I’m not much a bird watcher, but since elementary school, my favorite bird has been the cardinal. I think it became my favorite bird solely because it was the state bird of Illinois, where I grew up. I try to watch them for a few moments anytime they catch my eye.
While I was in graduate school, a couple of cardinals lived in a tree by the back entrance to seminary building. When I was alone and walking into class, I would try to mimic their call (I’m such a nerd). I’m not much of a bird whistler, but I swear we were communicating. The bird-human synergy was real, I tell you.
The other day as I was walking across campus to my office a cardinal flew within a couple of feet of me. It stopped me in my tracks and, for a split second, I thought it might attack me. I tried to watch it continue its flight. As I did so, another cardinal chased quickly behind it. They were cooing and cawing at one another as if they were friends playing in midair. I paused for a moment to see I could tell where they were going.
Even after they were gone, it was as if their presence was still in the air.
It was the moment after the cardinals flew away when I became most aware of their presence. It was as if in the stillness I was most present to them.
At that moment I caught myself praying, ‘thanks, yes.’ It was the moment I tried to cherish before entering my office to start a day full of meetings.
This experience reminded me of the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. In the story, Elijah is told to go stand on a mountain and God’s presence would pass by him. The text then reads,
“There was a great so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.”
In the silence is when Elijah became aware of God’s presence. It’s as if Elijah became aware of God’s presence after God’s presence has passed by him. God was in the stillness.
What I love about this story is that awareness and stillness allow the opportunity for a spiritual encounter.
I could have easily been looking down the moment those cardinals flew past me. I could have been texting on my phone, lost in a technological world outside of the world in which I was standing. With tunnel vision, I could have been rushing to catch up on an already busy day.
I could have been unaware of what was present before me and missed the Mystical in the stillness.
Of course, would my day really have been much different if I did miss those cardinals? To be honest, probably not. I’d have one less blog post, but I doubt the day would have been too much different.
It did get me thinking, though, about how much we tend to miss when we are not present and how often we are distracted by other things making us unaware of what’s around us. Someone on their phone unaware of where they’re about to walk into you. Someone stopping in an aisle with their shopping cart unaware that you’re trying to get the can of chickpeas behind them. I see it in others, which probably means it’s rampant in my own life.
If awareness is the beginning of the spiritual life and I often tend to be unaware, then how unspiritual is most of my life? How many Divine encounters am I missing by not being present to what is happening around me?
I once heard a colleague say that “What has your attention, has your affection; what has your affection, has your heart; what has your heart, is what you worship; what you worship, is your God.” He then asked, “What has your attention?”
Is it the present moment? Is it the beauty around you? Is it a technological device in your pocket? Is it a nagging thought or a stress-inducing worry? Is it a notification, an email, or the desire to immediately know how many people liked your post?
Don’t numb yourself from the present moment. Don’t let yourself become unaware. Don’t fill the silence with noise. Don’t miss the birds in flight.
You just might miss an encounter with the Divine in the stillness.