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Spirit Story

On the wings of a heron

By Keith Reynolds

Years ago, I was part of a group gathered with theologian Mary Jo Leddy. We were struggling to find an image that might represent the Spirit in a Canadian context. The traditional image, a dove, does not work here in our northern climate. A mourning dove, perhaps, but not the white dove depicted so clearly in biblical stories. Various animals came to mind — beavers, moose, geese. But none fit the bill.

Then a heron rose up and spread her wings in someone’s imagination. Her two-metre wingspan enfolded our gathering with freshness and insight. The image of the heron has stayed with me ever since.

I see herons sparingly. I tend to notice them in times of solitude or when I’m with someone I love.

Not long ago, a family I know grieved the death of a woman; a wife, mother and grandmother. One of her sons told me, “I’m looking for a sign that she is okay, that there is something after all of this.” Days passed, grief gripped him and the ache of absence was all too present.

Then came a heron. During the family’s visit to their cottage along the water, it arrived at the edge of their deck one morning, perched and present. Not staying long, the stately bird opened its wings to the wide flight known only to herons. Then it was gone. The young man took note of this and remarked on the beauty of herons.

Some members of the family were in town later that week, picking up a few things at the grocery store. Afterwards they stopped by a playground at the beach, to let the children roam and play. Down by the water’s edge stood a heron. The man again noticed the nearby presence of this remarkable creature.

Two days later, the morning’s sun cleared the hills in the horizon as the man was making coffee in the kitchen. He looked out the window to see the sunrise, and his eyes were drawn to the heron once more present on the deck.

Whatever mystery these encounters with a heron held, something of God revealed itself to a grieving son and his family. Hope perched on the edge; a presence in the absence.

Last year, I sighted a heron on five different occasions while paddling a local river. Perhaps it was the same heron reappear-ing each time, following me downstream. Likely there are a number who call the river home. I was aware of being accompanied during this day. Looking for a bit of solitude, I was given the gift of companionship.

Herons are shy creatures. They often appear alone, standing close to the water’s edge. When they fly, their wings move with a graceful strength. They notice me far sooner than I am aware of them. But when I do see a heron, I am riveted. I wonder about its family, its community. To whom does it belong?

Early one morning while on retreat in northern Ontario, I saw a heron fly past my window. Later on, after a painful conversation, I walked back to my little cabin feeling the ache of another’s suffering. A good friend was struggling with memories of unspoken trauma surfacing later in life. These memories were too much to bear alone. As I settled back into the one-room cabin, a heron appeared at the edge of the water, walking right in front of me and then ducking beneath the deck. It suddenly occurred to me that to know the bird is present is enough. Whether I spot it or not is of little consequence. Like the Spirit, what matters is that the heron is here. 

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