In the Shadow of Birds

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I did not see the migrating birds as they flew past, nor did I hear their calls. What I did see was fifty, maybe a hundred, small darting shadows cross over the lawn and my arms. Suddenly I felt heavy in the shadow of birds and my heart longed for home.

Where I live is within the flyway of several species of birds. It’s not unusual in the fall to stop the car when driving along farm lanes and wait on cranes coming in low, legs down, wings cupped, landing easily in marshes or corn fields.

The timing of their migrations are controlled primarily by the changes in sunlight. The day length signals the seasonal movement from the region of spring breeding to the place of wintering rest.

There is an instinctive stirring of such birds to migrate, an internal movement of the spirit towards a home. It is not the same as a journey, which is an irregular and singular event. Migration is done seasonally, aroused by light, and usually follows a path of food along the route.

There is seasonality to my prayer life as well; aroused by The Light my spirit yearns towards an eternal home. It too follows a route of nourishment.

As daylight hours decrease, a faith-filled migration draws me towards the Feast of Christ the King and Advent, and the contemplative resting in the abundance of His gifts. I am just as drawn in a few months, in the lengthening of days, to an active Lent and will long for new life and fresh air in my faith.

Like the flock of little birds that passed overhead, I am heartened by the coming winter—seasonally and temporally—to find rest.

(Image by Alvimann at morguefile.com)

Feast day of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower

On this first day of October, as we take our daily walk through the prayer garden, it seems so very appropriate that the Saint of the day is St. Therese of Lisieux. A Carmelite nun, St. Therese is, of course, lovingly known as the “Little Flower” and is the patron saint of florists.

As someone who lived relatively recently, at the end of the 19th century, St. Therese’s story is very well known. Her devotion to praying for others, especially priests, has inspired many. St. Therese, who died at the tender young age of 24, saw great beauty in her redemptive suffering and in emptying herself for the fulfillment of others souls.

As I prayed this week to find the words for this day, I came across a beautiful quote from a homily from St. Macarius of Egypt, an influential Desert Father of the fourth century. In his homily, St. Macarius writes,

When a farmer sets out to till the ground he has to take the proper tools and clothing for work in the fields: so when Christ, the Heavenly King and the true Husbandman, came to humanity laid waste by sin, He clothed Himself in a body and carried the Cross as His implement and cultivated the deserted soul. He pulled up the thorns and thistles of evil spirits and tore up the weeds of sin. When thus He had tilled the ground of its soul with the wooden plough of His Cross, He planted in it a lovely garden of the Spirit; a garden which brings forth for God as its Master the sweetest and most delightful fruits of every source.

The imagery of Christ as a farmer, tilling the soil with the wood of His cross, is a beautiful picture of God caring for His children. Christ took upon his shoulders the weight of the cross and thus the weight of all human sins. He plunged the base of His cross deep into the earth; an earth parched and withered from the flames of sin, and by His own blood made it a fertile garden for good seeds to take root and beautiful flowers to grow.  St. Therese, the Little Flower, is a wonderful example of the fruits of Christ’s sacrifice for us.

As we contemplate this, I find it humbling to consider that the same soil that Jesus cultivated that resulted in the beautiful Little Flower of Lisieux, is the same soil that each and every one of us is spiritually planted in. Each of us is called to Sainthood, just as St. Therese was. We pray to the Lord this day that the examples of giving ourselves up in prayer for others, the example we see from St. Therese, be a loving model of how we are called to live. We pray for the humility to serve others with the same loving heart that Jesus had for us when he bore the weight of human sins on His cross.

Finally, on this day where we contemplate the life of St. Therese of Lisieux, let us consider her own words from her autobiography, Story of a Soul. “What matters in life,” she wrote, “is not great deeds, but great love.” As we reflect back at the end of our day today, and with God’s grace each day of our future, let us look back not at what great deeds we may have accomplished, but what great love we showed for someone that day.

A Walk through the Garden

For those of you taking your daily walk through the beautiful prayer garden that is Margaret Realy’s blog post, you may notice a different gardener today. As Margaret is on retreat for a few weeks, she has very kindly allowed me to help tend to her garden while she is away.

In the garden

Image courtesy Marty Rymarz.

As an Oblate novice at the same monastery as Margaret, I have been blessed to become friends with her and see her daily blogs. For me, reading her daily post is not unlike taking a leisurely stroll through my local greenhouse in the spring. There, I see many beautiful flowers starting to bloom, waiting to be taken home and planted where they will grow and flower further. Margaret’s daily prayers are inspired flowers of thought that I take with me each day and allow them to germinate in my mind and flower in my soul. Like the lilies and petunias in the greenhouse, some of Margaret’s prayers are perennials and some are annuals. Some will stick with me year after year while others flower brilliantly for a time and may fade away with the season.

It is the loving embrace of God’s light and warmth that allows these flowers to blossom and our prayers to bloom to their full beauty.  A little seed that looks insignificant and gets tenderly planted in the soil may eventually blossom into a beautiful flower. Another type of seed may produce the vegetables that feed us. Though unseen, these seeds are quietly but faithfully striving upwards, ever upwards, towards heaven, until one day, they burst forth from the earth, straining towards the sky and the sustaining power of the Son.

So it is with God’s word and the prayers of others for us. These start as a little seed in our soul that can be covered for a time in the dirt of our concupiscence. Our daily prayers and contemplation give these seeds of our soul the water and warmth they need to grow.  They may manifest themselves, flowerlike, as a beautiful smile that we share with a stranger or a helping hand that we lend to those in need. They may also bloom as succulent fruit and healthy vegetables to feed our own spiritual needs when we minister to those in need. Our job, as gardeners of Jesus, is to cultivate these seeds, while pulling the daily weeds that can so easily sprout, until these seeds grow and others may appreciate the beauty of them as they are reflected not only in our words, but more importantly, in our actions.

So on this day, as we have taken the time to walk through this prayer garden, do we also take time to gaze in childlike awe at the beauty of God’s creation in both this garden and in the beauty of each other’s souls? Do we truly strive to see Jesus in everyone we encounter? For if we did, if we sought to see Christ in both our friends and those who challenge us, we would truly be living in a modern day Garden of Eden. And that garden, my friends, would not be a bad place to live until we reach that final destination that we know, as Christians, is the loving eternal communion with our Father in heaven.

Intimacy Relearned

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A pair of Mourning Doves rested beside the massive zucchini leaves near the bird bath. They cooed, crouching in the warm soil, and rubbing their heads along each others beak and neck. Scratching the soil with their feet they created a shallow divot. They tucked themselves down into the earthen bowl to lay close together, front to tail, heads resting atop one another’s back.

I watched these two birds with a sense of reverence. Mourning Doves mate for life. I wonder if they possess an innate sense of intimacy, unlike humans who require an awareness of it for close physical contact.

Sharing my thoughts with a friend, I learned that the physical element of intimacy was the least of its definitions. That caught me by surprise; I thought that was all of its meaning. When later I pulled the dictionary from the shelf, I found intimacy to mean:

  1. a close, familiar, and usually affectionate or loving personal relationship with another person or group.
  2. a close association with or detailed knowledge or deep understanding of a place, subject, period of history
  3. an act or expression serving as a token of familiarity, affection, or the like: to allow the intimacy of using first names.
  4. an amorously familiar act, sexual intercourse.

Being a survivor of abuse, the word intimacy tends to strike a cord of fear in my heart. Discovering that intimacy is largely about a mutual knowing of someone else, I had to think if and where this was true in my life and redefine what I thought.

My first sense of this closeness brought to mind the woman who guided me into a writing career. She is four hours drive away, and we talk on the phone often. This seems obvious, though, based on my original definition, I had only thought of her as a dear friend.

Another friendship, very different from the one above, is with a sister Benedictine Oblate who lives in New York. We’ve only met once and yet we share a deep spiritual connection with prayer for one another. The sense of deeply knowing the other increases as we read each others blogs or exchange emails. This is a friendship of absence; we are not involved with each others life.  I would never be asked to a wedding or baptism—and yet the prayers that flow between us are intimate and, I believe, reliable.

There is a developing closeness with a lovely woman in Westphalia, Michigan, and her family’s open welcoming of my presence. I had spent a night this week at their home and, in the morning, found loveliness in sharing prayer time in the company of another—a rare occurrence for me. The lightness I feel in her presence draws me out of my anchoritic life and at the same time breathes air into it.

A loving reciprocal relationship with another person isn’t something I’d imagined possible. I enjoy the company of (most) others and my solitary nature never drew me truly close to anyone. I always felt distanced, different, and singular.

Maybe it’s my aging, my lack of family, or, of late, being called out of my hermitage to be a pray-er, that draws me to appreciate more the profoundness of knowing another. There is a depth of learning more about myself through their eyes.

At times it makes me shudder, this word intimacy, when I realize that being known so is to be vulnerable. It has also opened my eyes to the startling closeness of God.

 

Concise Silence

 

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For those of us called to an anchoritic life, the silence of solitude teaches interior repose and perseverance in prayer, turning towards the Spirit within as the sunflower turns towards and follows the sun.

The perspective and peace brought of silence is, rarely, an opened parcel in daily life. We twirl about stepping over it, directing ourselves towards yet another distraction—injustices, persecutions, disordered behaviors, family life where we spin plates on poles and try to keep them from falling, or the running whole heartedly towards evaporating happiness.

In the Rule of St. Benedict, chapter six addresses the humility of and contains strong language about the “Spirit of Silence.”  He teaches that “…in the flood of words… [lies] …the key to life and death…” For without silence the intent of prayer is weakened and the rightness of action confounded.

The monk Idesbald Van Houtryve writes in Benedictine Peace

The friend of silence draws near to God and, entering secretly into a holy familiarity with Him, is enlightened by His divine light. For the man or woman who wants to lead a spiritual life, the silence of solitude is a freedom, a security, and a fortress, a sort of shelter against the noises of the world…Silence teaches interior repose and diligence in prayer.

The silence being referred to here is not one of constraint for lack of charity, refraining from condemnation, though this is certainly an important part of the practice. It is the interior silence that occupies oneself with God in the prayer of the heart, the practice of an interior retreat.

Those who evangelize with words have purpose in their words—and care must be taken to practice silence before making pronouncements. Again from Monk Idesbald:

There are some who speak from morning to evening and yet do not violate the law of silence; the point is that they pronounce no word without a reason. Dumbness is not a virtue in itself. It is good to speak when duty requires…[but] it may also proceed from indignation and from pride.

I am a slow writer; it feels unnatural to plant words instead of flowers. The words are written in a loving sense of duty and are chosen, rearranged, left to rest and reworked. I leave them to grow as God sees fit, and practice—instead of marketing—the art of being well-pleasing to God.

We feel an estrangement from oneself when the mind is disordered by distractions. There is a beauty in the freedom of prolonged solitude, and also a beauty, I am coming to realize, in the going out and the coming back.

Once gain I will be going out, and be among the throngs of attendees at the writers conference. I long to feel that which is denied in an anchoritic life—the physical embrace of genuine peace, a heartfelt hug. It will be a different kind of quieting among the distractions in the days to come, it will be one where isolation is silenced and prayer and praise are openly sung.