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Starting Point

A heart in hiding stirs for a bird


The pigeon looked normal enough, strutting back and forth near the kitchen entrance to the monastery’s main building. I saw it as I was approaching the building and thought how unusual it was to see a pigeon there. We have many of them out near the barns, but I had never seen a solitary one like him. He looked like he was taking a little breather between flights. He also looked important, as if he was about some special business.

I then noticed that he had a little piece of metal wrapped around his leg, with something like a small cylinder attached to it. This was a carrier pigeon, and he probably was taking a little stroll to stretch his legs after a long flight.

I thought later of that bird, long after he or she had once again taken to the skies, bearing tidings to someone perhaps far away. He would be flying through all sorts of invisible communications: radio transmissions, satellite and TV transmissions, flying straight as an arrow through hundreds of billions of words and images, not one of which would be as beautiful, visible and graceful as that little bird, faithfully headed to wherever it was destined to deliver the little capsule. Even if it rested on a wire, its small talons would unknowingly curl around stream and stream of rapid communication.

I wonder at times if, despite all the means of communication we have at our disposal, if we really communicate any better or know one another better. A recent study suggested that the more people use electronic communications systems, the lonelier they feel. E-mail, faxes, telephones, modems, cellular phones: Their digitalized, byte-sized bleeps and bits don’t seem to penetrate deep enough into our hearts.

We say we "connect," but we really don’t. The more sophisticated these hi-tech means of transmitting information become, the more out of touch we seem to be. The idea is that better technology will lead to better communication, but I don’t know how human it all is, if it really gets anything across.

Do we reach for the keyboard or the receiver out of desperation, projecting our innards into the atmosphere in the hope that it will somehow ease our loneliness and banish our solitude? Or does the real thing, the real knowledge about ourselves, evolve through a steady grasp of our solitary nature: We really cannot touch each other at the level we assume is somehow possible "out there," in the air or through the wires?

The wires cannot fill the hunger that is in our hearts. The bouncy, rough rides and flows of marriage, friendship, neighborliness, otherness are vehicles through which we seem to know best about what it means to communicate — and that includes being silent. We learn the art of being human through encounter.

That pigeon is long gone. I hope that he delivered his message and that it was good tidings. He may have flown many miles to bring just a few words. His little body exists, in fact, solely to bear messages. Somehow, I suspect that our bodies were made for that, too. We exist to mean something, to be bearers of a message. So much of our lives are spent trying to come to terms with the meaning of what we are, what we mean, what we are carrying by our very being.

It seems we must live many years before the import of words and their rare beauty become apparent to us. They reveal their treasure as we age, and, we hope, grow wise in the hard but redemptive ways of love.

In our later years, a few seasoned words of joy can lift our hearts and make them take flight, like that bird. For the heart was made to be both a carrier and giver of words that redeem our years and our many miles. From the heights of such flight, we look down and better see and understand so much of what lies below: kisses and hugs and farewells and embraces, those things of who we are and what the best of our words mean.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His latest book is Grace is Everywhere: Reflections of an Aspiring Monk (ACTA, 1998).

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999