Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In the Company of Birds

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

On Maundy Thursday last week, I discovered an empty turquoise shell beneath a tree. At first I was saddened to think an unhatched bird had met its demise in a fall from a nest or in the claws of a predator. Then I realized it was more likely safely hatched, and the shell cast from the nest, no longer needed.

Our dog Hobbes and I had just begun our walk to “her” church, the neighborhood Seventh-Day Adventist Church. She’s actually a “Fifth-Day Adventist,” because we go there on Thursdays. In truth, it’s the panorama of trees and kudzu along a ravine behind the church that is the draw. As Hobbes was doing her “scratch and sniff” routine along its edge, I caught sight of a huge, predatory bird on a high branch of one of the tall trees in the ravine. At first I thought it an owl, but soon determined it was a hawk, common in this part of Atlanta.

At that moment, to my dismay, I saw a much smaller bird fly right into the hawk. I was sure the predator would swoop down and devour this pest. Thinking it had been an accident, I was surprised to see the little bird again hit the larger bird, this time using its small body to dive bomb the predator, literally ruffling its feathers, and I realized it was trying to drive it off, probably to protect eggs or chicks in a nearby nest. The hawk didn’t budge. I guess the third time is the charm even for birds, because its next plunge prompted the hawk to fly away. I was amazed.

The next day, Good Friday, I was enjoying morning prayer on our deck, Hobbes, as usual, at my feet. A pair of finches had built a nest above one of the outside music speakers, laid and hatched three eggs, and the baby birds were sitting patiently waiting for mom and dad to return with food. From Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, I just happened to be reading my most visited scripture, one I selected for my long-awaited ordination, on God’s Providence. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Closing with the Lord’s Prayer, just as I prayed “Give us this day our daily bread,” as if on cue, it was feeding time for the young birds, who erupted in a chirpy, ecstatic frenzy.

I chose an unusual spiritual discipline for Good Friday and Holy Saturday: re-reading a book that had meant much to me in my young adulthood, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. It describes the opportunity of a middle-aged man to leave his frenzied work and world to enjoy a more contemplative and fulfilling life. “Lost Horizon” refers to Shangri-La, a land beyond a mountainous portal with a verdant valley overlooked by a well-appointed lamasery; but it also serves as metaphor for the protagonist’s own “lost horizon” of moral purpose and aesthetic pleasure.

As I sat reading this novel from the 1930’s, I was afforded the repeated spectacle of the parent finches returning from food gathering expeditions to feed their hungry babies—about every half-hour or so. This is the pleasure of contemplative life, I thought, to attend to things from which our schedules and schemes and self-importance distract us.

In a book about Celtic Christianity, Listening for the Heartbeat of God, J. Philip Newell writes that John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth century philosopher, taught that Christ walks among us in two shoes—that of Scripture and that of Creation. Celtic Christians recognized Creation itself as an epiphany of God. So do I.

The empty shell had reminded me of the empty tomb. The defeat of the predatory hawk made me think of our soulful resistance to bullies. And, though on Sunday morning we attended worship and brunched with family and friends, our household Easter this year occurred as we watched the finches finally leave their nest.

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