As far back as I can hear in my memory, I have known the call of the mourning dove. From the time I was a tiny little girl sitting on the front porch while Grandma did the early-morning watering, to this morning forty-five years later, sitting on the back patio after doing the early-morning watering, that melancholy, infinitely soothing three-note trill has sounded in my ears, as familiar as my own heartbeat and sometimes as unnoticed, and as centering and reassuring when I listen for it. It is perhaps as close as I can imagine the voice of God, murmuring over and over, “I am here, I am here,” here in this world that is bent and broken but never abandoned; swollen with sorrow, swallowed up by joy poignant as grief.
Madeleine L’Engle, in Penguins and Golden Calves, defines an icon as “something I can look through and get a wider glimpse of God…saying something that cannot be said in words.”
As I grow older, I’m also growing more mindful of the things that remind me of His presence day to day, here, near me where I live – my personal icons, if you will.
Foremost among these are trees.
The trees of my earliest memories are those in front of Grandma and Grandpa’s house – two massive trunks, strong and steadfast; huge graceful boughs spreading sheltering arms over the whole yard, making a living canopy of dappled light and shade under which my cousins and brother and I could play untroubled by the hot South Texas sun. Although Mama remembers when the house was built and the trees were planted, by the time of my childhood the place was comfortably settled and had, in my small consciousness, the air of that which always had been and always would be.
The home I live in now is a couple hundred miles northeast of Grandma and Grandpa’s old place, and several million miles removed from anything they would ever have imagined in terms of square footage, automation, and what they would call extravagance. But it’s the first place I’ve ever lived that has this air about it, this essence of home. There are seven trees on the lot, anchored by a magnificent oak in the backyard. I sit outside every morning early, airing my mind and soul and soaking in the strength, stability, and solace that seem to emanate from its heart.
The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!
~ Robert Browning, born May 7, 1812
Rain fell today through shining sun,
and the season’s first hummingbird
drank deep, unafraid, just outside
the kitchen window.
I believe these are good omens.
~ Rebekah Choat
ritual: an established or prescribed procedure for a religious or other rite; observance of set forms in public worship
Ritual was anathema in the church of my childhood. I can’t recall ever having been instructed as to why it was wrong, but I came to the conclusion that it had something to do with substituting mechanical actions for real true belief; that following any formal ritual was a sort of religion-by-rote for those who had not prayed through to a genuine ecstatic experience of the living God. At the very least, conforming to ritual would surely be limiting, confining, Spirit-quenching.
Please understand that I am not discounting the sincerity of the exuberant saints among whom I grew up; many of them did indeed demonstrate faith that would move mountains and abiding joy in the face of great hardship.
For me, though, the anything-goes-as-long-as-you’re-enthusiastic style of church meeting was detrimental, to say the least. I – the preacher’s oldest kid, no less! – was expected to beam with the barely-veiled glory of God’s wonder-working hand on my life at all times. Good Christian girls didn’t let the devil steal their shine!
My choice: deceit (or at best exaggeration) followed by guilt, or honesty resulting in condemnation.
As I grow older and continue to work through many layers of deep-seated depression, I am learning that ritual, at its heart, is neither robotic nor repressive; it is, in fact, a healing balm for my soul, a means of saving grace. It is a great comfort to lean into time-honored practices when I have no strength to forge a new path, to repeat well-worn words when I can’t manage coherent composition, to relax into the kinship of common custom.
…ritual and symbol are as necessary to human beings as air and water. They mark us as human and give us identity…Rituals bind a community together, and also bind individuals to a community. ~ Kathleen Norris
In this cold and holy light
of morning, even
sparrows dare not speak.
~ Rebekah Choat
I keep communion out of doors —
a sunrise sacrament —
in attendance: just myself,
a cardinal celebrant,
a mourning dove
murmuring devotion reverent,
and out of sight, a mockingbird
singing a glad accompaniment.
~ Rebekah Choat