Look at that. A little allegory of the soul.
~ Dr. E.M. Ashford
“It’s a bird emergency! It’s a bird emergency!”
The kids outside the parish center were frantic. I was dropping off my own children for an activity, and those already there had spotted some birds trapped in a window on the second floor.
“There’s no way to get them out,” someone lamented. “And there’s already bird skeletons up there!”
Sure enough, in addition to the agitated living birds, a few tiny bird skeletons were also visible in the enclosed window sill – obvious evidence that this was a recurring problem.
The parish center’s windows are original to the building, but the storm windows were added much later, and they aren’t exactly a tight fit. That second-story window is a case in point: There was a gap between the two lower sashes, large enough to allow small birds to clamber in, but not quite big enough for them to spread their wings and escape.
I urged the kids to settle down, and I told them I’d go up and take a look. It seemed to me that it would be pretty easy to pull down the upper sash, and then reach over to raise the outside storm window in order to set the birds free. Needless to say, like so many of my “seems-pretty-easy” plans, this one hit a snag.
It seemed like time, humidity, and dirt had all ganged up to ensure the immobility of that upper part of the window. It was stuck solid, but with the kids all clamoring below, I felt like I had to do something. “Maybe if I just tapped a bit around the jamb,” I thought to myself. “It might loosen it up enough to open.” Tap, tap, tap….
The aging glass pane broke out suddenly, and multiple fragments fell to the bushes below. Fortunately, the children were positioned well away from the side of the building in order to better observe the rescue, so no one was hurt or even endangered. Nevertheless, it was a big surprise, and we all froze for a moment.
The chirping birds still imprisoned between the lower panes woke me up, and then I realized the accident afforded me an opportunity. I reached through the broken glass, pulled up on the storm window, and the birds fluttered away. Cheers erupted below, and, for a moment, I was a hero – a bird hero!
Funny thing, though, I hadn’t set out to be a bird hero, but rather to calm the frazzled nerves of an assembly of bird enthusiasts. Plus, my mission was only accomplished accidentally, and if the pane hadn’t broken, I’m not sure what I would’ve done.
The rescue was accomplished, nonetheless, and the children, consciences at peace and satisfied with the dramatic dénouement, returned to their activity. I cleaned out the rest of the broken pane as best I could, stuffed a rolled up mat in the open gap, and headed downstairs to pick up all the glass fragments from the shrubs. It will come as no surprise that I cut myself in the process.
Later, driving home with my family, the whole episode was thoroughly reviewed. “That was awesome,” Cecilia exclaimed. “All the kids think you’re a super-dad!” The praise was flattering, but I demurred, reminding them that the window broke by accident. “It’s funny, though,” remarked Joan, “Will predicted it in a way.” Young William, a passionate bird fan, apparently had insisted that “releasing the birds is the most important thing,” even if it meant breaking a window.
And, it turned out, Will was right! “Too bad we didn’t capture it all on video,” I suggested, revealing my banal tendencies. “We’d have a viral YouTube hit on our hands.”
“I was thinking we could turn it into a play,” observed Joan, more astutely. “It was like an allegory, don’t you think?”
Why, yes, I guess she’s right. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had a similar idea in his treatment of St. Francis’ sermon to the birds:
Up soared the lark into the air,
A shaft of song, a wingéd prayer,
As if a soul released from pain
Were flying back to heaven again.
Bird=soul; transparent enclosure=sin; struggling with stuck window sash=our futile human efforts.
And the shattering glass? A sign of God, of course, unexpected and unprecedented, mowing down whatever gets in the way of our salvation – petty habits, selfishness, pride most of all. He smashes and pulverizes, if it’s required. The gates of hell will not prevail!
Yet we complain: Broken glass is dangerous – we get cut, we bleed, we risk infection, severe hemorrhage, death! Isn’t there another way?
No! Smash the enclosure! Free the captives! Let them all flutter away!
It’s like Will said: Releasing the birds is the most important thing. Even if it means breaking a window.