In the spring, we heard a bird singing. I asked my toddler what the bird was saying. She thought for a minute, and then said, “He is saying . . . I have a friend!”
She was likely right, in a way. A lot of birdsong is what the dad in the novel A Day No Pigs Would die calls “putting up fences”. He tells his son, “Lots of times when you hear that old robin sing, what he’s singing about is…keep off my tree. That whistle you hear is his fence.”
Birdsong sounds musical to us, but to the birds and to other creatures who speak their language, it’s less “tra-la-la!” and more “This is my turf!” or “You babies come back!” or “Hey, darlin’, check out my feathers!” or “Somebody help me with this freaking owl!” It’s less a glorious symphony and more like the cacophony you’d hear on a busy city street, with honking horns, catcalls, sirens, wailing victims. Birds, man. It’s a tough scene.
Or is it? When I step outside and hear the birds in the morning, it does sound like music to me. It does give my heart a lift. It does restore some peace to my mind. My ears and my brain are designed to receive chirps and warbles and trills as beauty, and I need beauty.
When I hear the unmistakable three-part “tweedle-ee, tweedle-ee, tweedle-ee!” chant of the first robin in the springtime, it’s an irresistible invitation to breathe deeply again, down to the bottom of my lungs, because the long, cramped winter of sheltering and surviving is coming to an end, and soon we’ll have grass again, we’ll see the soil, we’ll have buds and flowers and warmth.
The circular, otherworldly song of the hermit thrush, a bird I have never seen, tells me, “O, Summertime, summertime, summertime, it’s better than you know.” Even the harsh, garbled shouting of the crows as they tear apart my garbage cans makes me laugh, because it’s birds, man. Birds and their crazy music, that is real music.
It’s real music, and it’s good to laugh and smile and be cheered by their song, even if the birds themselves are actually busy citizens going about their day, defending their territory, squabbling over mates, chiding their children. I can learn to decipher what their calls might mean, but it would be a great loss, a bizarre and ungrateful act, to deliberately train myself to stop hearing their music as music.
My ears and heart are designed to receive their song as beauty, and I need beauty. I need it to restore me so that I can function, so I can care for my home, do my work, tend to my children. But I also need it so I can remember who I am: Not just someone who works, not just someone who struggles to be productive, but a lover, a creature of two worlds, a sojourner, an immortal soul made for delight. That’s who I am.
I was going to move on to remind you that, as Catholics, it would a great loss, a bizarre and ungrateful act, to deliberately train ourselves to focus on the “busy citizen” aspects of Catholicism — to encounter our Faith mainly as a series of arguments over theology, squabbles over liturgy, and struggles to live our faith in the political sphere, with all the angst, compromise, wrangling, and machinations that requires.
Both worlds are important, I was going to say — both ways of encountering our Faith. It’s a good thing to defend our turf, to hash out the truth, to rush to rescue each other from attack; but it’s just as true and good and important to immerse ourselves in beauty, which is just as true and vital and insistent as the city street cacophony of everyday Catholicism.
We should keep ourselves open to beauty not to analyse it, but to let it remind us of who we are: lovers, creatures of two worlds, sojourners, immortal souls made for delight. All of that is in our Faith, as well, if we allow our eyes and ears and our hearts and our minds to receive it.
That’s what I was going to say, and more. But instead, let’s just step outside. If you promise to listen to the birds, I promise to stop talking, and we’ll leave it at that. O, Summertime, summertime, summertime! It’s better than you know.