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.