Joy hovers under the eaves of our front porch, erupting in wing and song whenever someone opens the door.
Back in early May we were blessed with a nesting pair of barn swallows up in a corner of our portico. Every evening their friends would come to socialize which was always a welcome sight. Then after the Memorial Day storms, the visiting swallows started building. Dozens of them. This morning I counted 32 nests with more under construction.
Swallows are beautiful birds though simple and small. I love their agility, their exuberance, their happy camaraderie in the air. If I were a bird, I would want to be a swallow, "finding a nest where I might lay my young, even on Your altar, Lord of Hosts, my King and My God." Recalling those words of scripture, I cannot help but pray that this home will be a place for His presence to dwell.
The first time I heard about St. Francis preaching to the birds, the story moved my heart even while rubbing my rational sensibilities the wrong way. It smacked of pantheism to me, and I had been warned against such doctrine. I had been trained that men were the only creatures capable of reason, and therefore the only ones able to respond to the gospel. Or to use different words, men were the only creatures that needed salvation and could receive it.
Clearly, there is a marked difference between men and other creatures. We have been graced with intellects, emotions, and wills made in the image of God. But in as much as our sin caused the fall, all creation might well rejoice in news of our Savior. And in as much as we are creatures, we might take a lesson from brother and sister bird, or at least a lesson from St. Francis.
And as he went on his way, with great fervour, St Francis lifted up his eyes, and saw on some trees by the wayside a great multitude of birds; and being much surprised, he said to his companions, "Wait for me here by the way, whilst I go and preach to my little sisters the birds"; and entering into the field, he began to preach to the birds which were on the ground, and suddenly all those also on the trees came round him, and all listened while St Francis preached to them, and did not fly away until he had given them his blessing.
And Brother Masseo related afterwards to Brother James of Massa how St Francis went among them and even touched them with his garments, and how none of them moved. Now the substance of the sermon was this: "My little sisters the birds, ye owe much to God, your Creator, and ye ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you liberty to fly about into all places; and though ye neither spin nor sew, he has given you a twofold and a threefold clothing for yourselves and for your offspring. Two of all your species he sent into the Ark with Noe that you might not be lost to the world; besides which, he feeds you, though ye neither sow nor reap. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests; so that your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties. Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God."
As he said these words, all the birds began to open their beaks, to stretch their necks, to spread their wings and reverently to bow their heads to the ground, endeavouring by their motions and by their songs to manifest their joy to St Francis. And the saint rejoiced with them. He wondered to see such a multitude of birds, and was charmed with their beautiful variety, with their attention and familiarity, for all which he devoutly gave thanks to the Creator. (From The Little Flowers of St. Francis of Assisi)
Our swallows charm me as they did Brother Francis. They stir up gratitude and freedom in my heart. They remind me of an experience I had years ago in Jarrell ,Texas while on a youth retreat with my church. During our afternoon break, I stepped out for a little fresh air and solitude. Enveloped in my own thoughts, I was unaware of the horse grazing in the pasture I passed. Suddenly the horse came very close to me, startling me and evoking a surprised prayer of thanksgiving for my fellow creature, different and yet similar to me. What a lonely world this would be, I thought, if humans were the only creatures in it.
I know that I have no idea what life eternal looks like, but I cannot imagine heaven to be populated only with disembodied human souls and angels. It would be too lonely, too boring, not in keeping with the endless creativity of God. St. Hildegard recorded a vision in which God spoke these words. "I, the highest and fiery power, have kindled every living spark and I have breathed out nothing that can die." I do not know how to interpret those words. I do not understand how Hildegard received them. But I sense in those words the great love of the Creator for all of His creatures.