The Swan: Archetype and Inspiration

by Judyth R. Woolfe

The year we built our dream house was the same year that my father lay dying of cancer. It was also the same year that my middle daughter began a long, terrifying spiral downward into emotional darkness. In my wildest imagination I could not have created the halcyon, magical setting that the Divine Mother helped us to find: a tranquil, deeply wooded lot overlooking a ten-acre eyeglass-shaped pond where, soon after we moved in, two elegant mute swans took up residence.

As happens in life I found myself living through a period that was a dramatic, concomitant intermingling of the polar opposites: the joyful whirl of a new home and the sorrow of losing my beloved father. At exactly the same time I was coping with my daughter's unfolding illness, completely foreign terrain that was filled with frightening and unpredictable crises requiring a rocky road of meetings with doctors and social workers, hospital visitations and a seemingly endless stream of decisions that needed to be made.

Reaching beyond myself for support I attended appropriate hospital groups, read books on subjects germane to what our family was experiencing, continued to be present at my reunions and retreats, prayed and meditated every day without fail. Although swirling, powerful emotions and inner turmoil were my constant companions during this time, so were the two swans that my daughters quickly christened Romeo and Juliet. As I stood washing dishes at the kitchen sink after meals I often looked through the window, my mind searching desperately for a place to rest, a perch of peace.

Lo and behold, what a blessed surprise would meet my eyes but our two swans silently, nobly gliding by, Romeo in the lead and Juliet not far behind? The very sight of these two majestic creatures cheered me, made me smile and lifted my spirits. The words of a former spiritual director rose as an echo in my mind: did I know that the swan is the archetype of the spiritual vocation?

I found this thought-question quite captivating. It led me to reflect on the synchronicity and divine grace inherent in life. The discovery of my spiritual vocation several years earlier was certainly a once-and-for-all gift from the Divine Mother. She bestowed the chance to know my true and highest calling voiced from the Highest Source straight to my heart's deepest core. She led me by Her own Hand to this path of spiritual unfolding, the one she chose for me, a way to explore, grow and do the inner work of my vocation. Here, in Cafh, I could receive the tools I needed to learn to "dominate the body with continuous effort. fix my mind upon the spirit and join my soul in mystical nuptials with God."

I began to search for books on swans, learning about their behavior, habitat and relationships. I studied, read books and articles, then simply enjoyed their regal presence on our pond, smiling to myself each time they appeared, framed in our kitchen window, moving silently across the silvery water. It tickled me one morning when I spotted Romeo, upside down, with his snow-white bottom tilted upward as he fished for breakfast. "Uptails, all!" as Lewis Carroll would say. A few moments later, Juliet moved into the same topside-down, bottoms-up position: I chuckled aloud at the comical nature of the swans. I had always associated these birds with a certain elegance and dignity of bearing. But here they were: being pragmatic and practical, pursuing a meal, working to survive, and looking extremely amusing in the process. I began to wonder about what other characteristics and hidden traits swans might display and what connections these might have to my own spiritual life.

When several neighbors whose homes also shared pond-front property began to experience an infestation of Canada geese we researched a spectrum of possible solutions. After rejecting the use of chemicals, B.B. guns and other weaponry, including large canines of certain breeds, we remained in a quandary as the goose population proliferated. Uncertain as to how to proceed or who to turn to for further assistance, we waited. A higher power than the geese in the form of Romeo and Juliet, our two resident feathered friends, came to the rescue. I periodically observed noisy, intense, wild flapping over the pond as Romeo, our cob, with his ten-foot wing span and territorial nature, chased a flock of geese across its length with vengeance, forcing the intruders to vacate for good.

So it seems to me that the vocation contains aspects of the everyday, practical, even humorous elements which are part of human life. Like an upturned swan my spiritual calling can take me into my daily activities and relationships, reminding me to smile, work hard and be concrete. Like a strong, protective swan that guards his own territory and family, I am reminded to watch out for those I care about and love, ever mindful to challenge the self-imposed limits that bind me to narrow viewpoints and attachments. And, like the ripples on the pond itself, my consciousness is expandable as is my capacity to love.

What other traits do swans possess that connect me to my spiritual work on the path? In Eckhart Tolle's book The New Earth, he describes the swan as a species that knows how to forget anger and grudges, a species that prefers to live in harmony with one another. How inspiring a model for the human family: is it possible that we can learn to follow the example of the swan, forgetting our conflicts and arguments, choosing forgiveness and love instead?

Can we take a lesson from this beautiful bird that lives a monogamous life, committing to one partner only in its lifetime? I can ask myself to reflect upon the commitments I make in my own life and on the quality and depth of those commitments.

Every spring our favorite pair of swans hatch their young and we are privileged to watch adorable cygnets float across the shimmering pond water at the edge of our deep woodland forest. Such symbols of strength, commitment, protection, fidelity and love are beautiful reminders to cultivate these same characteristics and make them evident in our dealings with ourselves and others. I am grateful and blessed to have been led to this very peaceful place, our current home, graced by these imposing birds, living symbols of my spiritual vocation. For as long as we reside here, overlooking what we now whimsically refer to as "Swan Lake," I can use the gift of these mystical birds to help me remember my purpose in life and the meaning I want to give it.