Spiritual Signs

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Have you ever asked for a sign?

When I lived out in Kansas, a Chicago-raised friend reported seeing a red-tailed hawk while driving from Lawrence to Eldorado. She interpreted the sighting as a sign that a major positive development was about to happen in her life. She turned around mid trip and went back to her apartment to wait. Nothing happened. Native Kansans laughed about this, since on the plains you can hardly look out a car window without seeing a hawk.

Hawks in Kansas are nothing remarkable. But this person driving to Eldorado was focused on her inner struggles, on her unforgiving past, on her unreachable dreams. The existence of hawks outside her car was nothing special, but for her to look out and actually see a redtail was indeed magical. It was a legitimate sign for her on her journey, although for native Kansans it was just another hawk on a post.

Now my friend received many signs in her life. She followed her signs into one disaster after another. Signs are magical but they are seen with human eyes, the eyes you bring to the seeing. You cannot trust the signs you see unless you can trust yourself. My friend was not spiritually grounded or emotionally balanced. She was confused and desperate.

During the Peloponnesian War the ancient Athenians sent a massive expedition to Sicily. Things went badly. Confused, divided and disheartened, they prepared to return home. That was when they saw their sign: a lunar eclipse. Not auspicious in the ancient world. The priests understood this to mean that they should not travel at that time but stay another 27 days, until the start of the next lunar cycle. A carefully reasoned conclusion but wrong.

True, it seemed very reasonable to people who did not want to return home as failures, to people who still longed for heroic victory. The result of this delay was a disaster in which the entire force was destroyed, eventually contributing to Athen’s defeat in the war. If the blotting out of the moon foretells imminent disaster and your city state is at war, wouldn’t a wise person hightail it for home? Since when is it a good plan to dawdle in the face of danger? Off balance and emotionally stressed, the Athenian priests must have experienced spiritual confusion. Or perhaps their approach to signs was simply too rule bound.

A sign is not like a prescription we can take to any pharmacy and have filled. A sign is like a mirror. It shows us something in ourselves we would not otherwise see. To apply the sign we need wisdom. Without wisdom, we are misled by what we see.

Miracles are different. Miracles may come to anyone regardless of preparation or merit.  Consider the unclean man whose demons Jesus cast into swine. He was stripped of all merit and hopelessly unprepared. But he was miraculously restored to humanity by God’s grace.  Understanding and wisdom followed.

Signs require a fertile and wholesome ground before they can bear fruit. In chapter 5 of Daniel, King Belshazzar and his advisors were befuddled by the writing on the wall, but Daniel had the spiritual preparation to understand the sign. He not only saw the writing on the wall, he knew it in the unity of his heart and mind. This sign wasn’t really for the debased King Belshazzar. It was too late for him anyway. The sign was for Daniel. A sign opens itself for the person who has clarity of vision. Its meaning comes freely, without struggle or effort. For those who are prepared, signs are transparent; for those who are not, they are opaque.

Most signs are also personal. I can’t know for certain what my friend’s redtail hawk meant. The sign was for her. I do know that when I last saw her, some years later, she was still not at peace with herself. I wonder if she ever found out what her hawk meant.  Did she see her hawk again? Did she go back and finish her trip to Eldorado?

 

This post is a revision of a personal essay first published in 2010 on Brother Michael This Morning.

Copyright © 2017 by Michael B. Smetzer

 

Swimmers, painting by Mike Smetzer

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