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.