FROM A DISTANCE, I WATCH THEM digging through yesterday’s manure, scratching the ground backward, then dipping down and plucking up bugs. They blink their yellow-red eyes. They strike with their curved beaks. When they hear me approach, they hurry toward the gate, running up and down the fence line, bobbing their heads and emitting the burbling sounds of a boiling tea kettle. They’re waiting for me—or, more precisely, they’re waiting for whatever morning snack I’ve brought them. Most days it’s kitchen scraps or a handful of their dried pellets. Today, their favorite: a handful of frozen blueberries staining my pocket.
Inside their enclosure, I kneel down in the dirt with an open palm of food, losing myself in a flurry of chickens. Feathers brush against my arms. Beaks pinch at my skin. They could eat just as easily from their red plastic bowl, but for some reason they peck away at my hand until there’s no food left. Afterward, I lock the gate and head off to divinity school, hoping I might stumble upon some theological notion to help piece my faith back together.
Before Flannery O’Connor was famous for writing, she was famous for chickens. At the age of five, she taught a bantam hen to walk backward, attracting journalists and photographers to her rural Georgia farm from as far as New York.
A devout Catholic all her life, she wrote much about the struggle of faith: “I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened.”
Torment as a process that deepens. One can only hope. Of the prayer of the father of the suffering child in Mark’s Gospel—Lord, I believe; help my unbelief—O’Connor said this: “It is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.”
Sometimes I like to imagine this five-year-old girl in rural Georgia, teaching a hen about the spiritual life: “Yes, just like that, a little bit forward, now a little bit back.”
The four chickens I take care of belong to a variety of egg-laying hens called Rhode Island Reds. Except for the occasional escape, their whole existence takes place inside a fifteen-by-thirty-foot fenced rectangle at a park in New Haven. There’s a mound of manure, dirt to bathe in, and a little wooden house where they roost at night and lay eggs in the morning. They have a bowl for food, a bucket of murky water, and each other’s company. It’s a simple life, monastic almost, with their humble housing and daily routines. In one corner there’s a folding chair, where on warm afternoons I’ll sit and watch them roaming around on their scaly dinosaur feet.
The ancestors of these chickens were a fierce species from Thailand, the red jungle fowl, who roosted in trees, lived in small flocks, and managed to survive a forest full of predators. Now, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell. The modern chicken is a biological invention, big breasted and small boned, its flight wings clipped, its beak scraped dull by machines. Its reproductive system has been selectively bred to lay over three hundred eggs a year, rather than just a dozen.
In English, chicken has become synonymous with coward. But don’t let this fool you. A hen’s cartoonish body belies the menace of her four-clawed feet and her capacity for bursts of speed. Once, as I was leaving, one of the hens scurried out through the open gate. I spent fifteen minutes chasing her, enlisting help from two passersby. Eventually we gave up, and I sat on the ground while she meandered along the fence, plucking up a few blueberries that had rolled just outside the wire. Within a few minutes, of her own free will, she walked right back through the gate, then looked in my direction as if to say: Are you happy now, bozo?
At eighteen, after a year of missionary work in Central America, I left the Christian faith. For a while, my life seemed to expand. I met new people, took on new ideas. I avoided churches and prayer. Four or five years later, I was on a long walk down the Carolina coast with a friend who had also left the church. We were wearing jeans and hoodies, walking barefoot along an empty beach in winter. He asked if there was anything I missed. My body answered before my mind could. My arms fell open. “Worship,” I said. “The desire to praise something for all of this beauty.”
We stopped walking and looked around. The morning light colored the waves green. A pair of gulls fought over the washed-up carcass of a skeletal fish. The tide was coming in. We turned around and began walking back.
Many poets—religious or not—speak about birds in a way that’s hard not to see as worship. There’s Mary Oliver and her wild geese. Poe and his raven. Keats and his nightingale. Dickinson and her thing with feathers.
But chickens? After eight thousand years of selective breeding, they can’t fly. Still, they aspire. Doesn’t that count for something? And what about the record-setting hen who managed to stay aloft for thirteen seconds? Might there be a poem in that?
Though the Polish poet Anna Kamieńska did not write about chickens, she did write about domesticated geese. In one of her notebooks, she tells of a flock of village geese who, during autumn migration, “following some atavistic instinct, waddle up the hillside and fall down, trying to fly after the wild geese, whose call they hear from the sky.”
Most mornings, after tending the chickens, I too waddle up the hill to the divinity school—toward the bare cross blazing golden atop the chapel. I once believed in something real, and I long to feel that realness again.
Kamieńska’s poem “Lack of Faith” speaks to this primitive desire.
even when I don’t believe—
there is a place in me
inaccessible to unbelief,
a patch of wild grace,
a stubborn preserve,
pain untouched by the sleeping body,
music that builds its nest in silence.
The question I think I’m asking is: what happens when we leave a thing? Or, put spiritually, is there faith that grows from doubt? Or, put zoomusicologically, is there music that builds its nest in silence?
I’m not sure about red jungle fowl, but modern chickens don’t build nests. My hens lay their daily eggs in small boxes of pine shavings. Their house has three of these boxes—each attached to the main room like a tiny square closet—yet almost every day, all the eggs end up in the same box.
For a long time, this perplexed me. I hypothesized that they chose the one box for its warmth, since it received the first glimpse of morning sun. But even on hot days, I’d return from classes to find the eggs gathered in that one box just the same. A library book about backyard chickens gives two explanations. Either the hens, noting the survival of the first egg, copy each other for safety; or the hens are working together to accumulate a clutch of eggs, which they intend to incubate. When I’ve consulted the hens about this behavior, they pretend not to hear me.
My search for worship beyond religion has led me to seek answers in art, nature, and theology. What might faith be if set free from dogma? What might God be when not called by that name? For a long time, I’ve wondered if any kind of return is possible.
I’ve found hope in what Paul Ricoeur, the French phenomenologist, calls a “second naïveté”:
Does that mean that we could go back to a primitive naïveté? Not at all. In every way, something has been lost, irremediably lost; immediacy of belief. But if we can no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can…aim at a second naïveté in and through criticism. In short, it is through interpreting that we can hear again.
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief. Help me learn to hear again.
The most popular name for our current geological epoch—one characterized by human-caused changes to the earth—is the Anthropocene. Alternatively, science writer James Gorman has put forth the “Age of the Chicken,” since the geology of our era will be marked by the number of chicken bones we leave behind—with over 65 billion killed each year for meat and 5 billion more for their eggs.
I take some comfort in knowing that chickens haven’t always been regarded only in terms of what their bodies provide: breasts, wings, legs, and eggs. In Great Britain, archaeologists recently found a series of chicken skeletons dating from the Iron Age, perfectly intact and carefully buried, suggesting that, at least for a time, chickens may not have been eaten but revered.
The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that in the beginning, when the earth was formless, “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” The Hebrew word is rachaph, which can be translated as “fluttering” or “brooding.” A mother hen will brood over her clutch of eggs for twenty-one days, leaving them only once or twice a day. She will lose weight, her feathers will pale, but she will keep her eggs warm, protecting them from harm. Some scholars believe the verb rachaph in Genesis 1:2 draws on myths about God as mother bird giving birth to our egglike planet. In the New Testament, in both Matthew and Luke, Jesus refers to himself as a mother bird: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem…How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”
Entering divinity school after a decade of wandering has resulted in not being able to make sense of certain words. Spirit, soul, sin, belief, grace, God. It’s as if these words, previously backlit by the Christian story, have become dark. For a long time, when I encountered one in class or while reading, I would either skip over it or scribble its etymology in the margins. Grace became favor. Sin became missing the mark. On good days, now, the words are beginning to hold meanings again. Perhaps this is the start of a long process of reconstruction. Perhaps I am making a new egg, building my nest in silence.
A hen, however, is not a word. Let us be clear. She is a living creature, a being to be experienced. She is her own center of consciousness. She cannot be explained, will never be solved. She is a warm-blooded ball of flesh and feathers. Her favorite time of day is the hour before dusk when bugs are most active, when she struts about plucking their flying bodies right out of the air. She survives the night by hiding away. She sleeps standing up, balanced, her clawed toes wrapped tightly around a stick or branch. Six to twelve hours of stillness. Each morning, she leaves her home to find the world made anew. She is a magician, bobbing up and down on the fence, turning bugs into eggs. Imagine her daily astonishment. “An egg! An egg!” she must cluck to the others. “Come look at this egg!”
Does she know or suspect that one day this mysterious orb will become a living, breathing thing?
I don’t think it’s an accident that William Carlos Williams—whose mantra was “no ideas but in things”—ends his best-known poem with chickens. As if to say, so much depends on our experience of things. Especially chickens.
Ludwig Wittgenstein’s most famous philosophical work, Tractatus, wrestles with the relationship between language and reality. The seventh and last proposition of the book-length work contains a single sentence: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
After the book’s completion, Wittgenstein left teaching and philosophy, gave away his money, and moved into a Byzantine monastery. It is reported that he slept for three months in a toolshed and spent his days gardening. Right outside his shed, I like to picture a red wheelbarrow, rusted by a glaze of rainwater, and beyond that, a fenced yard with a small flock of chickens.
A few weeks back, as winter thawed into spring, I walked from the divinity school to the park. It had been a rough day of classes, full of existential reasoning that left me empty. The sun drooped low in the sky. A breeze rattled the wire fencing. After feeding the hens the last of their daily pellets, I collected their eggs from that one nesting box and swaddled them in an old shirt, tucking the bundle in my backpack next to a book of poems by the Catholic poet Martha Serpas.
When I saw that book, I thought, why not? Why not read some poetry to chickens? As far as I could tell, neither they nor I had anything better to do.
I sat down against a tall pine. The hens bobbed up and down the fence, burbling to each other. In the distance, I heard children laughing. I flipped open the book and recited the first poem for my audience of four. Two-thirds of the way through that poem—a poem about learning to live again after losing her father—Serpas writes:
Augustine said, God loves each of us as if
there were only one of us, but I hadn’t believed him.
I read those borrowed words out loud and felt my doubts dissolving. Or no, not quite dissolving. Rather, my doubts became like those religious words I had been unable to make sense of. Among the billions of creatures, God loves each of us. Each human, each chicken. All at once I felt my longing to worship satisfied—not through right beliefs, but in this experience of love. It felt something like being held and warmed beneath a feathery wing.
Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.
I finished reading the poem, then read it twice more. The evening sun slanted through the pines, spotting the ground with yellows and greens. The hens chased invisible bugs through invisible air. I wanted to stay there forever, incubating.
Jordan Humphrey grew up in Elon, North Carolina. In 2019, he earned an MFA from Hollins University, where he met his wife, Lucy Marcus. In 2023, he graduated from Yale Divinity School, where he won the Frederick Buechner Prize for creative nonfiction.
Image courtesy of Skylar Zilka, via Unsplash.