The Testament of Birdsong

Evangelia   (Gospels)

The song of the Northern Cardinal:  clear slurred whistles, lowering in pitch.  Several variations.

–  Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds.

Of those mentioned, the one I am most familiar with:  what-cheer cheer cheer.

I reread the online comment again.

He’s one of the ones I haven’t heard back from.  Maybe it’s against Fr. John’s orders to attend a class reunion.

I was sure the abbreviation was something Catholic, but whether Friar or Father, I’d have to do some research.  Everyone I’d grown up with had been Catholic – except me, the outsider.  But John had been anything but religious.  John had been a baseball nut.  John had loved the Beatles.  John had drawn irreverent comic strips during homeroom.  John had been my best friend.  And a priest now?

Now was thirty years on.  I hadn’t spoken to him since after our freshman year of high school; since that summer I’d first fallen in love, and then moved away.

The poet Callimachus told of how Athena took the young Tiresias’ sight for having seen her bathing naked.  As recompense to his distraught mother, the nymph Chariclo, he was given the gift of understanding birds.

For he shall mark the wand’ring birds that fly

To right, to left, along th’ ætherial sky,

Shall read their motions, as they swiftly spring,

Observe the flight of each unprosp’rous wing,

And utter sacred truths.

(Trans. W. H. Tytler)

Augury, as it was called, could reveal the will of the gods.

After school let out that last summer, we played baseball every day, rain or shine.  If it was raining we lay sprawled across the floor in John’s basement, playing Strat-O-Matic, and listening to his older brother’s Beatles albums; otherwise, we found two more players and spent all day at the diamond behind the middle school.

Pitcher, batter, shortstop, outfielder.

Right field was out.

Hits were run out, then runners became invisible.

Outs were made by tagging the base, runner, or pitcher’s mound.

Three outs to a batter.

Players rotated through positions after each inning.

I was most comfortable in outfield, where success depended on knowing how to position yourself  precisely to where the play would be.  Just me, alone with the birds that would land between pitches to pick through the grass clippings drying in the sun.

Actus   (Acts)

On the first day of November, 1970, the retired French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre established the Society of St. Pius X.

A former missionary in Africa, he did this at the behest of a group of French seminarians in Rome who claimed persecution for their adherence to pre-Vatican II teachings.

For doctrinal reasons the Vatican denied SSPX canonical status in the Church.

Eighteen years after its founding, Lefebvre was excommunicated for consecrating four bishops against the express orders of then Pope, John Paul II.

Three years before, as I found out, my best friend John had been ordained in Écône, Switzerland by Archbishop Lefebvre himself.

Had the Archbishop ever even seen a baseball game?

Epistola   (Epistles)

The Black-capped Chickadee’s song is a clear whistle, fee-bee-ee or fee-bee, first note higher.

Spring mornings, over and over, just beyond the shear curtains of my open window, what I heard was a child’s exaggerated uh-oh.

Second note lower, longer.

I was the oldest of two boys, as was John.  My father was a large man; I was more like my mother in temperament and build.  I was quiet when unsure of myself, a trait I learned to compensate for by being in the right place at the right time; a place I would wait, patiently, silently.

When I first saw Joan in freshman Geometry, she was confident, outgoing, effervescent, and buxom.  Whereas I was background, Joan embodied everything that was present, everything upon which the spotlight shone.

Unable to summon the confidence to speak my love, I declared it in a carefully typed note – unsigned, and slipped into her locker.  The response was ecstatic and terrifying.  Suddenly, everyone knew at once she had a secret admirer.  She wondered aloud who he was; the candidates, all upperclassmen, were tall and articulate.

I sent more notes.  Her ideals grew in stature.  And then I wrote it.  I’m not sure what I expected, but I wrote:  If you ask me to my face, I will tell you who I am.

The augur, typically a priest in Roman times, would “take the auspices,” from which we derive the words:  auspicious, favorable, and inauspicious, unfavorable.

The first century Roman historian Livy explained that augury does not predict what one should do, rather it looks for signs confirming that what one has already decided to do will be looked upon favorably by the gods.

Augury, in Roman times, was autochthonous.

Looking for signs of approval has a long history.

The House Sparrow is a non-native species introduced from the Old World.  Its voice is typically a chirrup, tschip, or philip.

An outsider.  Everywhere.

In 1983 Lefebvre sought the opinion of his priests on the consecrations he was about to perform.

Those who disagreed with him were removed from their posts.

We moved the summer after my freshman year.  I never adjusted to the new high school.  I did well academically, but friends were few and far between.

For Senior Prom I returned to my old school at the invitation of Joan when my then girlfriend  found a last minute invitation to Daytona Beach more appealing than a night of dress-up with me.  I already had the tux and Joan sewed her own dress.  John hadn’t been there.

The next morning, before the bell for first-hour English, she simply started at the front of the room and marched down each aisle:  Is it you?  Is it you?  When she finally reached me, I managed to speak loud enough to be heard over the beating of my own heart.  On hearing me answer yes, John, who sat at my left, stared before shaking his head and turning away.

When I saw Joan between classes later that day, she said she just liked me as a friend.

Being neither tall, nor articulate, I just nodded.

Another version of the myth has the adult Tiresias coming upon two snakes mating.  He strikes them with his staff.  Hera punishes him by turning him into a woman.  Years later when Lady Tiresias again comes upon two snakes she wisely leaves them be.  Hera restores his masculinity.

Later, when asked to settle an argument between her and her husband, Zeus, over who enjoys sex more, a man or a woman, Tiresias, who has experience as both, says women do.  This not being the answer Hera wants, she promptly strikes Tiresias blind.

Zeus compensates him with foresight and seven lifetimes, and, one would hope, counsels him to avoid Hera in the future wherever possible.

After supporting the Society’s missions in Missouri, Colorado, Ohio and California, Fr. John assumed the post of Prior at a mission Church in Oregon in 2005.

After school let out for the summer an ad hoc group of friends formed.  Girls and boys, we road our bikes until dark then either went home or, on most nights, settled at someones house.  We’d all head to the basement; put on LPs; listen to Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, Saturday Night Fever; then dance.

When she finally asked, I confessed I had never danced before.  The challenge just seemed to excite her and pretty soon I was stumbling around, our fingers entwined, a hand on her hip.  And when she leaned into my chest for a slow dance, the sweetness of her hair mixed with sweat made me forget to move my feet.

When it got late we’d hop on our bikes and head home.  I rode with her the extra mile to make sure she arrived safely.

I didn’t expect anything.  She let me, and I liked her company.

We were just friends.

The alarm call of the Blue Jay is a harsh slurring jeeah or jay.  The call grows more rapid with the bird’s agitation and proximity of the threat.

The staff of Tiresias and its transformative powers later came into the possession of Hermes, and in some versions, along with the two entwined snakes, became the staff of the Caduceus, the universal symbol of healing and medical practice.

Some days after we finished playing Strat-O-Matic we’d turn off all the basement lights and play hide-and-seek with our two younger brothers.

It was John who suggested we collude to rearrange the boxes packed beneath the stairs so that there was a hollow in which we could hide from our brothers.  As we’d wait in silence I’d closed my eyes and take in the smells as his mother did laundry above us.

After the initial success we supplemented the space with a blanket, flashlight and pillows enabling us to hide indefinitely.

For the SSPX, traditional mass is to be delivered in Latin.

I recall John rolling dice; setting the batter’s card alongside my pitcher; reading across, then down to determine the outcome.

Although I try, I cannot imagine John learning Latin, much less speaking it fluently.

Latae sententiae in canonical law indicates a punishment automatic upon contravention of a law.

Two weeks before the moving van, I rode with her back to her house, as I had done most every night for the past few weeks.  This time, as I turned to leave, she leaned across my handlebars and, with head back, kissed me full on the mouth.

I was at once tall, my tongue articulate.

And as I rode home alone, I was overcome with an intense feeling of love entwined with betrayal.

I wasn’t there when his mother discovered the pillows beneath the stairs.

John said she was so upset she hit him with a broom while throwing a rapid slur of Slavic syllables at him.  He said it was difficult to understand, although one word seemed to come up over and over.

In actuality, the Caduceus is the symbol of commerce, not medicine.  The mix-up being of military origin, specifically, a U.S. Army captain in 1902 who confused the Caduceus with the Rod of Asclepius when designing the insignia for medical personnel.

So go the benefits of a classical education.

The morning the moving van came I had three home runs and eleven runs batted in; and John gave me my first LP, The Beatles, more commonly known as “The White Album”.

That evening Joan and I kissed in the emptied basement and promised to call each other every day.

As an expression of his deep Catholic faith, the modern French composer Olivier Messiaen incorporated birdsong into much of his music.  He traveled extensively with his wife, transcribing the songs of exotic birds in the wild.

Messiaen’s first work, based solely on the transcription of birdsong, was a piece for flute and piano, Le merle noir (The Blackbird), 1952.

Sixteen years later an Englishman, himself on a spiritual trip to India, composed:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these sunken eyes and learn to see

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to be free

(P. McCartney)

Side 2.  Track 3.

In January of 2009 Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of all four bishops and Lefebvre.

We managed to stay in touch throughout high school, and when Joan decided where she would apply for college I applied to the same.

We resumed our relationship in college.

She married me after graduation.

I stood by silently as love faded to transparency.

A year later we divorced as friends.

et cetera

Apocalypsi   (Revelation)

I woke early this morning to an unfamiliar song on the salt breeze.  I repeat the notes and cadence to myself, committing the pattern to memory.  The song is melodious and welcoming.  A favorable sign.

After checking out of my room this afternoon, I’ll follow the birds inland, toward the Cascades, maybe stop in Eugene on my way and search for a bookstore, search for a copy of Peterson’s Western Birds.  Then, I’ll look for the right place, the right place to settle and wait.

I look to the risen sun each day, and cant:  Dum spiro spero

And translate for you, in our common tongue:  While I breathe, I hope