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Starting Point

Aloft in search of warmth and peace


In the early evening I sit in a chair on the porch behind our church. The porch overlooks the graves of our departed monks. In the distance I can see the woods, and before me rises the retreat house. There is much to see.

Jets take a low approach on their way to the Atlanta airport and come in so low that the rows of lit windows can be easily seen. They tilt and turn as the pilot gauges all that is necessary for a safe landing. Last night I heard the howl of cats, the quacking of geese and the occasional hoot of an owl.

For weeks I have been waiting for the arrival of the birds. Hundreds come at once and fly in circular patterns just above the roof of the retreat house. I love to watch them swirl and dip in all patterns of highs and lows.

Then, one takes a first dive and the rest follow. I watched them do this for weeks, and one night Damian, one of our monks, joined me on the porch for a chat. I asked him about the birds and where they dove to.

“You mean the chimney swifts?” he said.

And so I learned the name of the birds.

He told me that they sleep at night in the chimney. They cling to small tufts of cement that protrude from the layers between the bricks. Hundreds of the birds line the inner wall of the chimney at night, and after a night’s rest emerge in the morning to start another day.

I was fascinated by the instinct of the chimney swift and delighted in hearing Damian talk about them. So, for the next few nights we sat together and chatted and awaited the arrival of the birds.

There is a definite pecking order. There is one bird who dives first and does so very rapidly. The rest then narrow their circles and follow this leader, and within seconds the sky is empty. I tried to imagine what they look like as they rest at night, row after row of feathered backs clinging to the walls of the chimney.

Their life bears a richness for me.

Their years are brief ... as swift as their nightly flight. Yet how sure is their sense of home, how warm their nights, how assured their rise to a new day and a new return.

Our years cover a longer span. And we, too, circle and spin through the skies of our days and evenings, looking for so many things. We hesitate to dive and rest because we calculate and weigh alternatives. We look hither and yon for places to rest.

That first bird has a blessedness to it. The rest follow him and find where they belong for shelter, comfort and rest.

Those who teach us to love have a blessedness to them, too. They show what we are and where we are all called to go, that we might rest with each other and give each other the warmth of our lives, the giving of our years, the meaning as to why we are here.

The chimney swifts cling to a wall and sleep and then rise.

We cling to God and each other, and we rise as well, to patterns of flight that shall one day find a lasting place of rest and peace.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, January 7, 2000