Signs and synchronicities are commonly associated with non-affiliated (especially New Age-ish) spirituality.
Folks can’t get enough of that sh*t.
As an English major and Cradle Catholic, I’ve long been aware of the power that symbols and powerful parallels hold over my imagination. A cardinal landing on the window sill can change my whole day. Even so, I’m also somewhat of a skeptic.
Are such signs really what they seem—at least sometimes?
It’s a question I’ve grappled with over the past year.
On a dark evening in early 2016, I was taking my creaky pit bull, Scooter, for her regular walk through my tree-lined Louisiana neighborhood. I was preoccupied. My corporate job of nearly 20 years no longer satisfied me. Although I loved my team and colleagues, my work as a business development director for an emerging national tech firm did not feel compelling.
Truth is, I was infatuated with another love.
I had first heard this siren-call decades earlier, in my teens. It feels vulnerable to admit, but, early on, I had wanted to be a priest—like, I really wanted it. Other adolescent boys fantasized about making the varsity team or making it with their best friend’s older sister. Instead, I would lie awake at night, captivated with the idea of loving people through life’s big milestones, sitting with them in their pain and building a community of connection and hope that encompassed both the seen and unseen.
However, I had relinquished that dream along with my Catholic faith after college, when my relentless questions outran the Church’s answers. An odd assortment of teaching jobs and an abandoned literature dissertation had led me finally to my current firm, where I matured into a successful corporate executive.
Still, the old desire continued to dog me, like a dormant virus or a phantom limb.
I found myself wanting to serve in the same ways I had longed for earlier—healing people’s wounds, granting them absolution for past failures, baptizing them into new life. The new shape that this old dream took on was as a convergence of life coach, counselor, teacher and writer. However, I just couldn’t muster the courage to trade the safety of my six-figure income for the uncertainty of making it on my own. So, I settled into an outwardly comfortable life of gnawing inner desperation.
But then, sh*t started getting real.
Beginning in September 2013, death marked my doorpost and moved in.
In the span of two short and endless years, I lost my father, a dear friend (a relative newlywed with an impossibly beautiful toddler), my mother, my father-in-law and a long-time colleague whose office was right next to mine. I would barely get my bearings from one loss before I was reeling from the next.
Would it ever end? Was this my new normal?
As I walked Scooter that night with the heaviness of all those deaths weighing on me, I thought of Steve Jobs’ searing admonition from his 2005 Stanford commencement address:
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
~ Steve Jobs
I felt the edge of his words keenly as I turned them over in my mind.
And then it happened.
From the tree directly in front of me, the silence was pierced by the loud, extended shriek of a barred owl. It’s an otherworldly sound, like a crazed witch’s cackle. And I knew that it was calling my name. Urgently.
If you’ve ever read the beautiful novel I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, you’ll understand the significance. It’s a poignant story of a young, terminally-ill priest living among the indigenous Kwakiutl peoples of British Columbia. Within the native tradition as related in the novel, hearing the owl call your name is a harbinger of death.
That book had made an indelible imprint on my young imagination when I first read it, and now I took the owl’s message immediately to heart. I was getting older. Death was all around me. Death could knock for me at any moment. And I was already dying inside as the work that I longed to do rotted on the vine, the harvest held hostage to my fear.
The owl’s call to action was the tipping point.
In the days following, an agonizing pressure began building in my chest. I paid off my mortgage and remaining debt. I read up on health plan benefits. I mulled exit strategies. And then, through a remarkable chain of events, the right moment unmistakably presented itself. I turned in my resignation and, two months later, I walked out of the building for the last time.
I now work as a coach and counselor for those who feel lost in life and need support to get their bearings, move past old hurts and step into the lives they want. Finally, at age 54, I’m doing the sacred work that I’ve felt drawn to ever since I was a restless teenager.
Was the owl a messenger?
The truth is, I’ve heard owls in my neighborhood many times, though they were never speaking directly to me like this one was. I didn’t really grapple with the question of whether the sign was real. In this instance, I never for a second doubted it.
A couple of months after I made the big move, my counseling community was rocked by the untimely death of a sweet associate, due to sudden complications from an ectopic pregnancy. A beaming, ample blonde with kind and mischievous eyes, she was a generous and magical soul who took care of others. And she was one who had been willing to risk it all: she had left an unhappy marriage and was deliriously finding her way with her soulmate—the father of the new life within her—when she was suddenly summoned away from us. Our private Facebook group reverberated with shock and tearful tributes.
Two nights after she died, there was a full moon. I was working at my desk and thinking about my friend when I recalled that it was happening. Something drew me to the front door. I made an intention to walk outside and greet the moon in her honor. And I had a sneaking suspicion that there just might be a gift for me there.
I stepped out onto the small porch. Sure enough, in the sky directly in front of me was the moon in all of its full glory. And there was something else—something that I had not seen in 18 years of living in that house. Just below the moon, perched on the power line that runs along the road in front of my home, was the silhouette of a large barred owl, also facing the moon.
I held my breath. But, this time, it did not call my name. There was no need to. Silently, we watched the moon together.
I thought that this story ended here, but I was wrong.
I finished the initial draft of this account in mid-December. The next week, at our large family Christmas feast, I was seated next to an engaging and accomplished woman—a distant cousin-in-law who I had just met. Our wide-ranging and wine-fueled conversation meandered eventually to reflections about the unseen hand that seems to guide our lives in mysterious synchronicity.
As an example, she relayed the story of her father’s death.
The day before he died, his home caregivers noticed something unusual: several owls—usually hidden during daylight hours—were sitting in the tree behind the house in plain view all day. Later, in the middle of the night, she and her mom left her dad’s bedside to step out for some air. They were struck by the sight of a huge owl perched low in the tree over the patio. It turned and hooted at them. She knew at that moment that her father would be passing that same day, and he did.
Since that time, owls have appeared repeatedly at auspicious moments connected to her father.
Mind you, I had not as yet told her one word of my own connection to owls. When she finished, I paused, looked at her pointedly, and asked, “So—regarding that synchronicity theory—are you ready for some more evidence?”
In this case, I don’t need any more evidence. To return to the question I raised at the beginning—and with apologies to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks—I believe the owls are precisely what they seem.
Author: Christopher M. Kisling
Editor: Ashleigh Hitchcock