And I Behold This Secret
In the firelight his face is not unlike the mountain range that rises up behind his pink cottage, ancient and mysterious with eyes that shine with a wisdom that blooms from a lifelong kinship with the island on which he still walks. He tells me tonight he’s now “four years away from eighty”, but he seems both far older and infinitely younger. I sit, as I always do on these yearly dinners, forgetting to eat, utterly rapt and enthralled in his presence, my soul caught in the net of his Scottish brogue which is always as mesmerizing as the stories he tells. Gaelic is his first language, the language in which he thinks - and no doubt, dreams - and those musical words season his English with the sweet taste of magic. Tonight a gale blows up from the sea below us with winter in its breath, rattling the old windows and twisting the shadows of the fir trees into Delphic dancers on the whitewashed walls. More wine is poured but I hardly notice. He is telling me the story of the owl.
I have heard the tale before, a fact that neither lessens nor distracts from its power to enchant. I have heard of the tiny owl he rescued from certain doom when he was just a boy, an owl that had fallen to the forest floor from a nest too lofty to see. The connection was immediate and the owl, who grew to thrive under the his care, soon regarded him as kinsman. He named him Fury, a name he would call out when he entered the woods, one that would summon the great owl to soundlessly sail down from the fir trees and alight on his shoulder. Together they would wander the forests and hills like the friends they were, linked by the holy silken thread between man and animal, a magic any Celt understands in that inarticulate part of his soul. “It’s my clearest memory” he tells me, the orange flames from the fire reflected in his eyes, “one night, seeing Fury light on my bedroom windowsill, his face illuminated in the lamplight, pecking a hello on the glass”.
Perhaps it’s because I’m of Celtic descent that I feel most at home on Scottish soil. There are voices in the winds that blow round the mountains there - voices I seem to hear and understand - mystery rides on the mists rising up from the seas, a mystery that Celts feel no need to decipher and thereby diminish. We are content to let the mystery exist untroubled, knowing there are grander truths than those our minds can understand and feeling grateful those truths exist. We learn at an early age the more we notice beauty, the more beauty we’re allowed to see - something that provides a modicum of heaven here on earth. We watch, we listen, we feel the undefinable presence of God in the mist. My journeys to Scotland refresh that Celtic part of my soul and give me what I seem to need to thrive in these troubled times.
This past week was the first time The Songwriter has been out of town since Edward’s passing. It was not a week I was looking forward to with any measurable amount of glee. Edward always stepped up his devotion whenever he was the only man in the house, sticking even closer to my side than he usually did, which was considerable. His absence, I knew, would be even sharper without The Songwriter here.
On the morning after he left, Apple and I were awakened at six am by a strange sharp banging coming from somewhere down the hallway. I got up and crept into the kitchen, listening intently, Apple close behind. The sound was coming from the darkened sitting room and I entered that room with no small amount of trepidation pricking my thumbs. There at the window sat a large Brown Thrasher, his dun-colored feathers fluffed out against the cold. As I watched he pecked at the glass with a determination that implied calm, unflinching commitment. I shooed him away, but he only flew inside the magnolia tree and eyed me with a steady gaze. As soon as I left the room, he returned to resume his rapping on the window.
This continued all week long. Every day, from the first pink edges of dawn to the orange glow of dusk, he took up his post and pecked at the window; Apple and I began to get used to the sound. Then, on Saturday afternoon, The Songwriter came home. And the bird left, the rapping ceased.
In the days that have followed I have seen him, in a holly bush or perched on a magnolia limb. He watches me benignly, with no apparent need to impart any message other than the sweetness of co-existence. In Celtic tradition, birds hold special significance as messengers from other worlds. I know this and in that inarticulate part of my soul, I seem to understand and am grateful. And without a doubt, my friend in Scotland would understand as well.
“With my hair almost on end and the eyes of the soul wide open I am present, without knowing it at all, in this unspeakable Paradise, and I behold this secret,this wide open secret which is there for everyone, free, and no one pays any attention.”
from Thomas Merton and the Celts by Monica Weis