Our favorite pandemic pastime has been sitting on the deck in our backyard. We enjoy the sights and sounds of nature regardless of the weather. Nature has been healing for us, even if it means bundling up with coats, hats and mittens and plugging in a few outdoor heaters. We enjoy home-cooked meals, whiskey tastings, long conversations, and an occasional cigar (for one of us.) As Covid cases decrease and more people are vaccinated, we are encouraged to return to life as usual, but I find that given the option, my favorite entertainment is still in my own backyard.

Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is in all.

— Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude

One year ago, I wrote, “Birds chirping, frogs croaking, raindrops meeting their “splat” on the flowerpots and patio chairs, wind rustling in the trees—the simple sounds suggest that all is well with the world.” I feel the exactly the sameall is MOST well when I am attentive to the sights and sounds of nature, when I witness creation unfolding in my own backyard.

A few weeks ago (April 29, 2021), we noticed the resourcefulness of this mama robin who had built a nest on the downspout of our neighbor’s house. A bird’s home is its castle, as seen from our deck.

A few weeks later (May 14, 2021), we see the first feeding of the baby birds.

We assumed these baby birds had just hatched, but only five days later two of our babies left the nest. More time has been spent looking through the telephoto lens of my camera than I care to admit over the last days, but time stands still when I am watching their movements and interactions with their siblings and parents. I could watch baby birds all day.

According to a Google search, baby robins take flight when they are about thirteen days old. This would indicate that mama robin had been taking care of her babies at least a week before we saw their little beaks appear from the depths of their castle. I have also learned that the nest is really more of a cradle than a home. The nest is only prepared as a safe place for the birds to hatch and build strength for their moment to leave the nest, not to return. They rest and sleep in trees just as their parents.

The day arrived when I sensed more movement than usual in the nest. One baby bird was most courageous in moving away from her siblings, sitting atop the nest, flapping her wings, stepping out with her crooked thin legs to rest on the gutter. A small step towards flight a flap of her wings, a consultation with siblings, some time to rest, a food drop-off from mama, followed by another flutter of flight practice.

I am sad to say I missed the take-off of the first baby bird, but as if to acknowledge my disappointment and constant curiosity, little miss first robin landed on my deck railing. She rested there for at least fifteen minutes, not at all disturbed by my presence. I talked, she listened.

And then I coughed, startling her, and she was off, flying through yards, abruptly hitting the side of a nearby house. My God, I caused this collision.

I was compelled to watch until I knew she would okay, although tempted to Google “what happens when a bird flies into a house”. Her mama checked on her status throughout the evening as she sat on the gutter, practicing her take-off occasionally, flying up a few feet before dramatically dropping to the ground (causing enormous grief for this observer.) Her time of rest was needed, I think, to work up her courage again. Nearly two hours later, she takes flight so beautifully (as if she had never hit the side of a house.) I feel proud of her. Thank God she will be a healthy robin.

A lesson here? My friend Ellen writes, “This so mirrors our experience as humans leaving the nest of home or of the familiar places…physical and spiritual, doesn’t it? So many parallels.”

This time of pandemic, in many ways, has been rest. This lesson I gratefully receive. As life returns to a new normal, I resolve not to over-schedule, to take on more than I can realistically manage, or “take flight before I am ready.” I shall rest a bit more. I will take the time I need to feel comfortable in larger groups or public spaces. I will continue to enjoy the simple lessons of nature in my own backyard.

The second bird that left the nest was immediately a pro. She flew from the nest to a nearby roof top, rested a moment and then gracefully flew over a fence into another backyard. Mama robin stayed close to the less courageous babies in the nest, continuing to bring food to (and carry poop out of) the nest, yet not neglecting the two who were out “testing their wings.” Both parents stayed close enough to keep an eye on all the babies while also giving them their space.

There are many lessons to learn from the simplicity of birdwatching, of making the birds our prayer. “Christian spirituality proposes a growth marked by moderation and the capacity to be happy with little. It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack (Laudato Si’, 222).”

This simplicity of watching baby robins learn to fly is itself a freedom — the freedom from doing whatever other thing that could have or should have been done instead. Making the birds our prayer is present moment awareness. I watched the two new fliers until dusk was upon us. The final two birds, I assumed, would take shelter another night in their cradle. I would check on them in the morning. (Update: The nest was empty at 7 am. I saw one of the newest fliers practicing by the fence.)

The Benedictine life is contemplative, “one capable of deep enjoyment free of the obsession with consumption (Laudato Si’, 222).” For me, true freedom is to be fully who I am, right where I am, in this moment, and in these circumstances. I can find contentment and enjoyment in my own backyard. If we cannot find contentment at home, I am not certain that it can be found anywhere. We can learn much from the simplicity of nature, of making the birds our prayer.

Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is in all.

— Thomas Merton, Thoughts In Solitude

See also: The Birds Are My Prayer, 2020

Source: Laudato Si’, Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home (Excerpts from Chapter 6 Ecological Education and Spirituality; Section 4 Joy and Peace)

© Jodi Blazek Gehr