Curious. That’s what I think about the pair of red birds who have visited my feeder for the past three weeks. They definitely resemble cardinals, but they seem to be a little bigger, fatter and scruffier than the cardinals I see and recognize. Both have all-black heads without the defined crest of the cardinal. The male does have a few thin red feathers on top of his black head, but they certainly wouldn’t be called a crest. Their heads seem to sit low in their shoulders, unlike the smooth line of the cardinals’ head-shoulders-torso. Otherwise their coloring is very cardinal-like. I call them, for lack of a definitive name, scruffy cardinals. I am very curious about them.
As I’ve watched these birds, and the cardinals, chickadees, titmice, sparrows, hummingbirds, etc. which feed in my yard, I seem to be in the midst of a sea change. In fact I think of the movement in my life as a reversal of the course for a huge ship: it takes a long time to turn around. I have for some time been aware of a call to lead a contemplative life, along with the call to write a book about living in the kingdom. I have started the book, and now I’ve cleared my life of all obligations and volunteer work so that I can focus on the writing; but I’m not even sure I know what a contemplative life is. And how that fits with writing a book.
I sit with the Lord every morning for an hour; that certainly forms and informs my day. But that alone does not make my life contemplative. Certainly my awareness of God throughout the day has greatly increased this past year. But that still doesn’t mean that I’m leading a contemplative life. I asked my spiritual director last week how her life was contemplative. She talked about not multitasking. If she was ironing she was just focused on the task at hand. Since then I have noticed how many times I am doing two things at once: doing a crossword puzzle or a word game online while I watch tv or listening to the radio while working in the kitchen.
So over the holiday weekend I’ve been practicing not multitasking. If I watch tv, that’s all I do. If I iron, the same. If I’m doing a crossword puzzle, I don’t do anything else. On Sunday morning I was preparing lunch for eight of us without the radio entertaining me. In three short days I have been experiencing a lot more joy in my life. As I do a daily examen each night, looking back over my day for the things that were challenging and the things that brought me joy, I have experienced much more joy and just plain happiness, and much less of a sense of challenge.
I am aware of a need in me to be entertained, especially as I do the tasks I don’t particularly like. Early on in my married life I could see that housework was a chore and not a love for me, so I developed a habit of distracting myself with energetic music that covered my resistance to doing it. Over the years I see the countless meals I’ve cooked, beds I’ve made, dishwasher loads I’ve filled and emptied, times I’ve vacuumed—none of which brought me any pleasure, except to have them done. As in so many things in life, the way out, I’ve learned, is the way through—chores, grief, etc. There is no way to get around the things we don’t like to do. They still have to be done. Even the best job has tasks that have to be accomplished in spite of the onerous feel to them.
If my spiritual director is right, and my experience this weekend certainly confirms that she is, the way out is to totally focus on the task at hand, to the exclusion of all else: to be present to the task, to bring the whole of my attention—body, mind and spirit—to any task. This is how we meet the Holy Spirit, God’s presence in the world. If we’re present, then we encounter God’s presence. It’s really as simple as that. The contemplative writings of the past certainly voice this truth. Take, for instance, Brother Lawrence, a simple monk of the 17th Century. In a book of his letters and conversations, The Practice of the Presence of God, his friend, Joseph de Beaufort reported that “The most effective way Brother Lawrence had for communicating with God was to simply do his ordinary work.” [Whitaker House, New Kensington, PA, 1982, p. 20]
As I write the book and practice doing one thing at a time, I think the contemplative life I am called to will become clearer; but I’ll still be contemplating the curious presence of the black-headed, scruffy cardinals.