I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Mary Thomason-Smith’s reflection on the homily of birdsong.
All nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres—Maltbie D. Babcock
Stepping on my deck for a deep, belly breath full of fresh air, the tranquility of an Indiana summer morning invites me to stillness, to receive the peaceful offerings of dawn. Green morning glory vines noodle their way through the wooden rails and posts that frame my space for prayer. A rabbit nibbles on clover just beyond the deck. The breeze stirs, ringing my neighbor’s wind chimes. The proud cardinal in the white pine summons me to morning prayer with his pure, cheer cheer. Aromas of dampened soil and grass rise like incense from the earth, while the warmth of golden light on my face is a morning discourse of the gospel: I am the light of the world. My soul settles in this space of serenity, my body softens to nature’s gentle, awakening presence, while sounds and scents vibrate with her hospitality of belonging: the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and all who live in it.
Creation sings to me God’s love song. Free of pretense, distortion or deception, it is a clear song given by our Divine Creator; a song pure of heart, utterly honest, trustworthy. I am not a stranger to song, having spent my life pursuing excellence of musical expression as a classical pianist, an organist, and presently directing a choir. Though graduate studies, I taught aural training and sightsinging to musicians, a course of study to develop a musician’s ear to identify musical patterns and relationships, to discern characteristics of harmony (major or minor chords, for example), to measure the distance between two pitches (intervals), and to transcribe (write in musical notation) rhythms, melodies and harmonic progressions. In addition, musicians practice singing musical intervals, melodies and rhythms at first sight. As a musician develops her ear, the greater her capacity to process, analyze and perform music. A culmination of my training, practice and teaching, I now realize, was my ear’s expanded ability to listen intently to the songs of creation, and to God, and my capacity to respond, in turn, with my own voice.
Following my transition from academia into the role of a practitioner musician, while embarking on my larger life’s purpose as a mother, birding became my hobby. Learning to identify birds by their songs, chirps, warbles, trills and repetitive calls was a delightful exercise combining my love of nature with an altogether unique challenge for my aural recognition skills. I shared this learning experience with my two preschool-aged children, Noah and Melody, comingling curiosity and growth with one another. From the library we borrowed materials to learn mnemonic devices for easier bird identification: cheeva-cheeva we learned was the call of the tufted titmouse, while we were charmed by the delightful little fellow who calls his own name, chick-a-dee-dee-dee.
As my children grew, we continued to savor occasional birding together, but their interests took different turns, so I kept my birding hobby alive for myself on my daily walks. In solitude, I discovered opportunity for a spiritual discipline of attentiveness to birdsong. As a result, rare and precious transcendent moments emerged for me through contemplation with birdsong. Prompted by my companion musicians, the birds, I experienced exquisite glimpses of closeness to God. Relaxing in a posture of openness to the beauty of their music, their songs brought grace into spaces of need in my soul. Like a cantor singing a psalm, their expressions led me into worship. And I willingly welcomed their lead. Their distinctively pure and effortless song fascinated me.
My present daily practice, very simply, is to appreciate the beauty of birds’ musical expression, and to embrace their musical invitation into worship, reverence, stillness, and ultimately, to release my voice as they do theirs. While I may be able to identify the bird by its call (or more often, not) I savor what their songs now signify to me: spontaneous praise, liberation of the voice, unprompted expression, freedom to sing the truth. It is a mystery to me, how God uses the beauty of creation to stir and soothe our spirits. As I listen with my heart’s appreciation turned to God’s beautiful gift of birdsong, I am warmed. Some mornings, it’s the eastern wood-pewee at whom I chuckle and am reminded, as he calls pee-a-wee, that laughter heals. Other days, it’s the white-throated sparrow’s lyric and plaintive, oh-sweet-Canada-Canada that calms my worries. This spiritual discipline is my delight. My practice is to listen, to pursue the hidden homily in their song, to experience their music as a means of grace. In birdsong, I find messages of joy and jubilance, fear and alarm, melancholy and sadness—songs, I too, must liberate myself to sing. And I offer God gratitude for these trustworthy friends who unfailingly coax me into song. “
Mary Thomason–Smith is a musical artist seeking harmonious living through artistic expression in all roles and relationships in her life. Her interests include liberating the voice through the arts, through nature and through song. Nature that surrounds her home in Indiana provides inspiration and delight for her, her husband and two children.