Seeing the red tongues of birds
One of my favorite lines in all of the literature I have ever read is found in a short story of J.R.R. Tolkien, called Smith of Wootton Major. The line is in reference to the land of Faery, where the protagonist, Smith, is given safe passage. He had entered the Vale of Evermore which is described in the sentence which I love: "There the air is so lucid that eyes can see the red tongues of birds as they sing on the trees upon the far side of the valley, though that is very wide and the birds are no greater than wrens." The writer is describing a kind of clarity that only comes when one is deeply gifted by God, as one would be if having a mystical experience, or after coming to such inner quiet that one has heightened senses. Either way, it is an experience that can only be had when one learns how to see and perceive in such a way.
St. Ignatius of Loyola describes this clarity as finding God in all things. Other saints and mystical writers talk about it in other terms. But however it is described it is something many of them have in common, which is the ability to notice the presence of God rather acutely. One has to have much patience to finally experience it, such as the phenomenon of the green ray I wrote about in an earlier blog (Sept. 14). What these men and women of prayer (including Tolkien, a devout Catholic) were trying to express is that when we become more and more attuned to God and develop our spiritual chops, so to speak, we can notice much that ordinarily is not perceived. There is a deeper world all around us which we do not experience because we either do not know how to perceive it, or we are simply too busy to notice it. Noticing takes a lot of work at first, but then it becomes second nature; what had been unseen and unheard is now seen and heard with clarity. It is a process of awakening.
I am reading a gorgeous book called The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker. It is one of the most beautiful books, though often sad, that I have ever read. It is through suffering that many of the main characters learn to notice what is interior not only in themselves, but in others. Tin Win, one of these characters, learns how to hear the heartbeats of others during a time of blindness in his life. His blindness actually sets him free to do this, but he has to learn it through making sense of deep suffering. Once he starts really hearing he can even hear the beat of the wings of dragonflies in the distance, and then he begins to hear the heartbeats of the people around him, especially of those he really loves. I do not want to spoil the story if you choose to read this very touching book, so I will say no more about the plot, but the author truly gets to the essence of what it means to learn to notice.
What Tin Win begins to experience comes through suffering, but the suffering turns his perception into gift only because it also comes through love. That is, the essence of having heightened awareness comes as a gift from God. It is not always through suffering that we can come to this new clarity, however. But it does come with the work of first desiring this awareness and then allowing God to teach us how, as if a pupil in His classroom. As we learn to love more, we learn to notice Him more and in noticing Him more, we learn to notice that which is around us more vividly. That is, we learn to love more by spending time with God and learning to be more like Him. It adds an expansiveness to our spirit if we allow the Lord to open our perceptions.
Both Smith in the Tolkien short story and Tin Win in the Sendker book have something in common: they both are innocent and open like children, but are not childish. Jesus said that we are to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of God. He also said the Kingdom is not something yet to come, but that it is all around us. Maybe that is the key to understanding how to see the red tongues of birds singing across a meadow, or to hearing heartbeats in people around us. The Kingdom is indeed around us in the world in which we live our day-to-day lives. There is much beauty in the beating wings of a dragonfly or in the web of a spider, (and I am not a fan of spiders!) There is beauty in the thunder of the surf hitting the seashore or the gentle lap of the water at a lake. There is much beauty in a brother or sister, regardless of who they are or where they are from.
But there also is a lot of suffering and pain around us, just as in the world of Tin Win or Smith. Learning to see and hear more deeply means we notice that, too. The blessing of this is that it should move us to mercy and compassion, and hence to action. If we can see the beauty in a person we can also be moved with compassion when they are in need. The one who sees the red tongues of birds or hears the beating of hearts is so acutely attuned that he or she will be moved to action because that one is also acutely attuned to the beating of the Heart of the Lord Jesus, whose heart breaks when in the presence of the suffering of His people.
As we approach Thanksgiving it would be wonderful if we are moved deeply within our own beating hearts to reach out to the poor in some way, whether it is in giving to a reputable organization to help the millions in the Philippines who are suffering, or to help with the poor in your own town or city who may be struggling to make ends meet as the holiday approaches. A way of giving thanks is to give to others. It is why tithing is important: we give from our plenty as a way to say thank you to God. When we do this, we learn just a bit more to hear the beating of the hearts of the poor as well as to hear the beating of our own heart.
If we truly want to have the ability to see the red tongues of wrens and hear the beating of the hearts of others, we need to let ourselves be opened up to do so by the very love of God. When we read the gospels we see that Jesus was able to "hear heartbeats" because He is the Lord of Love. He noticed everything because that is what Love does. He saw and heard and felt that which the people around Him were experiencing. That is why His heart was often moved with mercy and compassion, so much so that it led Him to a Cross to die for us in order that we might truly be healed and truly live. The best way to say thank you to this is to ask for the gift of noticing, too, that our hearts might expand and our eyes and ears be opened. Not only will we begin to truly see those around us, but we will see Him, too. And in doing that, we will see and hear the beauty in creation and in the people with whom we come in contact. Let us strive to see the red tongues of birds and hear the sound of the wings of dragonflies in striving to experience the beauty of creation, and let us see the beauty of men and women, and hear the cry of the poor. In short, let us hear the heartbeats of our God.
May we learn how to have more clarity in our spiritual lives through the gift of prayer! May we learn to see and hear with the eyes and ears of Jesus! May we appreciate the gift of beauty in creation, especially in our brothers and sisters! May we be filled with gratitude for all the gifts we have received! And may we come to know the heartbeat of the Lord! Let us meet in the Heart of the Lord which beats in Love! Peace!
- The top drawing is the cover of Smith of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1967 edition. The illustration is by Pauline Baynes.
- The photo of the poppies was in Fatima, Portugal and is mine.
- The icon is the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus by Rev. William Hart McNichols and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/54-the-most-sacred-heart-of-jesus
© Michele L. Catanese
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Heart Speaks to Heart