Autumn weekdays at Sinclair’s Eve bring early rising and long commutes. We wish it was less harried, but the presence of children stretches the simplest daily ablutions into inefficient adventures. We brush teeth and tie shoes in a panicked half-jig. We go through breakfast motions. I drive my girls across town to Oak Ridge, to some friends of the family who keep them while my wife and I work. Through the mild suburban sprawl we go, past the park, off the paved road, and into a short stretch of creek-carved wilderness walled by high, tree-thick hills on either side with the whisper of water at the base. I always turn off the music, no matter what we’re listening to, and we crawl the dreamy wynd with the windows down, taking in the intricacies of every sound. It was in this place, in the middle of our normal scrabble for time, that I first saw the indigo bunting.
It perched halfway up a spear of ironweed, looking from my distance like a survey ribbon knotted along the road by some passing crew. Then, as we got nearer, recognition dawned on me that the ribbon was alive—miraculously blue, a heart-beat like a jackhammer, and alive. It was a locus of the affronting holiness one usually associates with supernovae and the aurora borealis, riding the very verge of possibility in its beauty.
As if waiting for epiphany to fire like a nerve impulse, the little bird took wing and was gone, a blur of cerulean against the pale, daybroken sky. I was speechless for a moment as we came to a pair of does that regarded us with their inscrutable expressions. I rolled the back windows further down, making sure my daughters could see the deer, and we drove on to the house different people than we had been moments before. The curtain at the world’s edge had rustled. I felt dazzled out of slumber.
Indigo buntings are not actually blue. Like polar bears, they are creatures of refraction. Their scintillating color is a result of sunlight diffusing at angles through the grillwork of barbules and hooklets that make up their feathers. Backlit, or under certain conditions, their feathers are a standard secretary black. Yet we are mesmerized by them, because we are mesmerized by light. I had waited for years to see an indigo bunting in the way I’ve waited to hear firsthand the freight-train growl of a tornado. Once you experience it, no amount of forgetfulness can tear it from you. Curiously, I found it—or was I found?—on a road I had taken hundreds of times. Tuskegee Drive yields a fair number of glimpses into the microcosmic tapestry of Appalachian flora and fauna. Owls and herons cruise the pass. Whitetails pick their way through the undergrowth, banqueting in the brambles under vows of silence. Sycamores clap their hands, and the gravel track is bordered by Queen Anne’s Lace, Black-eyed Susans, bee balm, and wild flowering peas. I’m in awe of all of these, and I relish the mornings when the fog has yet to lift and the lowland woods unfurl in fern-brake green. Every drive brings a new miracle, and repetition is the key. Great mysteries are learned by rote. Bury yourself in the routine, and have the grace to pay attention. Prepare to be surprised.
I wrote my way through the Psalms a few years ago, like a medieval monk. Before the advent of movable type, the Scriptures were copied by hand by these silent, celibate people who slowly went blind by candlelight. I don’t presume to say that many of them had a greater handle on the Gospel than do modern preachers and theologians, but I’m hard-pressed to find a better way to learn these things than to immerse myself in them.
“There is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” —G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill 1
The more liturgical churches have that much figured out, at least. The Anglicans and Lutherans stage their elaborate pageantries, with the lines and the blocking well-rehearsed. They realize that, being human, we have not yet given anything, even God, our undivided attention. So we submit to liturgy. Eventually, in our most subconscious thoughts, we get walloped by the meaning of it at some unexpected moment in the grocery line, or when the Lord flings a feathered sapphire onto the back roads.
Still, this mortal coil allows me no control over the scheduling of epiphanies. As Chesterton said, it may be the thousandth time down the lane, but the dues of the previous nine hundred ninety-nine must be paid. I have no say in when the heavens open and bright rays of revelation shine forth, but I must show up. If I don’t show up, there’s no chance. Not only this, but it helps to show up at the appropriate place. One will find few indigo buntings bobbing about the deeps of a subway tunnel or a dripping back alley. It helps when you make a point to go looking for the impressionist paint-splatter of the Divine brush.
This cagey, wry sense of joy is one of the most wonderful things about the Psalms. They hide blue birds between their lines, and they never give themselves away in the first reading. Then, with a few repetitions, they become more human, more real. At times, some of them approach the ravings of a lunatic. David begs for barbaric infanticides and revels in self-assured righteousness. The old Hebrew songbook rings with banality, blackness, and all the dark trails one can travel. And then, after a while, with no warning or fanfare, a bunting jumps out of the words, flying and singing like the “man after [God’s] own heart” (Acts 13:22). A thousand readings beyond that, when control is finally ceded or lost, a glimpse of Christ himself takes flight from the pages, streaking like a smudge of uncapturable color across the landscape, leaving holy upheaval in its wake.
I’ve seen only one other indigo bunting since that day, in a tree above a field of sunflowers outside downtown. I was jogging, sweaty and exhausted, and once again on a familiar road. Like before, it took me by surprise. As I have jogged and driven many familiar roads since then, I keep reading the Psalms. After all, the hinge-pin of liturgy is hope. We remember the flutter of wings. We hope to stare through black letters and see only blue light.
1 Chesterton, G. K. The Napoleon of Notting Hill. New York: Dover, 1991. Print.