The fruits of standing still

I just had a primordial experience of a deep Northern winter night.

Coming back from a walk… out and around… I turned to look the large yellow crescent of the Moon was about to go down beneath the line of trees in the West, where the old forest rises up.

The snow from the recent blizzard was bright, drifted sharply here and blown to flatten ripples there.

I was standing very still and simply gazing at the moon. 

After a minute or two my eyes had adjusted.

The stars were very bright in the clear sky. 

There was some indirect light from around one of the outlying buildings.

I caught a dark movement.

An enormous winged apparition swelled, beating and bobbing larger and larger.

It was absolutely silent.

It came swiftly and straight on.

At about some dozen feet before me the now silvery shadowy mass wheeled and soared off into the black. 

It was the largest owl I have ever seen.

I believe this night I saw Strix nebulosa… a Great Gray Owl.

I have heard a very large owl in the forest to the West.  When it put on the brakes and wheeled the wingspan was a good 5 feet wide.  Owls have perforated feathers so when they beat their wings they remain silent.

The startling cold and velvet depth of the sky.   The silence and the setting Moon.   The glow of the snow drifts and indirect light.  The black shifting silver apparition.. larger … larger and then swooping away against the sky.

The darker black trees by then had drawn their claws across the upturned yellow crescent, and so I turned back for the house.

The fruits of standing still.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. my kidz mom says:

    …and a whisper…”Be still and know that I am God.”

  2. John Enright says:

    This is poetic. Very moving.

  3. Peter says:

    Bless the Lord for his magnificent creation!

  4. Hugh says:

    Beautiful & moving.

    Don’t let it turn you into a Hegelian.

  5. Ruth Lapeyre says:

    I could see it while I read, beautiful. Praise God!

  6. Chironomo says:

    I remember owls at night from my childhood in Massachusetts… very eerie! We have owls and other very large birds down here in Florida… the Blue Heron is about 8 ft across while flying, and the ubiquitous Turkey Buzzards are frighteningly large! It is fascinating to just lay in the hammock and watch them circle above as they ride the convection currents. However, it’s the snow that makes everything really quiet at night, and we haven’t had that here in many, many years!

  7. michael r. says:

    How lucky you are! Like the redpolls and siskins, the Great Gray Owl is an irruptive species. Many birders go through life without seeing one … :(

  8. Mastruca says:

    In rebus creatis homo discernit vestigia ipsius Creatoris: (qui habet oculos, videat).

  9. PMcGrath says:

    You know, with just a little trimming, that could be the opening paragraphs of a very good novel.

  10. Bos Mutissimus says:

    Whew! What a relief!

    At first, I thought the “enormous winged apparition…absolutely silent” was a Nazgul!

    OK, enough clowning. Seriously, Father, thanks for sharing. I, too, vicariously experienced part of God’s Grandeur (thanks, Fr. Hopkins!).

  11. opey124 says:

    We had a similar experience with a hawk. We were amazed and frightened at the same time because it came so close to us.

  12. Brian Day says:

    Your training as a classicist is showing! Very poetic. Thank you.

  13. John P says:

    Dear Father Z,

    I’ve only heard of Great Gray Owls in books. It must have been a magical experience to see one in person. I loved the story, perhaps you should publish it?

    John P.

  14. Bill Daugherty says:

    Very poetic, indeed, but not a poem. Why not work it into one?

  15. Dominus: He had you…!

    Had I been a small critter, which he may have initially thought, I would have been his supper for sure. Silent, swift, deadly talons and beak. No chance.

    Instead, Mr. Strix had the nasty surprise of a human in its sights and decided it wasn’t a good idea.

  16. Bos: I thought the “enormous winged apparition…absolutely silent” was a Nazgul!

    I don’t remember the Nazgul being silent. But that shape looming up so quickly out of the dark sure sent a shiver through me.

  17. catholic says:

    Fr.Z this is perhaps the most beuatiful thing you have ever written
    I certainly know what you talking about, I have had similar experiances.

  18. catholic says:

    Sorry about the bad spelling.

  19. W. says:

    Stille Nacht.

    Still Night.

    Silent Night.

  20. Tom says:

    Where I used to work, we could hear several owls at night, although I only ever saw a family (5!) of barn owls, sitting on an old railway bridge sunning themselves. This is in Sussex England, but we regularly saw Buzzards with what must have been almost 5 foot wingspan…

  21. Bos Mutissimus says:

    Of course, I don’t deny that Nazgul CAN Shriek with the best of them, but can they not approach by stealth to magnify their terror? I don’t put it past ’em.

    Still, I concur: the whole event is the basis for a great poem. I experienced something similar in the last year, but it wasn’t an owl. I’m not sure but I think it was a crane flying overhead — silently & effortlessly. Very beautiful with stars & moonlight in the sky.

  22. Joan Ellen says:

    Fr., you seem to have such a love for God’s creatures, and He gives you the opportunities to enjoy them.

    Your birds, the snow. The image of the moon and venus- was just as I saw it. And now your very apt description of this encounter with your owl…

    You are blessed and so are we for your sharing, which helps me to remember how important God’s creatures are. And I agree with the others, you write well. Thanks.

  23. supertradmom says:

    I love birds more than any other of God’s creations other than humans. What a wonderful meditation for Lent. Thanks so much for the beautiful poetry in your prose.

  24. John Bogärde says:

    thank you.

    Teach us to care and not to care
    teach us to sit (/stand) still.

    ash wednesday (T.S Eliot)

  25. Sandy says:

    Yes, this is beautiful, Father. You make us feel as though we are there. Sad that most humans miss the connection we can have with the Almighty through the beauty of His creation.

  26. mpm says:

    Fr. Z.,

    I concur with the others, very well written, evocative, moving.

    But, have you checked through to see if you have mail from Hogwarts? [LOL!]


  27. Gloria says:

    Narrative poetry surely. Evocative imagery. I could feel the silence, experience the wintry night sky and shrink back from the shadowy, winged apparition. Then – knowledge chases away uncertainty and changes it to wonder. God’s world does that.

  28. Phil Steinacker says:

    The darker black trees by then had drawn their claws across the upturned yellow crescent, and so I turned back for the house.


  29. Edward Martin says:

    Once a similar experience at dusk with a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). Walking alone along the trail at Scout camp, I didn’t hear him coming. He just swooped over my head and went on his way. After the intial shock of something with a wingspan of nearly five feet just above my head, I just stopped and relished the wonder of it all.

    I had the pleasure of seeing Caribou on the beach at the same camp.

  30. Wonderful! I look forward to living somewhere like your Sabine Farm, where such things can occur.

    I remember driving along Highway 1 with a friend up to San Luis Obispo, after a day in school, and this huge shadow came down over us. It was one of the California condors from Morro Bay. The wingspan was about 8 feet or so, certainly wider than the car, a little Rabbit. It looked like a grey-feathered plane, it was so big! It swooped straight over us from behind, flew straight in front of us for a bit so we got a good look, and then veered off to the left, to the ocean. Magnificent. This was in 85 or 86, just before they took all the condors (at that point, I don’t even think there were ten of them) into captivity to get them breeding, to save them from extinction. Now there are many in the wild again, thankfully. Hopefully some appreciative drivers are being buzzed by them again!

    Thanks for reminding me of that!

  31. Pharisee says:


    Standing still in fathering darkness

    Stars show silent endless space

    Moon’s crescent hold’s heaven’s own

    And in our hearts falls dove’s whisper

    Whose light we see in self surrender

    While dark mystery marks man’s meekness, wonder shows his love

  32. Mark says:

    That must have been awe-inspiring. Owls have a tendency to do that. So perhaps it was owl-inspiring?

    I’m sorry, I’ll go find a priests to confess to right now… ;)

    The first owl I ever saw in the wild was a short-eared owl (asio flammeus) hunting by day, silently soaring over the dunes near the coast, not spooked in the slightest by two people admiring it.

  33. One day I was walking through a field in Pennsylvania and it was completely quiet and then I heard a quiet rustle. It grew louder and then louder and then suddenly this huge THING came rising up out of the tall grass right in front of me. It was a wild turkey!! I will never forget that! Gigantic wing span! And they are not silent!

    A different thrill from your owl, but a thrill all the same. There is nothing like seeing one of these magnificent birds up close. It does make you want to praise God!

  34. William Radovich says:

    Father: I had a different take. Where is my mind in the silence of
    the dark night? First impression — ” …adverus mundi
    rectores tenebrarum harum contra spiritalia nequitiae cae-
    lestibus.” (Eph.6:12) And your response — “…tunc dicit
    ei Jesus vade Satanas scriptum est Dominum Deum tuum adorabis
    et illi soli servies.” (Matt.4:10) And the ‘Owl’ flew away
    and you realized — “…et consummata omni temptatione diabolus
    recessit ab illo usque ad tempus.” (Luke 4:13) Father, God
    protect you from the onslaught of the Evil One.

  35. Melody says:

    Father Z should try his hand at prose more often. That was lovely.

    There is a favorite poem of mine on stillness which I frequently ponder during Lent, “The Habit of Perfection” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

    ELECTED Silence, sing to me
    And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
    Pipe me to pastures still and be
    The music that I care to hear.

    Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb: 5
    It is the shut, the curfew sent
    From there where all surrenders come
    Which only makes you eloquent.

    Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
    And find the uncreated light: 10
    This ruck and reel which you remark
    Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

    Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
    Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
    The can must be so sweet, the crust 15
    So fresh that come in fasts divine!

    Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
    Upon the stir and keep of pride,
    What relish shall the censers send
    Along the sanctuary side! 20

    O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
    That want the yield of plushy sward,
    But you shall walk the golden street
    And you unhouse and house the Lord.

    And, Poverty, be thou the bride 25
    And now the marriage feast begun,
    And lily-coloured clothes provide
    Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.

  36. shana sfo says:

    Mmmm! Lovely.

    My dad used to take my siblings and me out into the dark field aside our home with a telescope in the bitter cold of January or February to see the stars and planets in the clear skies pf winter. The memory of the hush, the darkness and the wonders of the heavens still fills me with awe, and this piece evoked much of that for me.

    One warmer evening last month, I was standing outside looking up at the stars and finishing up a cup of hot tea, when I heard a ghastly shriek. I had never heard anything like it before, so hurried in to tell my husband. He hears it frequently in the morning. We have a screech owl near by.

  37. shana sfo says:


    I wish this had shpelchek!

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