The following was written by Weaver Stevens in 1991; it was read at his Memorial Service on January 9, 2010.
Outside the little village near the French/Swiss border, probably about 50 miles west of what is now the city of Bern, a holy man, six or seven centuries ago, sat in silence. The villagers gave him food, which he nibbled, and an occasional coat of fur. He slept only a few hours a night in a small nearby hut. No one attempted to address him, and much of the time his eyes were closed to the outer world. One day a tug came on his tattered sleeve. A boy of about nine or ten was standing there. The holy man had enormous lustrous eyes when they were opened. They looked kindly on the boy.
"What are you doing?" the boy asked.
There was a very long pause, as if the holy man had forgotten how to use the voice that had not been heard for so many years. "I'm listening," he said in a rustic sort of way.
"To what?" asked the boy.
"To God singing. It is very beautiful."
"I don't hear it."
"You have to be very silent for a very long time."
There was another very long pause, as if the holy man was searching for a way to answer. "Silence is like a long, long tunnel inside your heart. You start at the beginning and can only move very, very slowly. Over many years, you go down and down. One day you begin to hear the music in the distance. It is very faint, but it's the most beautiful thing you've ever known. Then more years go by as you get closer and closer. The music begins to fill you, like wine fills a cup. Then, one day, you fall into the music. And you become the music. And there is nothing else."
As the boy looked into the wondrous eyes, he felt for a moment a sense of profound enchantment, as if the wing of an unseen angel had brushed his face. Yet he held his ground.
"Why," smiled the holy man, "does the sun shine, or the rain make you wet, or the bear sleep in winter, or the woman scream when she gives birth, or the child weep when the mother dies?"
"Just because," said the boy, falling back on the universal reply of children when faced with abstract questions.
There was a long silence during which the holy man closed his eyes again. When he opened them, the boy was still stubbornly present, squatting in the dirt. The beautiful eyes looked upon him as the rusty voice continued.
"You see, I think God sings to himself. I think his voice sails out like a great eagle soars in the sky, and then it circles back to himself, just as the eagle comes back to its nest. All this whole universe floats in the circle of God's song. And just as some trees can live only if their roots tap into underground water, this universe of ours can live only if it feeds off of God's song. Without God's song, this universe would crumble up into little pieces, just as a mud pie crumbles when it dries out."
Having gotten enough theology for one day, the boy left. But he kept coming back. The villagers were nonplussed. None had ever done more than greet the holy man and ask for his intercessions. He often had nodded his head, but he had never said a word. They would occasionally listen to the recurring conversation between the holy man and the little boy, though none chose to enter in. One day, the boy stood a bit awkwardly, scuffling his feet.
"My father says I should not listen to you. You are probably a heathen. You don't go to Mass. You don't belong to an Order. You don't even join the Good Friday Procession." A long quiet ensued. The boy was used to these by now and waited patiently.
"You are right," said the holy man. "These are trees whose roots reach very little water. They bear very little fruit, and what fruit they bear is very poor." The holy man paused for a bit. "Let me tell you a story: there was a man who lived in a nearby village. His wife had died in childbirth, and he lived with his only child, a girl of about your age. The man was a successful business person, providing all sorts of things for the local nobility. He was very practical and measured everything in terms of profit and loss. His daughter loved to go into the neighboring forest and listen to the birds sing. One bird, of very plain plumage, had an exquisite voice. To the girl, it was the voice of an angel. The bird became very tame and would sit on her shoulder and sing. She wanted to share this beautiful gift with the village, so she brought the bird home to live with her.
Before long the father added up the cost of feeding the bird, as well as giving refreshment to those many who came to hear it sing. So he charged an admission fee. The bird's reputation grew, and so did the father's profits. But the bird began to sing more and more poorly. It's song was no longer a free gift of joy. The daughter said the bird would have to be returned to the forest where it could regain its free song. The father was adamant. He had no intention of losing his little gold mine. Soon, however, the girl realized that the bird was dying. She told her father that she would take it back to the forest even over the father's objections.
The father was furious. He was not used to opposition, especially from his daughter. He told her that if she took the bird, she would never again cross the threshold of the house. But the girl loved the bird. She left for the forest, where she spent the rest of her life married to a poor woodcutter, while surrounding herself with the birdsongs she loved so much. The father, in the meantime, paid a mechanic to create a mechanical bird that danced, sang, and was beautifully painted. People still paid to see this bird and receive refreshment. In time, they forgot the real bird and its glorious song.
There was silence again for a while. The boy said, "I guess you don't like the painted bird."
The holy man smiled, "I guess I don't. You see, beyond the Mass and the Church's Orders and the Processions, is Easter. Easter is God's song. It is a song of love and a song of joy. It is not for sale. It cannot be imprisoned in anybody's house, even the house of the Church. It can be heard in everybody's heart; everybody, that is, who takes the time to listen. It is the song that keeps this universe together. And it is a song that anyone who is dying can turn into wings to carry him right through the darkness of death."
"Then I guess you're not afraid to die," said the boy.
The holy man laughed a great laugh, "About as much as the caterpillar is afraid to become a butterfly, or the snake to shed its skin, or the phoenix to enter the fire. No, I am not afraid to step out of this poor world of painted birds into the center of God's great song. It sings in me all the time now. It is Easter in my heart every day. And when my time comes, I will climb on the back of the eagle of God's song and circle beyond all the graves and painted birds. In the meantime, go back to your father and obey him."
The holy man's ineffable eyes seemed to swallow the boy in their music and their love. He said, "Good-bye for now. Someday the music of God will rise in you and begin to call you home."
* * *
It was about thirty years later. The holy man had died and the boy-turned-man had taken his place. He had been in silence for over twenty years, outside his village, when a young girl of about nine or ten plucked his sleeve and said, "What are you doing?"
The holy man opened his enormous, lustrous eyes, swallowed her in them, and smiled. After considerable silence, he said with a rusty voice, "I'm listening."