For over two years MamaGod has consoled and delighted me with an unusual gift. It’s a regular happenstance I first experienced in early 2020, when something caught my eye as I was hiking, and I looked up to see a beautiful red-tail hawk on a branch above the trail. Since then, hawks have appeared to me hundreds of times, and they’ve come to hold significant spiritual meaning, which I’ve blogged about before.

Hawks appear atop the church steeple across from my house, they circle the sky when I’m walking in my neighborhood or at Bethesda Workshops or hiking, they fly only a few dozen feet above me after drawing my attention with their distinctive cry. These “random” appearances lack any discernible pattern other than my heart’s need. The instances are so frequent and so specific to my internal state that I started noting them in my phone in the spring of 2020, like an ever-growing grocery list. The record from 2021 alone – a very pivotal year – spanned 31 single-spaced typed pages when I transferred it into a Word document!

In the language of spiritual formation, the hawks’ appearances are called “consolations.” The term most often describes a process when one moves more toward God, toward deeper connection with God. That is certainly my journey over the last couple of years: a road deeper into myself and into my God. I also embrace the hawks’ visits in the more usual sense of being consoling – of offering comfort or solace or simply affirming presence.

When I need or want to see one (which is daily, often each time I’m outside) and it doesn’t appear, even the absence of a hawk reminds me that MamaGod is always present regardless of whether I see or feel Her. What a sweet irony that even the absence of this gift affirms the presence of its Giver.

The hawks are also messengers from and to people I hold dear, especially my band of cheerleaders and supporters. Each sighting brings a smile of delight, a lifting of my spirit, an assurance that I am not alone and I am deeply loved.

I had long noticed two kinds of hawks in the area: the majestic red-tail with its spottled brown back, light-colored belly and characteristic broad red tail, and a black one with white wingtips which often was part of a group of two or three. Although I found the red-tail hawk more beautiful and meaningful somehow, the black hawks also felt expressive.

In mid-January I was hiking with a dear friend and pointed out the hawks circling in the distance. She hesitated, then said gently, “I’m pretty sure those black ones are really a form of vulture and not a hawk – especially when they’re in a group like that.” She knew about my love of hawks and their sizeable importance in my life, and I could tell she was reluctant to share this correction.

Immediately, I thought she must be wrong, although she is one of the most trustworthy people I know and an avid birder. I had looked up black hawks before and learned that in Europe what we call hawks are termed buzzards, so I assumed that my black hawks were, indeed, hawks. What I missed is that black hawks are generally found in Central America, not in Middle Tennessee. This time, Ms. Google revealed additional information that affirmed these birds are either black vultures or turkey vultures. (It’s hard to tell when they’re soaring hundreds of yards up.) Either way, eeewww!

For weeks, I’ve been trying to make sense of this development. Each time I saw a black “hawk,” I told MamaGod that for over two years these birds were guiding, consoling, affirming hawks to me, and that association was still true in my heart. I chose to see them positively; I spaced off any mental pictures of them devouring roadkill or other carrion. Why let a little truth ruin the joy of their presence? (This attitude alone is evidence of these hawks’ power. Being positive is not a historical strong suit.)

Still, I also asked MamaGod for some redemptive understanding of the black “hawks” and the role they had played with the red-tail variety in my life. It wasn’t lost on me that even in the disappointing revelation about these birds’ true identity, MamaGod was still present.

A few days ago as I contemplated a black “hawk” soaring against the clouds, the reframe hit me: These birds represent the cleanup of the death in my life and in the world. They appeared to take away the darkness, depression, and despair that I had felt for so long. I needed (and still sometimes need) a cleansing of all the losses, hard decisions, and adjustments of the last two years. Lord knows this world and its current examples of aggressive destruction need cleanup.

This reframe is the quintessential example of ampersand living – of both-and. I (and indeed, all of us) need affirmations of presence and possibilities, AND I need something to devour the darkness of pain and negative preoccupations. How perfect!

Now each time I see a black “hawk,” I thank MamaGod for also being present in the deaths of life – for removing the detritus, the despair, the discouragement that can blot some days.

I went for a walk before I started typing out this reframe of the hawks, and sure enough, a black “hawk” was circling. I smiled at it and was grateful to understand its role. Then just now, as I was finishing the piece, I glanced out the window and – I kid you not! – a red-tail hawk was skimming the treetops.

Both-and, indeed!

Marnie C. Ferree