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Sunday, July 10 2005 19:00
My friend Olivia has told me two stories in which she finds spiritual meaning. She shares them with enthusiasm because they continue to speak to her of a dimension of life that goes beyond the surface and touches mystery.

The first was told her by a woman named Carol who was feeling bereft at the death of her friend Priscilla. The latter had died ten days before and Carol was still gripped by a deep sense of loss. She had traveled to New Hampshire in the fall when the foliage was beautiful, with trees all around filled with varied colors.

As she was driving along the highway back toward Massachusetts, Carol experienced a strange sense of being called or pulled off the main route. In response to this summons, she turned aside and headed down a country road.

At a certain point, she got out of the car and walked through a meadow. Soon she came to a hill, climbed up and over it, and there before her was a pond. On the surface of the pond she saw swimming before her a single white swan.

Sitting down by the shore, she remained there for a long time, thinking about Priscilla, the person she loved. She felt a great closeness to this woman friend and, after a while, became convinced that the beautiful white swan was the spirit of Priscilla.

The second story has a similar theme. My friend Olivia was walking around a reservoir with a woman named Natalie, the daughter of a famous therapist. Natalie had just taken part in a meeting of professionals in her father’s field. That meeting was dedicated to his memory with people paying tribute to him for his pioneering accomplishments.

As they walked along, Natalie and Olivia noticed several woodpeckers in the trees above them. Seeing these birds continue to stay near, Natalie understood that their presence was connected with her father. Later, as they continued the walk, they noticed yet another woodpecker near them. Just then, the two friends burst out laughing.

Speaking about the two stories, Olivia says: “I just think there’s something there. These evidences of the spirit come through nature.”

The two experiences share certain features. Both bring a sense of connection with a loved one who has departed in death. They relieve the pain of loss felt by survivors and make the dead person’s memory sweet.

These experiences also have in common the bringing of the gift of peace. They induce a sense of reassurance, something like what the 14th century mystic Blessed Juliana of Norwich described when she wrote: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”  

In the second story, one special feature jumps out at you: the way the two women laughed. When the lone woodpecker appeared, it struck them as too much for a mere coincidence. Someone was trying to tell them something, they felt. And this was a hilarious, joy-inducing realization.

It would be a mistake to take these events too seriously. They are not revelations, strictly speaking, not God speaking directly to human beings. In order to preserve sanity, one must be wary of jumping to easy conclusions about the world of spirit.

On the other hand, they should not be taken too lightly either. Surveys have shown that large numbers of Americans have had mystical experiences. Events which give a sense of something beyond surface reality are important in the lives of many people and deserve serious attention.

Obviously, these stories can be interpreted in various ways. To find spiritual meaning in them, you almost surely need to be interested in spirituality and to have an orientation toward finding it in the world’s creatures. Without this sensitivity a person would simply see a swan and some woodpeckers without attaching any special significance to them.

To those of us who take a hardheaded view of the world, such human experiences will remain devoid of meaning beyond what appears to one’s eyes. A swan stays a swan, and woodpeckers keep on being birds. But, for spiritual seekers, nature can speak of a world where things point beyond themselves.

Richard Griffin