The Owls

Dear Friends:

This is the seventh message in a series on the artifacts that symbolize the spiritual importance of events, gifts and people in our lives.

ar-ti-fact n. An object produced or shaped by human workmanship; especially, a simple tool, weapon or ornament of archeological or historical interest.

My love for words started in early childhood with my mother who read stories to me, taught me to read for myself, and took me to the library each week to check out my limit of books.

Soon I began writing stories of my own and making up handwritten newspapers full of family and school news. A pen and a sheet of paper have always held a fascination for me the way a painter thinks of a canvas or a wood carver thinks of a fine-grained chunk of wood. You just don’t know where such things will take you but you want to explore the possibilities. There is profound truth in a quote attributed to Saint Augustine: “There are many things that I would not know if I did not write.”

One of the reasons that I enjoy being an attorney is that my work involves so much writing. Most of that writing is done on a computer these days, but every morning I still put two pens in my pocket to take notes and draft correspondence on the run. Pens hold a great attraction to me and I own many fine ones acquired over the years, each with their own story.

Many of the Word of Grace messages are taken from the hand-written pages of the journals I keep. That’s true of this week’s message which was first sent out on October 23, 2000. It is my account of a special moment shared with my brother, Terry, on a Saturday night in October, 1996 when we were both on a guided silent retreat in Vista, California. It is one of my favorite writings because of the experience itself.

It is an experience that began with one of my treasured pens, but ended up way beyond the limits of words following the path from solitude to communion.

The final grounds of holy Fellowship are in God. Lives immersed and drowned in God are drowned in love, and know one another in Him, and know one another in love. God is the medium, the matrix, the focus, the solvent. As Meister Eckhart suggests, he who is wholly surrounded by God, enveloped by God, clothed with God, glowing in selfless love toward Him–such a man no one can touch except he touch God also. Such lives have a common meeting-point; they live in a common joyous enslavement. They go back into a single Center where they are at home with Him and with one another. It is as if every soul had a final base, and that final base of every soul is one single Holy Ground, shared in by all. Persons in the Fellowship are related to one another by Him, as all mountains go down into the same earth. They get at one another through Him. He is actively moving in all, co-ordinating those who are pliant to His will and suffusing them all with His glory and His joy (Thomas R. Kelly, A Testament of Devotion [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992], p. 56).

The October moon climbs the sky in full, golden glory. It pulls the tide of my heart over the whitewashed, adobe wall of the retreat center. I resist that tug, earth-bound by the material. My pen is missing.

It isn’t just any pen. It is a $70 gold-plated Sheaffer Classic fountain pen. It is my favorite. I love its rasp as it pushes words across the pages. Words are gifts, but writing them down is work. The sound and heft of this pen remind me of both.

There is some guilt associated with this pen. I bought it on sale for $45–bargains are in the deluded mind of the purchaser. It took mechanically-challenged me two months of ink-spattered failure to learn how to place the cartridge correctly. I put it away for weeks until I happened to read the instructions on the back of the cartridge package and got the idea.

Tonight, when I went to meet with the retreat leader, I took my journal, my pocket New Testament, my Bible, and I put the pen in my jacket pocket. After I returned to my room, I opened up my journal and reached for the pen–it wasn’t there.

I looked around. The pen wasn’t with my other stuff. “Shoot, I must not have zipped my pocket.”  I tried to write with a $2.49 Pilot Varsity fountain pen (best writing pen and most reliable pen I’ve ever used). The thought of the missing pen would not let me rest.

So I am retracing my steps. At some point I left the walk and crossed the lawn. I don’t remember where. I see no gleam of gold in the moonlight. The retreat leader crosses the walk ahead of me. I pick up my head and quicken my step around the corner and out of sight. This is a man who once spent five months in prayer in a cave in Spain eating nothing but potatoes and water. He probably thinks that a 79-cent Bic ballpoint will do and he’s right.

The pen isn’t in the empty conference room. Turning out the light, I step outside. To my left, in the dappled shadows of the porch, sits my brother Terry. We exchange nods. It is the third evening of a five-day guided silent retreat. Terry and I haven’t exchanged a word for two days and three nights.

He sees me slowly zigzag across the lawn. “Did you lose something?” he calls out.

“Yeah, my pen. It’s my favorite.”

“The gold one?” he asks.

I say, “Yes,” knowing that he means my $5.00 Pentel roller ball (I am a pen junkie) that he borrowed on the first night. I don’t correct him because he probably won’t approve of a $70 pen either.

I am across the first square of lawn before I realize that Terry is behind me and also looking.

The moon is higher now, flooding light over us. Down the ridge-line, across the valley, I see the tallest hill that interested me during the day. It looks like it has antennae on top. My heart longs to wander beyond the walls, to explore the hills in the night.

I glance back at Terry, thinking, “My brother loves me. He is restless tonight and I’d like to do something special with him.”

But I don’t want to break his silence, and I move ahead of him continuing the search. I wait for Terry to catch-up to me in the rose garden, thinking I should get back to my prayer and the journal. The Spirit speaks to my heart, “The pen is gone for a reason. You came out here for more than a pen. Terry is waiting for something. Ask him.”

I whisper to my brother, “Are you up for something silent, but crazy?”

He looks at me quizzically. “Sure.”

I gesture at his legs clad in shorts. “Are you warm enough?”

“Let me put on my long pants.”

“Knock on my door when you are ready,” I tell him.

Terry is a hospital executive. I am an attorney. Seven years separate us in age. We have different personalities and paths for our lives, but the riches encountered on our journey with Christ are a shared bounty. I love my big brother and cherish the spiritual journey that we’re taking together.

I open my door when I hear his door open and we walk into the night without a word.

We cross the highway and start up the grassy slope beyond. It is steep. I lean into the hill and push for traction off the soft clods of a fire break. Terry follows a few steps behind. I suck air deep into my lungs to regulate my panting. Terry does the same. We stop to rest and I think that we are both a lot older than the last time we climbed a hill together.

Our shadows against the illuminated ground are the difference of night and day.

We take a right on the ridge and walk down a saddle on a hard dirt road. Below we can hear engines accelerate, squealing tires, sirens and an occasional indistinct voice.

When we ascend the hill it turns out to be a big knoll commanding a view of what must be the ocean, dark and flat to the south, the blackness of the Camp Pendleton Marine base to the west, mesas and ravines in broken patterns to the east, and mountains on guard to the north–360 degrees of horizon. The antennae turn out to be two spindly, old Yucca plants stretching out of a patch of prickly pear. We stand in silence taking it in, Terry a bit higher on the slope than I.

Something flutters in front of me. A bat, I think, or a night hawk. It is gone and then there it is again–a moving shadow crossing the moonlit landscape. There are two of whatever it is.

I point. Terry follows the line of my finger and also sees the movement coming straight at us. Over our heads in swift, smooth flight are two great horned owls. They swoop past us in a flash of golden eyes and glowing feathers. They settle on the Yucca above us, one over the other, the big one on top, in the same positions that Terry and I stand on the hill. Maybe 30 feet and no more separate us.

Terry and I turn carefully in unison to watch. I am afraid that any movement will break the spell.

Silhouetted against the eastern sky, the owls begin to call to each other in deep, thrilling tones–who-o-o, who, who, who-o-o, back and forth at intervals, a conversation.

“O God,” I pray in my soul, “this is amazing grace. Thank you for calling us here. Thank you for this brother of mine.” My mouth is parted in wonder. All my thought, feeling and physical being converge in focus  The moon shines down. The moment is perfect.

Unhurriedly, the owls unfold their tremendous wings and take flight, one after the other, rising in slow, swirling  flames of gold, bronze and copper ignited by the moon. They spiral up above us, coming together, then moving apart, then together again, exchanging calls in a dance of joy for the moon, the stars, and the night air that floats them in freedom between the earth and heaven–a reverent and wild expression of praise for the God that made us all. Then as one, these night visitors, return to their hunt over the fields, gliding away from our view.

Our world remains hushed for a long moment of benediction. I whisper to Terry, “That is one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen.”

“Pure gift,” he says.

He walks down to me, puts his arm around me and kisses my forehead. He squeezes me hard. I squeeze back. We hold each other for awhile, brothers by blood and in spirit, called to this time and place to witness the delight of God.

We start back, walking side by side with ease, down hill, around corners, back to the retreat center. Only one thing more is said. I whisper to Terry, “A Psalm says, “the moon is a faithful witness in the sky” He murmurs, “M-m-m,” in response.

That Psalm is the first place in Scripture that God is called “Father.” In it God speaks his love to and through David:

He shall cry to me, “You are my Father, my God and the Rock of my Salvation!… Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him, and my covenant with him will stand firm… It shall be established forever like the moon, an enduring witness in the skies. (Ps. 89:26, 28, 37).

Two brothers stand side by side on a moonlit hilltop in silent communion, naked in soul before God as each of them was in body on the day their mother bore them into the world. The golden pen is forgotten. For the deepest secrets of God there are no words.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are those who take refuge in him.” (Ps. 34:8)

Under the mercy of Christ,


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