It was Father Robert Griffin, CSC, ’49 who first told me the story. He was a rector here, a popular campus figure and a writer. We would go to lunch regularly and talk about writing and literature, faith and doubt and God. He told me the tale of the sparrow flying through the grand banquet hall. I’ve pictured that fleeting sparrow a lot in the years since.
The story originates with Bede, an Anglo-Saxon thinker, theologian, historian and natural scientist whose best-known work was completed in 731. It’s called the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Or, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
St. Bede writes of an adviser to Edwin, ruler of Northumbria, telling the king, “The present life of man” is like “the swift flight of a sparrow through the room wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your commanders and ministers, and a good fire in the midst, whilst the storms of rain and snow prevail abroad; the sparrow, I say, flying in at one door, and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry storm; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, into the dark winter from which he had emerged. So this life of man appears for a short space, but of what went before, or what is to follow, we are utterly ignorant.”
Not much has changed in our understanding of “the present life of man” in the 13 centuries since the Venerable Bede described the human condition as a rapid passage between two unknowns. We know little of where we come from; we know even less about where we go when we depart this realm. We are all just passing through.
Along the way, we wonder what it’s all about, what’s it all for. We formulate answers that we gather from personal experience, the geography of birth, what we’re told or what we read, what our family believes, what science says about the universe and life on earth, what the Church teaches, what seems plausible and what we’re counting on — often despite evidence to the contrary.
The answers we adopt are theories, really — guesses, unprovable hypotheses, hopeful narratives, speculation. The best-case scenario, Griff advised when recounting Bede’s lesson to the king, is that faith and truth become one, as promised by one who spoke with uncommon authority. For in the Venerable Bede’s tale, King Edwin’s lieutenant concludes his sparrow metaphor by recommending the kingdom’s conversion to Christianity as the answer to the unknown world beyond those banquet hall doors. “If, therefore, this new doctrine contains something more certain,” he suggests, “it seems justly to deserve to be followed.”
En route, we pilgrims stop to look around, to see where we’re at, where we’ve been, what lies ahead. We mark the journey with signposts and milestones; we look for patterns and meanings. We listen to callings, deliver our gifts, sing our songs, see what’s out there, do our part, help each other along. We do what we can to give it purpose, to move closer to God, to enjoy the gift of living, the bounty of life itself. The banquet hall. I really love this life on earth. “It’s a trip,” as we used to say. And I’m thinking I’ll really miss it when my ride through here is done.