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Preaches with Eagles

by Sue Holloway

EarthLight Magazine #43, Fall 2001

A slight woman with calm brown eyes stands at the pulpit. She turns to an unusual face sharing the sacred space; a face fierce and strong, once remote to human civilization. Sky Walker, a golden eagle, rests on her left arm, as the Reverend Patricia Davidson brings to life the ancient prayer of the psalmist.

"Hide me in the shadow of Your wings." -Psalms 17:8

Applying the bird's natural history to Scripture, this Episcopal priest, who is also a handler of eagles, evokes ancient memory of a majestic creature from isolated landscapes inhabited by the wandering tribes of Israel. In Biblical days, she notes, the desert eagle's shadow served as "a metaphor for God's protection."

The shadows cast upon the land with the eagle's seven-foot wingspan offered temporary, lifesaving respite from the blistering desert heat. It was an awesome presence as well. Diving upon prey, this eagle could appear from "out of the blue" at an unflinching 150 miles per hour.

The confluence of priest and eagle mark a special celebration. Rogation Sunday is a traditional occasion for the Church to "acknowledge God's sovereignty in the natural order and...ask for His blessing on all Creation."

The word rogation comes from a Latin origin, rogare, to ask. From this derives rogar, a Spanish word meaning to pray, to entreat. The ministry of this Church has extended the meaning from petitions for bountiful harvest, asked at the time of crop planting. Acknowledging "... God's hand throughout the natural environment," it emphasizes human responsibility to be good stewards.

In this context, natural environment and God's creation are considered as synonymous.

To bring a living golden eagle for this blessing has particular resonance. This bird is a central icon to the Christian church, as the symbol of St. John, the apostle.

In Grace Episcopal Church, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where the Rev. Davidson has come as a guest speaker, a triptich arch of stained glass behind the altar contains the image of golden eagle. It represents St. John's celestial flights of inspirational words; words of love as a way to live our worship.

Another eagle icon, sculpted to perch on an orb of gold leaf, supports the lectern upon which the Holy Bible is placed for Scripture readings. Here, the eagle is a metaphor of the ability to soar to great heights, reaching from beyond human sight, to the spiritual realm. Emissary of the divine, this magnificent raptor embodies grace and power.

Yet golden eagles, while revered symbolically, have not fared well in contemporary human society. In the sixties alone, twenty thousand of these birds were shot; many, by ranchers in the Western United States. They believed that eagles threatened their sheep. This attitude toward golden eagles contrasts radically with the beliefs of Biblical times. Flocks of sheep were central to well-being in ancient cultures of the Middle East, yet the golden eagle was revered.

The presence of Sky Walker in
church offers an intimate view of
the glory of this creature. This avian with proud bearing and a golden cap is magnificent, but also vulnerable.

"He's not able to fly, and that's why he is with us," Rev. Davidson sadly informs people. This eagle is part of the permanent "faculty" at Wind Over Wings, a Connecticut-based wildlife center. Sky Walker became non-releasable eight years ago, due to the loss of one wing. He was illegally shot.

Today, this bird acts as emissary for his species and all others. He serves as a reminder that each life "...makes a difference to God...who made each one, and to whom each one is precious." As woman and bird face each other momentarily with rapt expression, they become a living language of the possibility of reconciliation between humans and the rest of the natural world.

When Eagle is wounded, the original circumstance of Eagle providing respite with her wings is reversed. When Eagle is wounded, the strength of creation is diminished. Then something else must happen to begin to "right" the world. In this case, it is a seventy-something woman with an intelligent message and soothing voice, who provides the strength of her arm as a perch for this substantial bird.

Priest-with-Eagle turns the order of the world upside down, creating "a living parable." The unusual partnership illustrates the immanence of God's kingdom. "It's now; has already started..."

Such a transformation, from enemies to friends, involves risk. But, relying on faith, love, devotion, and trust, daring partnerships like Sky Walker and Pat Davidson bring grace.

"An eagle can be intimidating," acknowledges Hope Douglas, founder/director of Wind Over Wings. This powerful bird has the capacity, even with only one wing, to leap and cause great harm with his strong talons. And humans, as Sky knows, can harm eagles. Yet the two have somehow agreed, "we're not going to hurt each other."

The implication is compelling. "If Sky Walker and I, who are so different...can learn to trust each other, then we can all learn to trust people who are different from us, and who we think are our enemies."

How did a priest become involved in training raptors? Her strong sense of stewardship developed from a Long Island childhood deeply involved with animals: Dogs, injured animals found by neighbors, alligator, frogs, boxes of little mice, chameleons. She was the person who took home "all the poor creatures in the science room" at the end of the school year.

As a young child, Patricia also spent a lot of time in solitude. Lying in the grass, she watched bugs move purposely about. She viewed pebbles moving with the tides and witnessed ants communicating in passing, noting the "marvelous miracles." A sense of kinship with all life as a child led her to " tremendous awe and wonder at the Creator..." When she saw a creature hurt, she felt "hurt for God... because this is a creature God loved and made."

Her current devotion to Sky
Walker involved two years of
cultivating trust. As trainers of eagles for educational purposes, Douglas and Davidson believe in using methods which allow the animal to become involved in its own natural time frame. Unlike conventional methods of falconry, Wind Over Wings staff never withhold food. The bird is given the higher position, the power and dominance to make its own choices.

For Rev. Davidson, working with Sky Walker is spiritual work. Arriving each morning at 7:30 a.m., she joined Douglas in Sky's habitat for an hour. This became a form of matin, a meditation with the bird, bringing in faith, love, and devotion, to cultivate trust.

The two women sat near him, talked with him, read out loud. Eventually, Rev. Davidson could approach the post and he didn't fly away. Months after that, she could touch him on the chest with a feather. It took weeks more to be able to touch his wing.

Then, finally, she could touch his feet.

Accustoming Sky Walker to a glove was another difficult process. It frightened him, so they left it in his habitat, on a rock for him to investigate. Finally, he allowed Douglas to thread the jesse through the anklets. "What we have now is a bird that is there because he has learned to trust. He's not been rewarded with food for doing this; not tricked into it; not trained to do it; not forced into submission."

This, too, is a parable. Unlike the story of Moses, who continued to strike the rocks, demanding the gift of nourishment, these women choose to ask. Rev. Davidson reports, "He has developed enough trust in me, and I in him, so that we can walk around together." Honoring the needs and wishes of the bird were essential elements in developing mutual respect.

Celebrating the Creation with this golden eagle, the Rev. Davidson brings a promising message. "If we can learn to trust one person who is different from us, we can trust a whole nation or an entire ethnic group." This new relationship inspires a stewardship for creation which stems, not from obligation, but the wings of the heart.

Sue Holloway, Ph.D., is author of Swan in the Grail (GaiaQuest, 1999, nonfiction). She has been a voluntary rescuer of wildlife since 1994.

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