Monday, September 27, 2010

Raven Flight


Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you new courage....Brothers and sisters, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. ~Father Zossima, from "The Brothers Karamazov", by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Crows are communal creatures. They communicate in complex social patterns of speech, live in intentional social structures, and they submit their lives to the corvid pecking order. Ornithologists have studied crows at play, at work, at community gatherings. They’ve discovered them storing food for the winter, playing together and posting sentries to guard their camp. They have attempted to decipher their language and understand their communal way of life. Some odd bird-brain facts. A domestic chicken brain accounts for one tenth of a percent (0.1%) of its body weight. The American Crow’s brain is two and a half percent (2.5%) of its body weight compared with the human brain weighing in at one and a half percent (1.5%) of our body weight.(1) Every time I meet a crow I think to myself, “there must be something remarkable going on inside that head”.
A minister friend told me an odd crow story he witnessed at a wedding in Santa Barbara, California. The bride and groom wanted to share communion on their wedding day. So my minister friend provided a dinner roll as a communion loaf, along with a chalice of wine. During the outdoor ceremony, a crow flew down from a neighboring tree, landed on the edge of the chalice, nearly tipping it over, and with one quick motion, the large bird pecked at the loaf of bread and flew off with it to a branch above the heads of the wedding guests. Then the crow sat for the next few minutes, in full view of the humans below, enjoying its own form of corvid communion while the minister hustled off to obtain another loaf.
I love talking with crows and ravens when I meet them in the village or in the forest. On a hike a few winters back with friends in the Olympic National Park, a raven followed us for several miles, high in the treetops overhead, keeping us company and tracking our progress with deep throaty “Krawwk” calls that echoed through the forest.
I had an odd encounter with a crow a few years ago, while spending the weekend at a retreat center on the north coast of Oregon. Sitting on a park bench overlooking the Pacific Ocean at sunset, I was meditating on a sentence from the Bible when a crow flew up, perched on a nearby telephone pole and started its brash calls. Caw! Caw! Caw! I continued my quiet reflection on the story. Caw! Caw! Caw! I was thinking, “Hey bird, knock it off! I’m trying to enjoy some quiet time down here.” The crow kept up his calls: Caw! Caw! Caw! “Quit already. Can’t you see, I’m trying to enjoy the quiet here!” Caw! Caw! Caw! My eyes returned to the sentence I was pondering. Caw! Caw! Caw! It was only then that I discovered the crow’s secret hidden in the sentence. There they were: three verbs tucked away in that sentence I had been reading and rereading. Go! Close! Pray! When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6).
Go! Close! Pray! An “Aha” ray of spiritual light penetrated into that 1.5% of my body weight also known as my brain. At that exact moment, the crow flew off. I watched its flight across the dunes, offering a prayer of thanks to God for sending that bird to point out a basic pattern for wise living. Go! Close! Pray!
Go! Getting away from distractions requires some forethought. I’ve found it difficult to engage in soul work of meditation in the middle of the muddle. Better to remove our bodies, even just a few steps from the thoroughfare than to be perpetually frustrated at the many irritating interruptions.
Close! Just because you’ve gotten away to a corner chair in a back room doesn’t mean all the distractions cease. What happens is an actual intensification of interior distractions. Quietly closing the door on these takes some soul work as well. I’ve found it helpful to place into my awareness a simple focusing tool, like a candle, some meditative music or a paragraph of sacred writing. Then my eyes, my ears and my mind have something simple to focus upon. Giving in to distractions is not bad. It’s normal. But why not try to settle in to enjoy a few minutes of quiet without them for once.
Pray! Going and closing are merely prep work for the grand event. Enjoy an encounter of intimacy with God. Dwell together. I love the visual way Psalm 23 teaches us to pray. Lie down to rest in a verdant meadow. Sit down next to a cool mountain stream and quench your thirst. Walk together along a path, experiencing guidance, comfort and protection along the way. Feast on a grand banquet, letting your cup be filled to overflowing with good wine. Dwell together with goodness and loving-kindness every day of our life. That’s what I’d call the good life.
Jesus tells us to "consider the ravens" (Luke 12:24), to learn from these amazing birds how to live, including how to live before God. It doesn’t take bird brains to figure out what prayer is all about.  Recently, we fed left over communion bread to the ravens while out on a weekend prayer retreat. We had heard ravens that weekend up in the conifers. I don’t know if crows and ravens are prayerful birds.One thing I do know. Whenever I’m out in nature, they will always be invited to my table to enjoy a grand feast in the forest.
(1) See Bernd Heinrich, Mind of the Raven, (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), 326-331.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Elowah Falls


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces. 
~by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Olympic Mountain Goat

Olympic Mountain Goat in front of Mt. Olympus


At a retreat this past weekend at a nearby Benedictine Abbey I once again observed an oddity: in the evening, monks walk into the sanctuary for worship together, side by side, two by two. As they approach the center of the choir, the pairs bowed in unison twice, first forward to God, second side to side to one another. What’s all this funny bowing business? Monastic life never did appear sensible to busy people. Every time I head off for a weekend at the Abbey, my friends look at me like I’m heading back in time a thousand years. In some ways, I am.
The first bow I understand completely. After all, they’re monks. Isn’t the monastic life a total surrender of one’s life to God? Monks bow with their possessions, their time, their careers, with their whole lives, declaring in that gesture, “It’s not about me. It’s about God.” When you go into the sacred place next time, give it a try. Take a bow. A few years back, I started doing that little bend at the waist when I entered a sacred place. Strangely, something inside my soul brightened. It was like opening the window blinds and seeing the light of morning for the first time. God is already here. That slight bend of the waist simply acknowledged the wonder-filled presence of the Creator of the universe. One little bend of the waist and out flows all that spiritual stuff which gives our spines the shivers of wonder and reminds us what the wise sages have told us all along, that the chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
That second bow is a bit more troubling. I’d prefer my sacred encounter to be just between me and God. We’re into private practice of faith. We’re American. Just me and God. Don’t ask me to walk in together with a stranger. Don’t ask me to bow to the man in the black robe. I hardly even know the guy. That’s the whole point. Acknowledge the presence of God in the face of a stranger. You’ll find this same expression in the customary greeting in India, “Namaste”. As two people meet, they bow and offer that greeting, which literally translates, “the sacred center of my soul recognizes the presence of God in the sacred center of your soul.” My life is connected with your life. My soul is a sacred space I open to you. I welcome you as a fellow faith pilgrim. Let’s walk together, worship together, learn to love one another. That’s what the second bow is all about. 
After that second bow, the monks file quietly into the choir stalls, take their seats and the service begins. Most of what transpires during “the divine office”, as monks call their daily times of worship, most of what happens is antiphonal chanting of the Psalms. They face each other, reciting in simple song the words of ancient prayers, back and forth, line by line, alternating from one side to the next. 
Do you see the genius of this arrangement? Five times a day, a monk goes to a sacred place together with other monks. During those services lasting 15-30 minutes each, they worship in intentional community, with God and with one another, like an ancient dance, but with words, voice and soul. Daily they encounter God in the face of the person sitting across the choir simply because they’ve been willing lay down their souls out of love for God love for neighbor as they bow twice.

Monday, September 6, 2010


In 1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet released Time Out, featuring jazz songs which experimented in use of alternative time signatures. Included on this album was the song "Take Five", a tune that quickly became the quartet’s signature song, with its mesmerizing 5/4 beat. The album was wildly successful, propelling the well-known quartet into the national limelight of jazz stardom.  

Behind that signature song sits a signature human activity. Rest. Settle into an easy chair. It will only take five minutes or so to finish reading this little essay. Nothing to it. Take five. As a jazz pianist, I’ve attempted many times to play Take Five, a song easier to hear than to play. For a while, in graduate school, I played with a great drummer who had the 5/4 beat down. As a result, I was able to settle myself into the offbeat piano jazz vamp of Take Five and enjoy some 5/4 improvisations of my own. 

Taking time off is a common offbeat activity for many humans. As a culture, we usually evaluate our worth by what we produce or by what we do. One of the first questions asked between strangers is “What do you do?” with the answer revolving around our jobs or careers. Even when the question is more generic, such as “Tell me about yourself”, we find ourselves describing our professions, ‘what we do for a living’, as the way we speak about our identity to others. 

When we do take time off, we often fill our weekends with physical activities or home chores, allowing ourselves little time to “take five”. The phrase “take five” refers to more than merely napping on Saturday afternoon during a football game on television. It involves stepping intentionally into a whole new way of living, an offbeat, alternative approach to life that allows for “time-off” in the middle of activity. 

Take five. In other words, stop doing. Let the music play on, and just kick back and listen. Take some time to reflect, to rest, to settle down inside. While the instrumentalists play on, enjoy the echo of the words you’ve just been singing to repeat their phrases inwardly, to penetrate your soul and do their wonderful work in you while you do no work at all. It’s a whole new way of living. Selah. A word stuck right in the middle of many Psalms, a word scholars believe simply means, "take five".

Right in the middle of a business management meeting, hear that song inside your soul. Take a slow breath and rest. While on the cell phone, speeding down the interstate on your way to the next appointment, hear that haunting offbeat melody calling you to rest. Take Five. Try turning off the cell phone, relax your shoulders and take Brubeck’s wisdom to heart, literally.