In early chill I step lightly to the church’s back door. From the dark nave a few candles’ bright points shine. Soon I find myself before the sanctuary of centuries, speaking prayers.
Six psalms accompany the initial part of Matins, one of the Orthodox Christian services. My Old Testament memories play scenes of King David’s life while the psalms are chanted in dimness. The faces on icons above me glint gold.
When I was a girl, I sat in a sanctuary early on Sunday listening to Daddy practice his sermon. Behind the pulpit waited the baptistry, full of unruffled water from a cold tap.
In later years I left the churches Dad preached in. While I recalled his joy as he read from David and his fervor speaking of Peter, James, and John, I remembered people (not all the people but some) who criticized, who allowed no one to stray from how they did things in church and from their wish for a magical enchantment. I let myself move and grow away from rituals reminding me of them.
Today rich birdsong attends my dismissal from Matins. The sun has risen. I pass beneath an old walnut’s branches, glancing back at onion domes on our church roof, one gold and one blue, topped with crosses.
At home I find our back lawn enlivening. Dwarf fruit trees have unfurled banners. There are house finches testing the rolled-up, vinyl outdoor blind near my kitchen window.
Our little-tree branches are too low for the birds’ 6-8 feet off the ground needs, too spindly. So they fix their stations—the finch husband chitters and twirpers from the wire above, while wifey shops the garden’s choice fabrics and brings each piece to weave in.
I’m dubious about their chances. The shelf, if you can call it that, seems flimsy. An irrational choice. Plus, the human husband around here, Tim, routinely lets blinds down before summer.
After leaving a refrigerator note: No Blind Lowering Due to Finch Nest, I unearth my camera.
A few springs ago, I shocked myself by deciding I would attend church beneath the onion domes with Tim. The only excuse I could give myself was that perhaps I wished to encourage misguided souls at Tim’s church to think differently about faith. To think like me.
There was more to my action than that, I recognized, but I couldn’t word it yet.
My movement grew serious after summer solstice. A pause, a deep breath, and I followed Tim inside for early weekday services. He rang the church bells. I stood like stone in a skirt and running shoes, my hair covered by a soft blue scarf.
From Bible words interpreted over many studious seasons, I knew taking this ritualized stuff seriously would be delusion or stupidity or both. I shouldn’t even inhale as the priest’s censer wafted past.
But I returned to these particular rituals. I chose to give the benefit of the doubt to intoned prayers, bows of repentance, broken bread. A surprising fullness, I started to admit, rather than the empty I had known. Despite myself I perceived new stirrings—a nascent desire for change.
If I accepted these things as valid, I’d have to pull down my paradigm, my starkly rational method of studying God and history. It would mean landing on a different theological support than I had ever imagined.
Trembling in my Reeboks, somewhere before that summer’s end I made my decision.
Days after their arrival, I am surprised by how well our finch couple makes do with the outdoor blind. Their woven cup of a home is secured just beneath our soffit area, inaccessible to crows and cats. Wifey settles in. She’s unaware of the kindness of her landlord, Tim, who lets her stay. For my part, I’m true to my tendency to go all motherly toward any creature habitating under my roof, even only a short way under. The birds become my daily concern.
Amazing is the largeness of aspects of small things. A thimbleberry’s first white blossom fills my camera lens, while the finch husband sweeps overhead, his scarlet breast and crown a flash of protection for the coming generation.
Riding my bike one warm morning along the still-wide river, I recognize notes of finches. I leave my wheels in the churchyard to stand in the nave beside King David.
I struggle with sadness. Changes of pattern in spiritual doings have caused theological conflict between me and friends from my former church.
David’s sorrows comfort me. Notes of anger flash from his psalms, and yet these brief, passionate litanies are tempered, flavored, transformed by deep humility. His anguished whys ascend a tortured pathway into praise.
At home once more I glance up through the kitchen window and find a tiny fuzzed head with bulbous eyes staring over the top of the nest. Slipping off shoes, I grab camera and perch in the sink, trying to capture the briefest of moments.
The youngsters grow. Their parents tend them, tireless, and within days the finch brood flutters real wings.
When Tim first chose Orthodoxy, I knew he was a heretic. Gently, mind you—I mused as if rescuing a fallen baby finch from our oregano plant beneath the window blind. “There, there, Dear,” I imagined one day saying to him. “Everybody takes faith detours; just glad you got your thinking back in line with mine.”
Since then among the Orthodox I’ve found a lack of finger-pointing, at least where we attend. We’re usually focused, or trying to be, on things at hand: the services, property upkeep, a first Saturday of the month breakfast for people on the street.
A while before solstice our finch family disperses. With care Tim lifts the empty nest to let me peer inside. Then he lowers the blind. Soon to the church door behind him I flutter and wander once more into a wondering communion.
Deanna Hershiser lives with her husband in Eugene, Oregon. Her essays have appeared in Rosebud, Back Home Magazine, Runner’s World, Relief Journal, and elsewhere. She makes observations on life, faith, permaculture, and her grandson at https://storieshappen.blogspot
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