The National Catholic Review
Image
As I laid my cellphone on a bookshelf near the door and stepped outside into the late winter afternoon, I remember thinking, What can happen in just 30 minutes?

True, my wife’s due date for our first child was just a few weeks away. It’s also true this fact made me quiver on occasion like an over-bred hunting dog. I was a man with many worries, desperate to be updated and informed at all times, and so my cellphone went with me everywhere. On this day, though, more than anything I needed a head-clearing run through the neighborhood, so Ileft the phone behind—just this once.

A couple of miles later I came chugging up the hill toward my house. The stop sign that served as my finish line lay just ahead. I was approaching a state largely foreign to me—relaxation. That should have tipped me off. As if on cue, the screen door of my house burst open, and my wife appeared on the front stoop. She was yelling. For me. Good God, I thought, veering blindly across the road and up the driveway, What now? Is she sick? Is the baby on its way?

“Calm down,” my wife told me as I lunged, heaving and fearful, up the steps. “It’s not the baby. But we’ve got a problem. A bird just came down the chimney.”

To understand why the drama now unfolding is worth an essay, it helps to know how this day started—with an early morning dash to the emergency room. My wife awoke that Sunday morning with pain and soreness in her calf. Not a big deal, it seemed. But a quick call to the doctor yielded disturbing news. In a pregnant woman, these symptoms could be the sign of a blood clot. We went straight to the hospital, where we spent the morning talking with doctors and agreeing to various tests and mostly just cooling our heels in a little curtained room where I read the sports section four or five times. In the end, we were told it was just muscle spasms. We headed home much relieved; but to tell the truth, I had never been too worried from the start. This was rather astonishing for me, considering my family’s penchant for excessive worrying, which can be traced back to at least the Civil War and blamed for more than one nervous breakdown. How to explain this uncharacteristic calm? The credit went not to modern anti-anxiety medication but to a lowly cook from a 17th-century monastery.

It had been about a year since I’d stumbled upon The Practice of the Presence of God, the classic collection of letters and teachings by Brother Lawrence, who spent his life chopping vegetables in a kitchen in France and thanking God for it anyway. I read his little book in a weekend, and it quickly became a companion nearly as constant as my cellphone. It taught me two points I had failed to learn from St. Augustine, Pascal, Thomas Merton and a raft of other great spiritual figures to whom I had turned over the years—that prayer is our greatest vocation and that the surest way to God is in our current circumstances, however pedestrian they might seem.

As I raked leaves, collected the trash and slogged through dozens of other humdrum tasks that for years had seemed merely a waste of time, I could hear Brother Lawrence urging me to find new meaning in each one. “Lord of all pots and pans and things,” he prayed, “make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!” His teachings inspire. They are also demanding and unsettling, because they are about letting go. “We ought to give ourselves up to God,” Brother Lawrence taught, “with regard both to things temporal and spiritual, and seek our satisfaction only in the fulfilling of His will, whether He lead us by suffering or by consolation.”

On this particular Sunday morning visit to the E.R., God led us by inconvenience, but I did not object. It was a unique victory for me, and I couldn’t resist congratulating myself. Out on my deck that afternoon, flanked by quiet woods in bright sunshine, I captured this triumph in a journal entry. As that hectic morning unfolded, I wrote, “I found myself almost naturally resorting to prayer instead of freaking out or getting anxious, and that’s an improvement for me.… It was also a chance to practice dealing with situations as they arise and having the flexibility to stay calm.” Then I took my notebook back inside the house, changed into shorts and a sweatshirt and headed out for my cellphone-free run.

“Make it your study, before taking up any task,” Brother Lawrence advises, “to look to God, be it only for a moment.” I have this nugget of wisdom underlined in his book in black ink, but it was well out of my mind by the time I stalked into our living room to confront the offending bird. Small, dark and sparrow-like, it was hopping around the grate inside our fireplace, chirping unhappily behind the glass doors. As I fumed at our bad luck, my plucky wife grabbed a large towel and reached for the fireplace doors.

“What are you doing?” I roared.

“I’m going to get it out,” she said.

“I don’t think that’s a smart move when you’re pregnant,” I snapped.

“Oh, please,” she said. “Since I got pregnant, you won’t let me do anything.” That was true and hardly worth disputing.

“Just let me have the towel,” I said.

As I gingerly opened the glass doors, I knew I had a better chance of delivering our baby myself than catching a furious bird in a towel, transporting it to the front door and setting it free without getting an eye pecked out. The bird wasn’t up for it either. No sooner had I cracked the doors open than it jumped onto the hearth and took off.

I don’t recall the exact pattern of its flight, but it covered a lot of airspace in our living and dining rooms as I stood rooted to the hardwood floor holding an empty beach towel and swearing earnestly. We should “so rule all our actions that they be little acts of communion with God,” said Brother Lawrence. It was too late for that.

After a couple of desperate loops, the bird smashed into our dining room window and dropped to the floor. It lay there dazed for a moment, long enough for me to stop feeling sorry for myself. I yanked open the front door, propped the screen open and dashed back to the dining room.

The determined bird was airborne again, and I was ready for redemption, ready to defend my vulnerable, helpless, pregnant wife, who in the interim had wisely closed all the doors leading to the rest of our house and thus saved the day. The bird had perched along the wall—and was still a step ahead of me. With a burst of beating wings, it rocketed straight through the dining room at chest level, across the living room and right out the front door in a smooth ascending arc skyward, zipping beneath the upper left corner of the door frame and into the open air like a football just squeezing through the uprights. Any illusions I had about my progress with prayer and patience flew out the door with it.

In explaining to a colleague how he prayed, Brother Lawrence wrote, “Everyone is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less. He knows what we can do. Let us begin, then.” It is in this beginning, of course, that reality, the reality of our wandering minds, collides with our spiritual ambitions, and our failures pile up high in the wreckage. It is hard to keep the conversation with God going. We forget about grace as we sweep floors and sit in traffic and stagger around a dark room in the middle of the night hunting for lost pacifiers; then we remember, and then we forget again.

Looking back on his journey of prayer, Brother Lawrence observes that it was replete with shortcomings, that he “fell often, and rose again presently.” Faith, he reminds us, is less about moments of mystical union and mostly about getting knocked down and standing back up—like the bird in my house as it bounced off the window, hit the floor and took flight again, like my own restless faith straining to break free of the limits I impose, searching for that open door, for that sudden flash of warming sky and the promise of springtime coming.

Stephen Martin has written for Commonweal and U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Greensboro, N.C.

Comments

David Pendleton | 1/5/2008 - 9:55pm
Bro. Lawrence is truly the model for all of us in the 21st century who seek to faithfully follow Christ. We may not have the challenges of a 30 years war, or the Black Death, or famine, but we have terrorism, avian flu, and obesity to deal with. A quiet moment to one's own thoughts is hard enough to find in this age of email, voice mail, and cell phones -- let alone trying to find time to pray the rosary. Bro. Lawrence reminds us that we need not set aside our daily business in order to find time with God. We can commune with Christ in our seemingly secular activities -- even while washing the dishes. No doubt we just have to be conscious of the presence of God. Even more, we have to practice the presence of God! Thanks for the encouraging article.
David Pendleton | 1/5/2008 - 9:52pm
Bro. Lawrence is truly the model for all of us in the 21st century who seek to faithfully follow Christ. We may not have the challenges of a 30 years war, or the Black Death, or famine, but we have terrorism, avian flu, and obesity to deal with. A quiet moment to one's own thoughts is hard enough to find in this age of email, voice mail, and cell phones -- let alone trying to find time to pray the rosary. Bro. Lawrence reminds us that we need not set aside our daily business in order to find time with God. We can commune with Christ in our seemingly secular activities -- even while washing the dishes. No doubt we just have to be conscious of the presence of God. Even more, we have to practice the presence of God! Thanks for the encouraging article. David Pendleton

Recently in Faith in Focus