Recently I finished re-reading Mary Oliver’s Owls and Other Fantasies, a book of poetry and essays about birds—hawks, hummingbirds, herons, and a dozen others. It reminded me of a day in the middle of May twenty years ago when swallows arrived en masse in my neighborhood in California. I first noticed them on a Friday morning; it was my day off. They flit above the broad street separating our house from our neighbors. As I studied their activities, there seemed to be a question as to where they would light. They put little daubs of mud on the wall of the west side of our two-story house, high up near the eaves of the roof, and perched temporarily in what from below appeared a defiance of gravity. I peered around the corner several times during the day to see this wondrous sight; their flattened bodies spread to the wall as if hit in mid-flight and stuck on a diesel truck’s radiator.
Evidently, something about the site must have appealed to them for I went out a week later and several mud nests adorned the high places under the eaves. It was a wise choice to build their mud nests where they were shielded from the afternoon heat yet could glean the vesperal glow of the setting sun. It made our back yard, which I thought resembled already an aviary, almost a small conservancy. Now when I had a poor Sunday preaching I could sit on the bench in our Mediterranean garden and emulate St. Francis preaching to the birds. I do not suppose the swallows knew I was a priest, any more than they were familiar with the words of Psalm 84:
The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young;
By the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God
Maybe our heavenly Father sent them to remind me of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body what you shall put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing: Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Mt. 6:25-26
In one of her poems Mary Oliver writes, “How important it is walk along, not in haste but slowly/looking at everything and calling out Yes! No! … To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” This is especially true if what we seek is an attentive life with God in the midst of a world that distracts us with busyness and fears. As Leighton Ford suggests, we need to learn to discern God’s presence in all things.
I share this that we may learn to trust in the Father’s providential care—especially in those matters that lie beyond your capacity to change or control. The next time you grow anxious, stop, quiet your heart, and prayerfully consider the birds of the air, the heron standing ever so still in the shallows and your heavenly Father’s providence over even the sparrow that falls to the ground, or small daub of mud upon which the swallow deftly and peacefully rests from her darting flight.