Evensong on Trinity Sunday at Kingsey (Many thanks to Martin Hodson for pictures, and Charles Deane, churchwarden, who provided refreshments for all in his most amazing garden.) It’s good to see traditional liturgy flourishing in a rural benefice fed by, not set against, more contemporary worship. Main object of attention afterwards, however, was a swallow’s nest in the porch, with young peeking over the edge demanding food.
Psalm 84:3 proclaims that swallows nest in God’s house. They have a distinctive flight pattern, looping freely in and out.
This is exactly what Margot Hodson the Vicar and I saw a mother swallow doing, inches away from us. With an extraordinary freedom and grace, ignoring people entirely, Ma Swallow wheeled in looping circles outside the porch, then swooped in with incredible precision and, seemingly without interruption of her flow, dropped off food in a baby’s open mouth, before looping out again into what Scots call the gloaming.
For those of us who mis-spent too much of our youthful prime filling notebooks with word-by-word Hebrew parsings, this is significant. In most English translations of Psalm 84 “Sparrow” figures — poetic coloration, into which translators were led by the Vulgate’s mis-rendering the second bird in the strophe as “passer.” The first is correctly rendered as “avis” — any old regular common-or-garden bird (צפור — as in Psalm 8:9 צפור שמימ). Attention is drawn to its ordinariness in the psalm by the enclitic “גם”.
Seeing Ma Swallow’s feeding routine for real shows why it is important to the meaning of the verse that the swallow is, in fact, a real swallow. דרור is most definitely this bird not (as in the reformed monastic psalter) “Turtur” — more elegant metrically than “hirundo”, but completely the wrong animal. (Root דרר cp: Arabic دَڗ .t √דרר means “flow freely” and is used of running horses, streams, and light, as well Liberty in Jubilee passages like, e.g., Leviticus 25:10 / Isaiah 61.)
The point isn’t that the bird homes in the temple (though that is a nice enough thought) but that, exactly as the pilgrim in the psalm wishes s/he could access God’s altar gracefully and freely, this bird swings in and out to and from its nest. It was strangely moving to see this precise behaviour from a real swallow in a real church, before our very eyes, on a summer’s evening. One swallow does, perhaps, make a bit of a summer.