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The Undertaking of Hope

This is a piece (essay? speech? homily?) I wrote for, and presented to, a retreat I was recently a part of in Waterloo, Nebraska. A male cardinal attacked the glass windows as I read aloud this piece, presumably because the bird saw its own reflection, not because of anything I had said or done. –EP

The Undertaking of Hope

Birds live their entire lives in complete vulnerability and full expectancy. Singing their songs from dawn to dusk—or from dusk to dawn, as is the case with the diva mockingbird outside my bedroom window—they never seem to sing their songs the exact same way twice. Similarly, no two persons’ faiths are identical. If indeed we were formed as unique and individual creatures, then it should follow that no two faiths could possibly be exactly the same, that the faith fully alive (or nearly dead) inside our heart is as distinct and peculiar as the midnight song of the mockingbird, the very same melody that wakes or shocks us out of a deep sleep. The frameworks of our beliefs and hopes are intricate treasures, infinitely profound and profoundly different, but the God in whom we vest those treasures, the one who revels in the songs of our hearts, the hymns and laments alike, receives our melodies, whether broken or soaring, with no small pleasure. We are songs of grace in his ears. As the Chinese proverb goes: “A bird doesn’t sing because it has answers; it sings because it has a song.”

A song is a hope of sorts, something permanent. And though birds do not necessarily have the ability to hope, aside from their melody a nest is as close as they come to having something permanent. Birds are known to use almost any material available to construct their nests: twigs, straw, mud, grass clippings, twine, tree bark, moss, lichen, spider web, yarn, shredded plastic bags, candy wrappers, coconut tree fiber, dryer lint, newspaper, even human hair. Some nests, such as an oriole’s, are built suspended, dangling pendant-like from the tip of a limb. Some are nestled securely in the forks of ancient trees, some are built on or low to the ground, some high up, some inside tree excavations, some sturdily built, some conspicuous, some tiny and elusive like the hummingbird’s, and some, as is the case with the mourning dove, appear to be half-hearted efforts, seemingly flung together and flimsy as if a mere breath of wind would obliterate the thing. Yet within the down of their dwellings, something new is birthed into the world, itself frail and defenseless. Our hearts, the nest of our hopes, is a place of secrets, of protection, of rest, a place to birth and nurture a new thing, to witness that life step outside the perimeter of its shelter onto the vulnerable bough, and, ultimately, to realize flight, the very thing that defines and completes it. Though we may not release them with gladness, these hopes are our undertakings.

In his book The Undertaking Michigan poet, author, and professional mortician Thomas Lynch writes: “Undertakings are the things we do to vest the lives we lead against the cold, the meaningless, the void, the noisy blather, and blinding dark. It is the voice we give to wonderment, to pain, to love and desire, anger and outrage; the words that we shape into song and prayer.” The cold, the void, and the meaningless—how intimately familiar we are with those very spaces and recesses in which we cower, fostering as it were their disappointments and bitterly forfeited hopes.

Parasitic creatures, the cowbird is known to lay its eggs in the nests of other birds thereby forcing the hosts to foster and raise an alien. The young cowbird typically grows faster and larger than the host’s own brood, thereby depriving them of necessary sustenance. Big enough to throw around its weight, the thriving cowbird will often push the host’s own young out of the nest, thereby further improving its own chance for survival. Our hopes, if ousted and flung helplessly to the ground, have no chance at survival if abandoned.

What are the parasites that deprive you of hope? In the ejection of hope, what do you foster in its place? Anger, despair, control, apathy, a deliberate refusal to ever hope or believe in anything good again, a deadened heart?

Whether or not they have any awareness of their actions, birds instinctually flit back and forth from branch to branch, from tree to tree, peeking at the underside of fallen or still-attached leaves, trusting—if “trust” is an apt word in this situation—that there will be sustenance enough to survive the day, enough for themselves, even the ones in their care. Sometimes there is not, and that bird—no matter its distinctive plumage, beautiful trilling song, or negative reputation—dies. To this, I do not have an adequate answer, only that the earth buries what it wants.

Out of stubborn belief—or perhaps just hard-headedness—I, with a veiled heart and a blurred, rickety faith, trust that my hopes and my undertakings will not plummet to the ground, into the decaying void, being for naught, buried by earth. Perching white-knuckled to hope is, on some days, my only viable option. It is what gets me through today, for the repairing work of hope may yet rise with a newly lit sun. In reality, on any given day hope may simply be the act of going to bed early—that occasionally necessary act of concluding my involvement in the day, a desperate effort to quell the butcher voices in my head—trusting that the sun, tugging behind it a new tomorrow, will bring a more peaceful, quieter sky. Its rising presence is a starting point in and of itself. Some days, all I can hope for is that beginning. To shut down hope, faith, and love is to avoid hurt, in effect killing the heart.

And what of these butcher voices that never stray far or remain silent for long? We recognize them—the mutilators, the vandals of our spirit and psyche:

“You are a failure at everything you do.” “Everything you touch turns into a mess.”

“You are worthless.”

“You have nothing good to offer.” “No one misses you when you’re not around.”

“You are a fraud.”

Perhaps you know voices of similar ilk? We listen to their onslaught, we nurture them, and love them in our curious, sadistic, inexplicable way. Lurking in the corners of our shadowy psychological halls is an unbelief that haunts us: we do not believe that the grace of hope is real, that it is sincere or substantial, that it is worth clinging to, or that it is a gift with no strings attached. We want—and try—desperately to attach strings, to merit the grace and favor of God in whom our salvation rests. In our near-daily interaction with these butchers, and in our deep desire to know and plainly hear God’s voice, we instead heed the butcher voices, mistaking them for the sound of God’s correction, even misinterpreting their thunderous, odious, expletive-laced chorus as a grace we simply are not yet wise enough or are too weak and small of faith to comprehend. We tell ourselves that his ways are, after all, “higher,” so we bow like good servants to the criminal cruelty disguised as God’s voice. How utterly twisted is our thought process, so expectant of abuse are we, readily confusing repair with disrepair, love with hatred, anger with sorrow, good with evil, light with darkness.

Nicknamed the “Butcher Bird,” Loggerhead Shrikes are known to impale their prey (mice, small birds, insects) on barbed wire fences or thorns to facilitate tearing apart their prey. Much like the butcher voices that lacerate and tear us to shreds, we pray—many times out of a not-so-quiet desperation—and ask God why he doesn’t, or won’t, remove the thorns and the din of merciless utterings that impale us and prevent us from believing in his innate goodness. Invisible to our eyes, we struggle to find him trustworthy, and struggle to understand how, by some miracle of miracles, he finds any degree of value in us, his waveringly brave and cowardly creatures. Miracles are both great and small—from the tiniest provisions for chickadees to the repairing hope of beginning all over again.

In Yann Martel’s 2010 novel Beatrice and Virgil, “faith,” according to Virgil, a monkey engaged in conversation with Beatrice (a despondent donkey) “is like being in the sun. When you are in the sun, can you avoid creating a shadow? Can you shake that area of darkness that clings to you, always shaped like, as if constantly to remind you of yourself? You can’t. This shadow is doubt. And it goes wherever you go as long as you stay in the sun. And who wouldn’t want to be in the sun?”

Imagine post-Eden Adam standing on the edge of his garden, birds’ songs cascading over nearby Eden’s hedge, his shadow splaying from the soles of his feet. Born to move, to be active, and to labor, Adam, dismayed, discovers that nothing out here works. The tools—the shovels, hoes, rakes, spades, all of it—lay rusting on the ground at his feet and he, stupefied, stands over it all unsure of where or even how to begin again. Nothing works. The ground doesn’t work, the tools don’t work, at times his brain doesn’t work, even the work doesn’t work. Nothing works, so he retches that frustration onto ears that no longer seem to be listening, or so we surmise. Surveying the ground at his feet, all that is left are the incessant weeds, the toil, the futility, pestilence and parasites, and worst of all, the memories of what the garden used to be: alive, lush, thriving, abundant, bountiful, full of victory and reward, replete with every imaginable color. Yet, out here, he must take up the tools available to him and begin again, take up the undertakings he knows are his, working the ground, fending off blight, fighting to bring forth life out of the disagreeable earth. And there at every step, with every effort made, his shadow follows him. He looks both to and away from the garden for the sight of seeded hope germinating from the ground, a reminder that life—his to be exact—matters, that he is of consequence, that he must not deaden his heart and since he, in fact, casts a shadow, there is still light in the world and the darkness has not overcome it. And so I echo the monkey Virgil’s question: Who wouldn’t want to be in the sun?

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