Of Faith and Feathers

March 28, 2011


By Lindsey Howald Patton

Flourish magazine, Winter 2011

I made friends easily when I lived in Korea; there were so few of us English-speakers around. We were sitting, four of us, on some white rocks, eating peanuts and tossing the shells into a bush. A Buddhist temple—its eaves painted in bright, swirling primary colors—loomed overhead. Spring came early to Busan in the south, and the cherry blossoms were blooming. Everywhere around us the tourists seemed to wear crowns of frosty white and pink flowers as they ducked beneath the trees.

We must have been talking about church. None of us had been able to find one to attend and for the first time in our lives we had no preacher; no crowd of believers saying good morning; no piano, guitar or drum set playing hymns; no communion bread and wine. For some time I also felt that without this there could be no worship. Suddenly Scott—a tall, adventurous sort of man, who just the day before had sprinted alone into the chilling, March sea in front of our unbelieving eyes—shook himself like waking from a dream. I used to skip church all the time back home, he said, and we all looked at him. He said he would go to a park to walk among the rocks and trees instead, all the while looking around him at things he was otherwise too busy to stop and see and thinking, over and over, You are too much, Lord.

He said it again as we sat beneath a dozen cherry blossom trees, grinning and shaking his bowed head: God. He’s just too much.

And after that when I saw blue mountains I thought, Church; when I saw a gray, overcast lake reflecting its sky I thought, Church; when I braced my feet in the sand and grinned at waves as they crashed in and tried to knock me down I thought, Church. With the authority of the prophets, what has already been created spoke, gave homily after homily until I forgot Sunday used to be the only day for learning.

The stones will cry out, that doomed man said. If you stop singing yourselves, the very stones will pick up where you left off. They wouldn’t be able to help it. Years later a great theologian cried: All of you are without excuse! You who hear, but do not listen—you who look but do not see—you may have never heard the word Holy and never kissed the ring of a man who could talk to God; you may not even have the legs to dance in

When I saw blue mountains I thought, Church; when I saw a gray, overcast lake reflecting its sky I thought, Church; when I braced my feet in the sand and grinned at waves as they crashed in and tried to knock me down I thought, Church.

the dusty street like the musical king. But you have known him all the same. God, though invisible, has made it plain. David did not write his songs about the mountains and thunder in order to teach us; he wrote them because he had been taught. Look and see and taste. It is good. Earth smashes its shorelines to smithereens; it molds flies’ eyes from air bubbles; it covers whales’ singing with a blanket of sea. And the play goes on whether we stay in our seats or not. I, creation seems to say, take my orders from Elsewhere. To forget that the world, us included, belongs to Someone else would be like taking our pilots’ eyes off the horizon. That is, you run the danger of getting lost.

John Updike once wrote a story, called “Pigeon Feathers,” about a boy who was almost convinced that man made everything, even God, but who was saved by an armful of dead pigeons.

What we call maturity can be a nasty habit, but we don’t always go looking for it. It can accost us at its own will—say, in the newspaper or in a conversation with someone on the train—and cause us to grow up. In intending to arm us with knowledge, maturity takes away a wonder we then tend to spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture.

For David, the boy in Updike’s story, maturity came in the form of a book. (We should, perhaps, be more wary of words than we are, we who are so easily manipulated.) The book was H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History, and in it Wells wrote, with a voice as serious as rationality can be, that Jesus was a man. Simply that, and nothing more. It scandalizes young, Sunday-schooled David that Jesus could be summed up as nothing more than a political figure, popular among the lower classes and whose freak survival of the death penalty started a religion. There were faulty doctors in the old days, see, and a whole lot of naïve people.

That a mind like Wells’ could be permitted to exist, to write, to think, to speak the name of God’s son without ever really meaning it, first confounds David and then causes doubt to swell in his mind. The poor, miserable boy looks for his weapon in kind—what one does unto you, do unto him also—and tries to find a Christian rationality strong enough to battle this new one. His minister, embarrassed, fails to provide a good answer, and his mother, smiling a little, tells him to enjoy the lovely farm day and assures him that none of this will matter so much when he is older. David wants a God too wonderful for man to create, something that exists far outside his world with its bustle and battles and sicknesses.

“‘Mother, good grief. Don’t you see’—he rasped away the roughness in his throat—‘if when we die there’s nothing, all your sun and fields and what not are all, ah, horror? It’s just an ocean of horror.”

David is commissioned by his grandmother to shoot down some of the pigeons overtaking the barn. He eyes their silhouettes in the dim light and squeezes the trigger and later, when he goes to bury them he almost doesn’t look at their stiffening bodies. But then he peeks, and what he sees is assurance.

The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

You are an old man who lives alone. You read the Bible while eating breakfast; the pages’ gold edges are worn around the Psalms. There are children jumping into piles of raked leaves next door, but since your own children grew up and moved on, you don’t stop to watch play anymore. Leap, and a hollow crash; shouts of laughter. The cardinals are breeding outside; your feeder is empty; you are leaning over Psalm 81 and don’t see the hopping flashes of red as they light up the bushes. You close your book, lean back in the chair and close your eyes. You think, Jesus, come.

You are a woman who works in an office. Every day you dress your children, pile them into the car, drive along perfectly engineered roads, and arrive to work in a building, you believe, was partially constructed by members of a local union (you know one of them from your neighborhood). It’s winter, and the trees are sticks with giant frosted feathers glued to the tips. A Canada goose bends its wings just so and catches a swath of air, and the last remnants of Monday’s ice storm are making microscopic kaleidoscopes in the half-sun as they melt. Your daughter crushed a blade of grass by the sidewalk when you dropped her off at school, and it is bending its way slowly back. It takes four hours. You are thinking about something else and God is utterly spent: We are blind, or cruel, lovers.

Flannery O’Connor raised peafowl, or so they say, and I understand this is why she also occasionally wrote about them. I came upon one in particular only a few days after revisiting Updike’s story, and thought: Feathers, again. You are too much.

In “The Displaced Person,” stingy Mrs. McIntyre hires a Polish immigrant and his family, refugees from the Second World War, to work on her farm. At first the new Mr. Guizac is like a state-of-the-art piece of machinery—far more efficient than her Negroes and poor whites, she brags—but soon it’s clear he does not follow certain racial lines that ought to be tread in the old South, and this cannot be tolerated. He isn’t wanted; he doesn’t belong.

You are thinking about something else and God is utterly spent: We are blind, or cruel, lovers.

In the best scene, Mrs. McIntyre is on the porch, gripping her drink with an iron-clawed hand and complaining that these displaced persons must go. The priest who helped her obtain the Guizac family but who is otherwise old and unwanted, barely hears her. She is glaring at him—but the old priest is watching Mrs. McIntyre’s peafowl, is transfixed by the peafowl, seeing something beyond the feathers. (So often we chastise children, and tolerate the elderly, for seeing other than what is plainly there.)

The priest let his eyes wander toward the birds. They had reached the middle of the lawn. The cock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

Mrs. McIntyre’s face assumed a set puritanical expression and she reddened. Christ in the conversation embarrassed her the way sex had with her mother. “It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go,” she said. “I don’t find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world.”

The old man didn’t seem to hear her. His attention was fixed on the cock who was taking minute steps backward, his head against the spread tail. “The Transfiguration,” he murmured.

She had no idea what he was talking about. “Mr. Guizac didn’t have to come here in the first place,” she said, giving him a hard look.

The cock lowered his tail and began to pick grass.

“He didn’t have to come in the first place,” she repeated, emphasizing each word.

The old man smiled absently. “He came to redeem us,” he said and blandly reached for her hand and shook it and said he must go.

“The world,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside with a generous hand.” They are pennies the color of salmon glaze and pregnant suns, pennies the shape of feathers. Some are secret, hidden between mountains, and others, like sunsets, can be plucked up by as many hands as are reaching out to take. There is enough to go around.

Lindsey Howald PattonLindsey Howald Patton is a freelance writer currently traveling in Africa and Europe. Her work on faith, the arts and culture have been seen in Inside Columbia magazine, The Columbia Daily Tribune and Vox magazine. She has also published short fiction in Avery Anthology

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