November 30, 2010

a feather on the breath of God

This morning, as I went about my pre-breakfast ritual of swirling green tea leaves in a quart jar full of hot-but-not-quite-boiling water, a line of an ancient lyric seemed to rise out of the steam and into my drowsy thoughts.  I do not know why, nor do I ever hope to understand how my auditory memory goes about selecting its earworms du jour.

The phrase it has chosen for today, apparently, is a potent little scrap of an ethereal song penned by the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen nine centuries before my time.  It's the part where she calls herself  “a feather on the breath of God.”

A feather on the breath of God... a feather on the breath of God...

I alone hear it in my silent kitchen; I watch the tea leaves fly wildly in the wake of my spoon and reckon with the fact that something in me does not really want to be called a feather.  It just draws attention to aspects of existence that I'd rather conceal, even from myself -- the fact that I am fragile, brittle even, that I am not very useful by myself, that I will someday be discarded and perhaps even trodden underfoot.

What are you and your silly feathers doing here in my kitchen a thousand years past your prime anyway, Hildegard?

And besides that, I think as I stir away the requisite ninety seconds, birdless feathers always make me feel a little embarrassed for the careless fowl.   It's just a rather public inordinance, somehow not unlike seeing the undeniable silliness of a burly neighbor’s underwear flapping on the clothesline. 

But seriously.  Surely it's in our nature to want to presume in our existence some measure of personal gravitas-- something akin to that mysterious austerity of presence which the Hudson River School artists sought to capture in the word sublimity.  We want our lives, our legacies, to have weight.  Wouldn't we all rather be likened unto a foothill in God's mountains, or an anchor in His ocean... even just an arrow in His quiver?  

But Hildegard insists.

I see tiny green feathers in my tea jar now, spinning wildly at my bidding, drawn into the wake of a spoon that flashes briefly, wildly, volting the waters and then rising from the tumult.  There I am in the roiling water, spinning and reeling, imparting myself to a vortex that I do not understand, even though the natural laws to which it submits are reasonable and even somewhat predictable.  But tell that to the leaves.  Tell that to me.

I watch the water alter the leaves, the leaves alter the water.  What emerges is neither and both.  Entirely irreversible, yet entirely impermanent.

I admit it.  I have been rather like a feather of late, only not in a weightless sort of way.   I’ve felt fragile, bent, bedraggled, whipped in this gale, snapping and shrieking from the relentless, unpredictable, sometimes nauseating twists and turns.  I clutch hard my heavy wing of flesh, still foolishly believing that I cannot soar without it.

If we are weightless as feathers, it is because Christ bears our weight.

I filter out the leaves.  What was water is now tea, golden and clear in the morning light.  I see old Hildegard's point, I think.  It's not about feathers at all.  It's about how we apprehend the wind. 

God is breathing.


Brandy Vencel said...

Praying for you, Lynn.

...and beautifully said, as usual.

Bonnie said...

That has taken my breath away!
Beautifully written and I imagined you in your kitchen with those thoughts. They encouraged me tonight.
OH to have those wings and the Spirit.

Bonnie said...

Just found where that was from


Hildegard of Bingen "Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honor. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground, and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God."

Bonnie said...

I'm working on this as you can see!

Underneath all the texts, all the sacred psalms and canticles, these watery varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, whirling and sometimes gestating and gentle must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb, and flow of the music that sings in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.

Nancy Kelly said...

Just beautiful. Thank you.

Donna-Jean Breckenridge said...

Miss you.


And thank you for this!

amy in peru said...

This is beautifully written. I'm bookmarking to be able to come back again. It is just so... perfect.

"I clutch hard my heavy wing of flesh, still foolishly believing that I cannot soar without it.

If we are weightless as feathers, it is because Christ bears our weight."


thank you.

amy in peru

Adrienne said...


I just read this and was completely blown away. I think about you often. I miss you very much. I have not been to Frisco meetings for about 5 months, and I know you had not returned as of the last time I attended. I need a "Lynn Fix". I miss your whit and wisdom. I would love to come to Dallas and meet your for a cup of tea.


Phyllis said...

Please write more! :-)

Laura Kathryn said...

I miss you.

Megan said...

I almost didn't read this post because the title made me tired. I usually can't stand reading people's feelings and thoughts about religion - esp. when those thoughts and feelings are meant to be inspiring. This post was ACTUALLY INSPIRING to me! Thank you so much for sharing it!

Mary-John said...

Needed this tonight.
miss you, aunt.