They swoop down, around, in and out. They seem to come from nowhere, though I know, rationally, that they live in our barn. They are, after all, barn swallows.
I have never grown tired of seeing swallows performing their acrobatics. I first saw them in my younger years, growing up at a Christian summer camp. I would mow for hours at the camp as part of my summer work, and at the right time of day, at the exact moment the heat seemed to let up ever-so-slightly and the evening seemed to start, the tree swallows would appear, plunging through the air in impossible dives, rushing and zooming to get the bugs that were disturbed by my mowing.
I’m not sure they noticed me, all those years ago, zipping from one end of the field to the other on a red Yazoo mower, brown from a summer in the sun. They noticed the bugs, though. And I noticed them.
The barn swallows appear at the same brink of evening, with the same flourish and pizzaz I noticed in their cousins. It’s as though they appear from thin air, though there are days that I remember this feeling and I look for them in the dark coolness of the barn or on the electrical wires stretching across our lawn from the barn. Sometimes I see them. Sometimes I don’t. I think they’re there either way.
It’s that way with much in my spiritual life too. Whether I feel God’s presence, He is always beside me. I’m often surprised, astonished, and perplexed to feel the touch of His hand in what I consider the most mundane details of my life. Why does He care whether I get my writing time or not? How, exactly, does my highly demanding child suddenly become self-entertaining, just when I need her to? Who do I think inspired that friend or family member to reach out to me just as I was about to lose the last shred of my sanity?
I feel God’s touch a lot through His mother, Mary. Oh, you can roll your eyes (as I roll mine) and call me crazy. I wonder about that myself much of the time. But it just seems like too many coincidences appearing at just the right moment, too many small things lining up to form a cohesive whole, too many details that just work out in ways that I couldn’t have planned if I had tried.
It’s a lot like how the barn swallows appear, suddenly and without any announcement. They chirp their way through the bugs in my lawn, especially when we’re mowing, but they don’t sound a trumpet to let us know they’re coming. They perform their breathtaking aerial stunts without pausing for admiration, continuing along to the neighboring fields. They finish their work through dusk and go back to where they were, presumably the barn.
Mary has a habit of doing that in her various appearances too. Looking back, I’m sure people wonder to themselves if this or that had anything to do with Mary’s upcoming appearance. At the time, though, it probably just seemed like a detail that wasn’t such a big deal.
Did Mary Beirne look back over the events of August 21, 1879, in her little town of Knock, Ireland, and wonder if there had been signs of what was going to happen that evening?
I imagine her brother, Dominick, after dinner, asking her if she minded running over to the church to lock it up for the evening. Miss Beirne might have traded him dinner dish duty for church lock-up duty. Mary McLoughlin, who was at their home, went with her. They probably enjoyed a walk in the cool summer air. What would they have discussed?
Would Miss McLoughlin, the priest’s housekeeper, have mentioned the “wonderful number of strange figures” she had glimpsed passing the church earlier in the evening? She thought that the priest had acquired them recently, so hadn’t mentioned it on her other visits of the evening.
It would have taken them a few minutes to get to the church, but once there, locking up the church became secondary to the vision before them.
There stood the Virgin Mary, standing a few feet above the ground in a white cloak that was fastened at her neck. She wore a crown and was deep in prayer, eyes raised to heaven and hands lifted to her shoulders with palms inclined slightly. Saint Joseph was on Mary’s right, also wearing white robes, his head bowed forward toward the Virgin in respect.
On Mary’s left stood Saint John the Evangelist, clad in long robes with a bishop’s mitre on his head. He was turned partly away from Mary and Joseph, holding a book in his left hand and acting as though he were preaching.
There was an altar to Saint John’s left, with a lamb on it and a cross on the altar behind the lamb. Angels surrounded the altar.
It didn’t take long for the word to spread throughout the village of Knock. Miss Beirne went home — probably at a running pace that would have set records — to get her brother. She sent her niece, age eight, to bring her mother, Mrs. Margaret Beirne.
Can’t you just hear the exclamations? Of course Mrs. Beirne had to alert some neighbors, who in turn had to go for themselves right after they told their neighbors, or the people who were visiting for dinner, or the folks down the road.
Thirteen witnesses reported the details of the apparition, which lasted three hours through pouring rain. They stood there, praying the rosary, as united as any group ranging from ages five to 75 ever can be. When the apparition began, between 7 and 8 that evening, there was plenty late evening summer light. As it got later and darker, everyone could still see the figures distinctly. The apparition did not flicker or move in any way. The ground around the apparition stayed dry during the apparition, despite the downpour, and the figures likewise remained dry.
Perhaps, some say, the purpose of this apparition was to point us toward the humility of Saint Joseph, the prayer of the Virgin Mary, the teachings in Scripture represented by Saint John, and the sacrifice of the Mass symbolized by the lamb on the altar. But, for me, the lesson from Our Lady of Knock is found in the other title associated with this apparition, Our Lady of Silence.
In a land famous for poets and bards and blarney, what could have been more appropriate than the imagery and the silence of the Knock apparition? The picture is worth so much more than the thousand words we allow.
Mary didn’t need to say anything at Knock. She didn’t need to disrupt people’s thoughts with her words or even her Son’s words. From what they saw, from the conversion they must have felt that night in the pouring rain, they didn’t need words.
Though I am a woman of words, filling pages with thoughts and notes, processing the world around me through a keyboard, and communicating with language, I appreciate this silence. In it, Mary reaches across the centuries to me, to the pain that’s been shoved off to the side, to the burden I carry inside.
In the silence, Mary does something as amazing as the barn swallows’ gymnastics: she guides me to my Father’s arms. I don’t need to hear about how great it will be once I’m there; I don’t need assurances that He will make everything better. I know He’ll take care of me, but I’m not always so great at believing it.
In the silence of Mary as Our Lady of Knock, though, I feel myself nudged, slightly and yet significantly, closer to where I’m supposed to be. It’s there, in her open arms, in the shadow of her Son on the altar, that I realize that I am capable of more, because of Him. It’s then, in the moment of her embrace, that I perceive that the more could include things I can’t fathom just yet.
Just like the swallows in my yard, Mary never fails to impress me with her abilities. She’s there, in company I can’t ever hope to equal, and yet she crouches down to be eye level with me, inviting me to join her. How can I say no?
Our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland, you have inspired countless pilgrims to pray with confidence to your divine Son. Help me to remember that we are all pilgrims on the road to heaven. Fill me with love and concern for my brothers and sisters in Christ, especially those who live with me. Amen.