We arrived at Christmas Eve service late. The seats we found were in the back of the large church under an overhang, and because the service was so full, the five of us shared four chairs. The man directly in front of me was huge, so I spent the hour shifting constantly to see around him.
I usually love this service. Singing carols from my childhood on Christmas Eve, sitting with family, I feel loved and connected to the divine energy that I've called God most of my life. It's how we've started our Christmas together for the last several years and I find myself looking forward to that time as much as the food and the gifts and the games we play.
I have become an Easter and Christmas church-goer. I go with my brothers to their churches. One church, the Easter church, is friendly and warm and the music is uplifting and glorious. The pastor tells stories that make me laugh and cry, often at the same time. And while I don't agree with all that's said, I feel love in that congregation, from the front and all around.
The other church, the Christmas church, is more formal and I feel surrounded by strangers who are also surrounded by strangers. Usually I don't mind because it's about the singing and the candles and my family.
This year things did not feel the same, and it was only partly because of the physical discomfort. We didn't get to sing as much. I was working against claustrophobia. And the sermon was long and full of threats of hell and a pedantic teaching bent on proving the reality of Mary's virginity. Three times the pastor said, "and in closing" before actually ending. There was no sense of hope or revealing of light. There was no offering of love. There were no stories.
When the pastor ran out of words and we lit the traditional candles, I felt a divine presence for the first time that evening. My youngest brother, our host, received a flame from the usher. His wife lit her candle from his. My husband lit his from hers. I lit my candle from my husband's. My middle brother lit his candle from mine, and then passed the flame on. By that time the church was full of stars, each one representing the hopes, dreams, and divinity of each person in the room. We sang together, carols as familiar and comforting as the family surrounding me. At the end everyone lifted their candles up, the stars ascending to a heaven that was this congregation of people acting in one accord for those few moments. That time was far too short for me. I wanted to stand in the twinkling light of those candles, and the congregation of common focus, for so much longer.
On the way home, my sister-in-law asked if we'd heard of the Bothell crows. She talked about a phenomenon of crows gathering each evening at the University of Washington campus in Bothell where there is a mitigation wetlands. She told us thousands of crows come in from the surrounding countryside. It seemed a worthwhile thing to see.
The next afternoon on the early edge of dusk, while SIL put the finishing touches on our Christmas dinner, five of us headed for town. Youngest brother drove, middle brother in the front seat with him. I sat in the back, in the middle, between husband and niece's fiance. Right away we saw trees full of crows, hundreds of them maybe. When we got to downtown Bothell, there was an apartment building covered in crows, all cawing and calling to each other. We could see more arriving from the distance, and as we watched and listened, we talked about the movie, The Birds. We wondered how it might be to live in that place and to be in the midst of that invasion every evening.
I thought that was it. Youngest brother said there were usually more than we were seeing, but I thought we were going back. I'd forgotten how stubborn my little brother is, and we continued to drive around. And around. And around. For long stretches we saw no crows at all. Or we saw clumps of them in the sky far away.
Just as it was on the edge of full dark, we pulled into the cemetery. The scene was movie perfect: The air was full of black shadows shifting here and there, like giant leaves being blown by a giant wind. Giant leaves that settled back into the waiting skeletal arms of winter trees. The ground was covered with crows, as were the headstones. The sound of those multitudes of crows was both chilling and awe-inspiring at the same time.
As we pulled away from the cemetery we could see crows in the sky arriving from every direction. We continued to drive around while the sky around us thickened with crows. We were on campus, heading up a hill, crows swirling and wheeling and calling all around us. Youngest brother pulled into a lot at my request. We marveled at a roof covered in crows arranged so symmetrically that it looked like each crow was honoring the personal space of each of his neighbors.
I got out of the car. For a short time I was alone outside at late dusk on Christmas night with hundreds of thousands of crows for company. The few sitting in the bushes closest to where we parked shifted to more distant branches. Otherwise there was no change. My presence had no impact. I wasn't afraid, or even nervous. Apparently, neither were the crows. Alert for danger, but sensing none. Only feeling a huge sense of wonder at the privilege of standing in the midst of this amazing congregation of corvids.
Eventually the guys joined me, one at a time, and I was glad for the human company. Marvel and wonder are much magnified when you have someone to share them with. I didn't want to leave, but dinner waited at home, and pie and dominoes.
A little research revealed that this phenomenon, while larger than many, is not unusual. Crows gather at roosting time in part for the protection of each others' company. They sit together in trees, in a hierarchical arrangement. Anything disturbing the branches alerts everyone in the tree. Crows are smart. They have a culture. They use tools. They take care of each other. They play. So their choosing the safety of congregation seems to be more than just instinct.
As we drove home from the holiday, I thought about the two congregations: the church and the crows. I am able to experience wonder in both, but I definitely felt more alive and connected and open in the midst of the crows. I wanted to go back and spend more time with them - want to go back and watch them depart at dawn.
Traditional church feels heavy, oppressive, full of rules impossible to follow and contradictions so hard to reconcile. I've spent a lifetime trying to find the right church, trying to find a congregation to fit in with, trying to find a sweet spot of spirituality that feels like home. But when I pay attention to when I feel most connected to the divine energy that is love and grace, it isn't in church.
Walt and I went to yoga on New Year's Day. This was a special class done to music: Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. In a regular class there are anywhere from 8 to 20 students, depending on the day. There were nearly 60 people in the room on this day. We were set up with no more than an inch or two between mats. Many had never done yoga before, and many people were there with their kids. Several times during class giggles were heard from the back of the room. Because we were so crammed in, there was a lot of accidental bumping into each other which resulted in smiles and reassuring pats.
Several times during the class, when we were all in a posture together, regardless of how deep, it seemed we all breathed the same breath at the same time. As with my brothers' churches, I don't know many of the people who practiced in that class on New Year's Day. It didn't seem to matter. We breathed together, moved together, laughed together. While not religious or even officially spiritual, that gathering was a congregation that felt like home to me.
I keep thinking I need to find a church. That need is a leftover one from my childhood, my years in the cult, and pressure from my brothers. Maybe this is the year that I find church in whatever congregation of living things that evokes wonder and love. Maybe it is time to accept my own soul's longings as real and enough. Maybe it's time to listen to the rustle of wings and breathings of hearts that tell me without doubt I'm not alone.
Image from www.cascadia.edu