The Spiritual Practice of Contemplating God in the Barn Swallows
Tina and I had the opportunity to minister at a young adults’ retreat last weekend. Actually, she did most of the ministering, preaching four sessions and connecting in a deep way with the thirty-five twenty-somethings who were there. I led one session on spiritual practices and crafting a rule of life. Between Tina’s morning message on “Faith as Pilgrimage” and my Rule of Life session, the organizers of the retreat created a spacious two-hour “moment” where participants could walk through various “stations” at their own pace. There was a labyrinth for meditative prayer walking; a “story rope” station; a cross with hammers, nails, and scraps of paper; and a station where we cut twigs and grafted them onto a larger branch. It was over-the-top creative, and made room for meaningful transformative moments.
Another station involved chairs in front of a big window with a view of the lawns and a lake, supplied with paper and various kinds of drawing pencils.
After the emotionally-moving experience of creating my story rope, I sat in one of those chairs by the window and watched a group of barn swallows dance above the grass, flitting between sky, water, and trees.
I have a history with barn swallows. We live at a place called Lake Joy, and, as with many lake places, the air is often filled with mosquitoes and gnats. God has created a really cool way to thin their herds (I know, they are really swarms, but I like the turn of phrase with “herds”). Over the course of a day at the lake, there are two shifts of warriors who battle the bugs: the barn swallows and the bats. On a spring or summer day, the swallows fly a pattern through our back yard, swallowing the little protein packages suspended in the air—and interweaving one another in a busy and graceful ballet. Then, right at dusk, there is a changing of the guard. The swallows go to wherever it is that swallows go at night; and the bats come out and trace their exact bug-eating patterns, albeit in a wobblier and less graceful dance!
I know it is a good day when I can be at home enough to experience both shifts!
Watching the swallows, I have come to see a testimony of God’s amazing design in them. They are such efficient, beautiful, and purposeful machines! They have lines like an F-16, and watching them is like a Blue Angels show on Seafair weekend in Seattle—except without all the sonic booms! They accomplish their purpose, and they do it with joy, with poise, and with beauty.
Back to the retreat: I was transfixed with the barn swallows, and decided to just watch them and let them inspire in me praise for their creator. There is a term for this in classical Christian spirituality. Part of The Contemplative Life, the indirect contemplation of God through nature is called psykike (pronounced psy-ki-kay). It is easy to think that real spiritual work must involve active prayer or scripture reading, or pursuit of the more rigorous and active spiritual disciplines, but the simple appreciation of God inspired by quiet attention to the evidence of a craftsman’s hand in nature is worship—and can satisfy and refresh or souls in ways that other practices in The Active Life, the spiritual life of disciplined prayer and study, cannot.
So I sat there. And watched. Eventually, I picked up a little blank booklet that the retreat organizers had provided, and I began to draw. I am no artist, but I find that putting colored pencils to paper helps me. I sketched a rough pastel of one the birds that were, at that moment, my favorites. Then I threw some words on a page and called it a poem. Having taken those moments to rest in God’s presence, appreciating God in creation, my inner person found a peace that had been difficult to summon in all the rush and tumble of work in the weeks and months that proceeded that time at the station… by the window… by the lake. Here is the fruit of my moment of psykike. Enjoy.
A flying machine
Design on display.
Arcs and curves
Amethyst and auburn
Sage and sapphire
A blended palette.
Perfect in purpose
Dance of life
In playful community
Frolicking in sky
Symmetry and surprise