By Kathleen Staudt
My spiritual practice in the summer is to begin each day on my patio, in the cool of the early morning, sip my first cup of tea of the day, sometimes write in my journal, and watch what is going on in my back yard. We have a regular wildlife sanctuary this year, on our fifth-of-an-acre suburban lot. In the yard of the abandoned house next door (awaiting new construction), grass and shrubs have grown up, and a family of deer has taken up residence there. There’s now so much growing next door that they don’t even come into my yard any more. The rabbits, on the other hand, have eaten down just about whatever will grow – and yet there is something lovely, peaceful about them, browsing on the clover in the grass, in the early morning light. As I watch them, and the growing light, the sound of birdsong around me increases – cardinals, catbirds, crows and mourning doves, gradually drowning out the not-so-distant hum of cars on the capital beltway, half a mile away.
But what I most love is watching the birds on the feeder each morning. Though the English sparrows and grackles can be aggressive, a wonderful variety of birds visit each day, sometimes fighting over the black oil sunflower seeds, sometimes perched beside each other, simply being fed. Purple finches, goldfinches, house finches, cardinals, sparrows, downy and hairy woodpeckers, a flicker and occasionally a red-headed woodpecker, the occasional blue jay – and, this morning, hovering briefly over the bright pink and orange potted zinnias beside me, a tiny hummingbird!
I don’t get tired of watching them, even when they’re fighting over roosting spots or charging each other off with a flap of wings. Rather, I have the sense that I am being admitted into another world, watching them from my patio. They have their issues and their competitions but there is such a variety of species, colors, shapes among them – all birds, but abundant in their diversity. I find myself delighting in just seeing them all there together in all their variety – and I wonder, sometimes, how they see each other – across species and families yet within their bird-world. My feeling, watching them from the outside, is delight. They seem to be giving to another way of being, beyond my understanding. They invite me to watch and pay attention.
William Blake wrote somewhere, “How do you know, but every bird that cuts the airy way is an immense world of delight, closed by your senses five?” He’s on to something there. Watching the birds each morning is a contemplative practice, bringing me to the limit of what I can see and observe, fascinating me, offering a glimpse into a beauty, a mystery, I cannot name, and teaching me to sit still and pay attention. In this way it is a contemplative practice. It is one of the things that I love most about the summer months –this time to sit outdoors, before the air becomes too warm, to watch and wait for the birds to invite me into the mystery of prayer.
Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.