Troubled Waters by George Merrill


Ever watch a bird bathing? It’s delightful.

The other day a yellow finch descended from a tree onto the rim of our bird bath. The finch looked around hesitantly, the way kids look to see who’s watching them before they dive in a pool. The bird hopped in.

The bath is a total experience for a bird, no question about it.

The finch ducked his beak into the water, not to clean it but to drink. We should post disclaimers. Heaven knows where that bird may have been, including the other bathers before him and what might be in the water.

He flaps his wings. Not just a perfunctory flutter or two; No. He cranks his wings up full bore, wings rising and falling with a dizzying velocity that raises a fine mist at least a foot in the air above him, like spray from an aerosol can. I didn’t mention the day was hot; he certainly enjoyed a cool down, too.

Apparently caged birds do not bathe like birds in the wild. Whether that’s because the bird’s owner doesn’t provide a proper bird bath or the bird doesn’t get that dirty in the house, isn’t clear. I’ve wondered whether caged birds quietly despair, lose all sense of personal dignity and just don’t care about personal hygiene anymore.

Several woodpeckers live around our house –they bore holes in the house’s fascia boards – but I’ve never seen woodpeckers in the bird bath. Woodworking is laborious and I would imagine after a day’s labor they would work up a considerable sweat. How woodpeckers manage their personal hygiene remains a private matter.

Bathing is more than just staying clean. Birds also stay cool by bathing. Watching babies in the bathtub is a little like watching birds in a bird bath – they have a great time splashing around. I remember my granddaughter was ritualistic about it; sitting in the bath, pouring water carefully from one paper cup into another, uttering inscrutable incantations, as her eyes focused on infinity. Then she’d slap the water and beam a beatific smile of a saint.

Bathing habits change. It has to do with what stages of our lives we’re in. During our infancy, we bathed in tubs under the watchful eye of mom and dad. In time, showers superseded baths as the preferred way to bathe. Showers are typically a solitary affair but not always. As youngsters age and become lovers, they may enjoy showering together. As the delicious glow of erotism diminishes, showering returns to a solitary exercise, purely functional, cleanliness being the issue rather than fun. Then, as time progresses and we age, we shower again with a companion, not to have fun this time but as a safety precaution. Having someone close by can be a life-saver.

For ancient Greeks and Romans, baths were a social phenomenon, like today’s malls or spas where people gather in large numbers. In the case of ancient baths, people gathered to recline in pools of water and chat – some heated as in the ancient Roman bath still remaining in Bath, England. There they’d meet friends and neighbors, socialize and catch up. I’ve read that some ancient baths grew fetid, as birdbaths can when left unattended.

Water has always been, in its various iterations, a social lubricant. People sun together seaside. They ski snow covered slopes on mountains and build homes around lakes. Water has inspiring aesthetic properties as well: Poets rhapsodize about the morning mists rising from meadows and one describes how fog rubs against windowpanes the way cats scratch their backs on stationary objects.

Any discussion of water must include its healing qualities as well as its metaphorical use in spiritual discourse and practice.

Almost all our wounds, whatever treatments they receive, are first washed.

Baptism, the rite of Christian initiation includes ritual uses of water; a couple of drops for Catholics and Episcopalian does it. For Baptists, deep water for total immersion is standard procedure. Jews perform moves in water for achieving ritual purification. Jesus was Baptized in the Jordon River.

Body and soul are, from a spiritual perspective, all about water.

I heard a Biblical story as a child. It enchanted me. I’ve never forgotten it. I knew it as the pool at Siloam. It reads like this:

“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, (near Siloam) having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water (sometimes rendered, ‘troubled the waters’) then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.”

Afternoons I may sit on my dock and write. Part of this essay was written there. I’m a sun freak. There, in the sun, I can overlook the creek. The creek is often as still as a millpond when I first arrive. Heat becomes oppressive but if I wait long enough, I’ll see the water slightly shiver and then ripple, and soon the breeze comes. When the water is troubled, I’ll feel comforted, released.

The angel troubles the water.

In the last couple of months, I’ve crossed the water go to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for medical services. Where we enter, there’s a large courtyard. Patients come and go. They are a myriad of different peoples: racial, ethnic, young and old, some deeply wounded, others appearing fit. As I make for the doors I feel I’ve arrived in the third world. I’ll imagine I’m at one of the porches by the ancient pool at Siloam where once “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed” came to see the troubled waters with hope for healing. They came with the same hope for healing as I and the crowd at Hopkin’s have, now. I pray all of us will be there when the angel stirs the water. All of us may not be made whole, but we can rest assured that we’ll be aided and comforted in our afflictions.

A long way from a bird bath? Perhaps, but it’s those very tenuous connections that reveal significant parts of the human story. The reality of our universal connections is undeniable. Water, particularly, is the connective tissue of all of life. I think of that when I see the water ripple.

I would offer this thought: the fact is we are broken people living in a broken world. Look for the angel who stirs the waters. Be alert for the ripples the angel makes. Watch and wait and hope for healing. It will come when the time is ripe.

Still waters run deep; troubled waters offer hope.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Letters to Editor

  1. Howard Freedlander says

    Hopkins Hospital indeed does provide a picture of the world. It opens your eyes to others suffering more than we, hoping to find a cure at one of the world’s best medical providers.

  2. George, I too love watching birds in the bird bath. Not too long ago when our windows were open and I was making our bed, I was drawn to the window by loud splashing sounds. In the bird bath were 3 robins stirring up the water with their ablutions. Typically birds are solitary in this activity not seeming to welcome company. Must have been a lot to share to make this a social occasion.

  3. Suzi Peel says

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.

  4. Beth Anne Langrell says

    Thank You for a wonderful way to start the day…Your article’s final thought is what I will share with my staff as we begin the work week today. Thank you!

  5. You’ve connected the dots in unexpected ways – birdbaths, angels and hospitals – but connected they are. A very interesting juxtaposition! Just goes to show, life connections are myriad, unexpected, mundain and ordinary – one just needs to be looking for them.

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