Here every bird and fish knew its course. Every tree had its own place upon this earth. Only man had lost his way.~Margret Craven
I see him, thin and pale at the front of the boat, jaw set, chin high, leaning into the wind as the bow of the boat knifes the water and leaves a steady wake moving up-river to a village called Kingcome. The young ordinand is Mark Brian and unknown to him, he is going to the village to learn enough about life that he will be able to die well. He has been sent there by his bishop. He has a terminal disease. The bishop knows that the village is the place for him. For it is in this bone-chilled damp village on a river in British Columbia that the young man learns how to love a people on their terms and how to pass from this life into the next.
This is the premise of my favorite novella, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, by Margret Craven.
The vicar learns how to be a priest not by trying to change the natives but, rather, by living along side them in the births, deaths, tidal flows, and salmon runs. He learns that life is tied to place. And by so living he affects them in ways that will last into eternity.
He goes about his duties as the village vicar with simplicity, humility and grace. The children are his first friends. They must sense something childlike in this priest. Then slowly, as he gives the people space to continue the rhythms of their native life, he earns the respect of the elders in the village.
There is a prefab vicarage to be assembled for the old one is in disrepair and instead of asking for help from the village, he serves them until they come to him, in time, and offer to float the materials up the river and help him build the new vicarage. Loving them slowly brings them to him and he into them.
I can’t explain how this book has touched me. I can only tell you that I read it almost annually. It reminds me that being a Christian is more about being than about doing. It is about sitting with the congregants with whom I have been charged. They are the reason I am here. They are not here to do my bidding, to fulfill my vision, be cogs in my ecclesiastical machine. They are here to teach me how to be their pastor. And together we learn to be God with skin in our community.
After the young priest has died, and the villagers have laid him to rest, the author writes:
Past the village flowed the river, like time, like life itself, waiting for the swimmer to come again on his way to the climax of his adventurous life, and to the end for which he had been made. Wa Laum. That is all.
I Heard the Owl Call My Name is a book of great beauty that can teach much, without polemic, for those who will listen.
Today, as I went on my walk down my street beside the Puget Sound with Whidbey Island on my right and the snow-capped Olympics in the distance, I passed a snag of an old tree and high in its peak sat a bald eagle, watching me, watching the Sound. I’ve seen him before. It is his favorite perch. When I saw him, I felt connected to this land; to this coastal village called Mukilteo. I walked, not among clapboard houses on stilts with barking dogs running to chase me away and canoes on saw horses waiting for a fresh coat of paint and water sealant. I saw manicured lawns, nice cars in driveways; I saw the Ferry churning across the Sound towards Whidbey Island carrying commuters either to or from Boeing.
But the eagle and me, we have something in common: this is our place. We watch and wait here for life to ebb and flow while we stand ready to do what we have been placed here to do. He fishes–and I help folks pass from this life into the next.
For I am a pilgrim, and I, too, am on my way home.