I don't talk about the vultures much. For obvious reasons.

Their first appearance was many years ago, when I was still in training for the Navy. I wrote about them in my first journal, while I was walking on the Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2000, right after it had become clear to me that God was leading me into a larger pilgrimage, perhaps even a life's vocation:

When I was in Navy nuclear training in Idaho [a very stressful time in my life], I used to drive up to where the mountains started and crawl up this steep craggy monolith. From up there I could look down over rolling fields of various grains—divided by the bends of the Snake River—and out to the town of Idaho Falls. I would sit up there on my day off. It was isolated and quiet; sometimes I would gather sticks for a fire. And there was a man-sized hollow, that looked like it had been scooped out by a giant finger. I would sit in there and pray. I called it ‘the Sanctuary,’ inspired by Moses’ song on the banks of the Red Sea: "You will bring them in, and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O Lord, which your hands have made." (Ex 15.17) I loved that place.

Near the end of my time in Idaho, I was up there praying about my life, praying for guidance. I wondered if I would get married or maybe become a monk. I had only been a Catholic for two months, but I had been visiting monasteries and admired the Trappists. I was also still close with [my first girlfriend], however, despite the fact that we were broken-up at the time and she was in Germany for a year, studying. We wrote weekly, and called every two months or so (very expensive). She was to return later that month. So I was praying for guidance or light or something. Give me a sign, I pleaded.

But it was very quiet on the mountain.

There was a peak above where I sat. Not far, but much higher, with a squat, twisted evergreen on top. Gazing up at that peak, as I often did when I prayed, I noticed a vulture circling slowly. Then another. Another. Soon there were eight vultures soaring around the gnarled tree on the rock. I counted again (since seven is usually God’s magic number). No, eight. This was my sign, I decided. Eight vultures, eight years. Not an answer, exactly—I would have to wait eight years for an answer. Then I would know. I was satisfied, thinking I would either marry or enter a monastery by that time. I started waiting.

That was the beginning of August, in 1992. Eight years ago.

During the many long walks in the years that followed, I noticed that vultures appeared everywhere I went. Other birds varied in different parts of the country, but the vultures were always present, circling.

But I forgot about them until last year. Right after our invitation to the retreat house in Virginia fell through unexpectedly, I was taking a quiet walk through the woods to clear my head. I was confused and a little frightened. I didn't know what we were supposed to do next. It seemed like a dead end. But as I neared the retreat house again something caught my eye, a dark shape. I looked up and there was a vulture, sailing quiet and low over the house, circling once and then disappearing over the trees.

It wasn't a remarkable sighting. But it reminded me of my experience in Idaho, and in my state of mind (and spirit) at that moment, it seemed to me to be a sign. One year. I would know what God had for us within a year; I would only have to wait a year. I thought I could do that. And it even felt like God was saying he would open a way forward for us by then.

That was the beginning of June last year. Within a few days, I had the idea of contacting Plow Creek with the retreats-for-the-poor idea. And now we're moving there. We'll be married there on May fifth—with three whole weeks to spare...