic.  It was still too early for the neighborhood dogs to start chewing the morning with their bays and barks.  Everything was just . . . quiet.

Except for that hissing.  Perhaps "hissing" is too sinister of a word.  It was a sibilant sound, the kind kids make when they're trying not to disturb sleeping parents or alert watchful teachers.  It stroked the air.  There's a very old word that's used primarily by poets nowadays--"soughing."  The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as "the high or low long sound that something such as the wind or ocean makes as it moves."

That's what I was hearing:  soughing.

It comforted me, filled me with a kind of peace.  Perhaps it was one of God's million voices.  Like the whistling swans.  As with most moments of grace, it didn't last long.  I had a driveway to shovel to get my wife to work and son to school.  So, after standing in that soughing for a few seconds, I bent my back to the work at hand.  

Now, many hours later, I'm sitting in my office at home, thinking about that sound again.  So delicate and soft.  In the Bible, the prophet Elijah  waits to hear God's voice.  There's a rushing, tornadic wind that smashes boulders, but God's voice isn't in the that wind.  Then, an earthquake rocks the mountain where Elijah is standing, but God's voice isn't in that earthquake.  Following the earthquake, a raging inferno.  But God's voice isn't in that fire.  

After the tempest, a still, small voice flickers the air, and Elijah wraps his face in his cloak and goes out to greet God.

That's the story that Mary Oliver is retelling in today's poem.  And it's the story I'm telling you in this blog post.  God does speak to us, each and every day.  In sunrises.  Moonlight.  Snow.  Rain.  Dogs barking.  Swans whistling.  Car horns.  In so many different ways and languages.

This morning, God spoke to Saint Marty in that soughing.  And it was good.

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