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Our family has a bit of a reputation for pursuing the unusual. But in the 30 years of often off-beat activities and interests, I think we've reached the pinnacle mix of both odd and amazing we're ever likely to reach. In the last three weeks, after more than a few years of talk and over three years of active preparation, our now 17-year-old son has acquired both his falconry apprentice license--and his immature red tail hawk.
I have to say that while we've enthusiastically supported Austin in each step along the way, driving home with my husband, mother, three kids, and a hawk in the back of my minivan felt weird even to me. The hawk himself, however, is anything but weird. He is a magnificently beautiful creature to watch and care for. Even my mom, who isn't all that much of an animal fan, is captivated by the bird. And the art and science of falconry--the ancient tradition of hunting with trained birds of prey practiced for over 4,000 years--is truly fascinating.
Yes, falconry is legal and regulated. It takes a tremendous level of commitment and considerable time and expense to complete the requirements and collect the necessary equipment to obtain approval. And no, falconry is not detrimental or cruel to the bird in any way. Between 80 and 90 percent of juvenile red tail hawks die each year. Housing and feeding an immature bird when he is most vulnerable, and eventually releasing him into the breeding population, is a conservation effort that doesn't just benefit the hawk. It keeps the rodent population under control too. But honestly, the whole thing is just cooler than cool. It's also a great source of reflection for almost every aspect of the spiritual life.
Here's what I mean. First, you can't do falconry alone. Every apprentice needs a sponsor, and you can only find one when you discover the community. Knitting circles, bowling leagues, book clubs: communities form around every shared interest imaginable. Falconry is no exception. When you reach out to one falconer, you are likely to discover there are more than you thought. You also discover that everything you need to learn can't be read in a book; it has to be handed on personally. To watch Austin's relationship with his sponsor, a Master Falconer who has been handling birds for years, is to see an image of what it looks like to pass on what you've received. Everything about it smacks of catechesis and discipleship in community.
Second, one does not merely walk into a pet store and buy a hawk. You have to trap one, which means you have to find one--and it can't be just any bird. The hawk has to be immature and caught sometime during the trapping season which runs from late summer until January. That might seem simple enough, until you realize that many young birds die not long after they are pushed from their parents' nest in late August and that the migration south begins in September. Andrew and I went trapping with our son and his sponsor for several days and saw nothing but older, ineligible red tails. To me, this challenge reflects the challenges we face in evangelization. To catch what you're looking for you have to go to where it is. That is, you have to know where you are likely to find it. The funny thing is, of course, that hawks live everywhere around us, just like the people who may be open to faith in Jesus Christ.
Third, a hawk in the hand, (or more accurately, on the glove), is worth 10 perched on high-tension power lines. To trap successfully, the bird has to be hungry--and you've got to have the right bait. A bird of prey won't come diving down for a caesar salad or a scrap of leftover salami sandwich. Hawks are attracted to one thing: live bait. No actual small rodents are harmed in the process. But without them, trapping a red tail would not be possible. Similarly, we need to reach out to hungry souls with the love of Christ. And, we need to show them the food that will attract them to Jesus, not just scraps or leftovers from our tables.
Lastly, once caught, a hawk is trained using a combination of psychology and biology. His world is at first made very small, then slowly extended with the falconer always part of it. Austin's bird spent the first few days in our house kept in a large "giant hood" made for that purpose. He was then moved into the shed Austin built for him over the summer. A couple of days ago, Austin did his homework in the kitchen with the bird perched on his glove. In a few weeks, his sponsor will show him how to begin flying the hawk on leash as long as a football field. Eventually, he'll be let completely loose return at the sound of a whistle to Austin's glove for food. For me, this process is not unlike what I've experienced as growing in faith and discipleship. I've had get used to being handled by God, learn to trust him, and come to know that I can rely on him for the food and shelter that preserve my life.
All falconers understand that a hawk can be trained, but never tamed. He will always be free to simply fly away. Working together, Austin and his hawk will hunt small game. The hawk will get his portion, and I'll probably be looking at online recipes for rabbit stew. And, in season or two, Austin will prepare him for release, and the process of trapping and training will begin all over again. Following Jesus doesn't make us robots. Our free will never disappears. We remain free to follow and cooperate with grace, or to fly away.
God has been many things to me over the years: a father, teacher, healer, savior, and master. Francis Thompson experienced God as an unrelenting lover, the "hound of heaven." Now, I've begun to see God as the Divine Falconer, one who has trapped me for something more, keeps me, and is training me to hunt with him and for him.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe is a wife and mother of eight children, and a disciple of the spirituality of St. Francis de Sales. She is an inspirational author, speaker, musician and serves as an Associate Children's Editor at Pauline Books and Media.