Hope is the thing with feathers

Co-ordinates: It’s Epiphany as the Year of the Bird is hatching. I love this energy: this recognition, this first up-side down, dangerous yet wonderful god spell. My fingertips are cold. Sun shines through the blinds of my office, a rare treat that only (and mercifully) comes at this time of year. I find myself glad of the cold: it fits the pattern of what I expect. I am no fan of the cold, but this, simply following a pattern, feels like a relief.

I’m thinking of women spreading their wings.



Initial conditions: dappled.

The moon smiled, Venus was her beauty spot, or a charming, lop-sided dimple. This was one of the faces of beginning the new year. One thinks of faces on the threshold: who welcomes us?

The Greeks had their god, ‘Yes-Actually-I-Do-have-Eyes-in-the-Backofmyhead’ Janus, sitting on the threshold of the new year, looking back, looking forward. Increasingly complex times, however, call forth in me the need for the multifaceted, or many-armed, or perhaps even better yet, the multi-coloured, goddesses of Buddhist tradition. Colour is light and energy and I need the nuance. I begin the year with dappled feelings.

Sister Death walks close with me in Winter. There are several significant memorials in the season when darkness falls. As the old year was closing, exactly a week ago today, SJ opened her wings. An early bird, perhaps. 

Myriads mourn, we each carry a piece of her light, a story of how our lives had been touched by hers. She took, as her religious name, StJohn, ‘the witness who testifies to the Light, so that all might believe through this person in the True Light, which enlightens everyone.’ No wonder, then, she became one of the best known Catholic educators in the land. No wonder, either, that my first impulse once the news was absorbed was to light a candle, if only to stay a moment longer with her particular warmth and radiance: borne -like that other John, of the Cross- and tempered by long years in darkness.

On the heels of the news, I hit the road. There I found that gift of Death: the time-space lacuna, the blessed Between. Its grace, a strangely glorious quickening.

Along the city canal I walked feeling the blue sky’s glory, marveling at the gently flowing water (as if a visitor to the planet), the stone path strewn with hot pink, heart-shaped camellia petals (confetti for your journey onward?) A red shrine and its gate freshly painted vividly vermillion for the New Year, featured an intricate kazari decoration, the proud foxes‘ forefoot raised, two long red flags flapping aside the site. My eyes rested on the frizzy haired vine above, wisteria, so glorious in May. Remember this purple majesty, new friend in heaven? How it had its time, so quick, so beautiful. Maybe it is so for us, too?

My senses take in the world anew, as if on your behalf.

I look up from my reflections and see an apartment block called ‘consolare’. Yes, serendipity I accept your comfort.

At canal’s end, there is a path that rounds an explosion of rocks. I’ve often suspected this violent arrangement was accidental, but that day I saw an open flower, face up. I circumambulated slowly around the arrangement, praying the labyrinth. This is a good prayer for transitions; especially when you can’t sit still.

Returning, I walk northward, where possible in the middle of the stream. I’m thinking of the shachihoko: something fierce, amphibious, many-realmed, but essentially a salmon-like creature that swims against the current to return home. The image resonates. You did the same, I think, with courage, effort and perseverance.


Another day, I climbed a steep hill to visit a favourite temple. This was the day of your (understandably) closed send-off. I climbed up to the Temple of the Buddha’s heart (Busshinji); its walled garden is always calming and I had not seen it for ages. All was stiil, clear, quiet. Walking past the grave stones on the hillside, I thought of the hillside where you would be laid to rest. Yours facing east; this one facing south. Over these graves watches a beautiful figure of wisdom, the Kuanyin (Kannon, in Japanese). In old times, difficult times for Christians, here, the Kannon was blended with Marian imagery. I feel the energetic; something in me understands. She is standing with her arms open wide: if you are coming home, there is welcome here. I’m at one of the highest points in the area, the vistas go on for miles. I can see the inland sea, the island of Shikoku. I sigh-groan, a sort of cri-de-couer that issues from the deeps that rather surprises me to hear: “What shall we do without you, SJ?” Somewhere I am saying words to our Lady when my senses are shocked by the scent of incense.

The sun is going down and I must make my way on unknown forest paths back home. A huge, bright orange orb, setting, peeps through the houses and the bare branches of the everyday world as I, too, descend.

Tomorrow and tomorrow we will begin to journey in the light of your prayers but without your wise and witty and warm ways. May we follow the star, too, that leads us home; may we be unafraid of spreading our wings!

And in the light of this rising sun/Son – the revelation of this day – I celebrate your new life, sure of the shining Face who has greeted you, even while we mourn our loss.

                                                                 (In grateful memory of Sr. Kazuko StJohn Watanabe)


Hope is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words/ And never stops – at all.

Emily Dickinson

P.S. Jan Richardson’s gorgeous 2017 retreat, downloadable here, is called, coincidentally, “Walking the Way of Hope.”


Image credit: Masahiro Wada, “Northern Dancers: The Red-Crowned Cranes of Hokkaidō


4 thoughts on “Hope is the thing with feathers

  1. I read the linked article about Sister Kazuko Watanabe. What an extraordinary life she led, from beginning to end. For some reason, I found myself thinking of Thomas Merton, whose ability to draw on both Eastern and Western traditions resulted in such rich writing.

    I especially liked “dappled thoughts.” The phrase reminded me of the nearly-total eclipse I witnessed back in the 1980s. I most remember the shadow of leaves on the sidewalk: doubled, as though they were being lit by two suns. And of course, there was Gerard Manley Hopkins, writing of “Pied Beauty.” It certainly fits here, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That is a moving tribute to this dear woman – may her memory be eternal!

    “I use my painful past as fertilizer with which to make the flower bloom,” she wrote. “But there are days when nothing can bloom. On such days, I just remain quiet and let the root grow deeper and deeper.”
    — The thought of sorrows such as she experienced being fertilizer is something I will have to meditate on…. Surely that is a reality that would have to be revealed and empowered by the Holy Spirit. A grain of wheat must die, and if it dies in sorrow that makes good fertilizer? May her prayers enable us to make good use of our sufferings.


    • Thank you for your kind words and amen, Gretchen, amen! May, indeed her memory be eternal. (What a lovely phrase – is it from your tradition?)

      I was very taken with that comment about letting the root reach deeper, too. It has to, paradoxically, reach deeper into the dark, allll the way down, until the light is revealed. As the text was written in Japanese I had not known it, myself. Now, I shall not forget it.

      Liked by 1 person

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