During the pandemic, I have been grateful to be able to work at home from my garden in Brooklyn, thanks to good wifi and my colleagues’ high tolerance for background birdsong during our Zoom meetings. Every morning, I go to the garden with my cat Shadow and set up my office space. I take time to marvel at all of God’s beautiful creations: the silvery, glistening strands of a spider’s web; the slow to unfurl petals of brightly colored lilies; the invigorating aroma of the fully bloomed lavender bush. Everything is so wonderful in my eyes, and I can only imagine that is how God sees each one of us, too: as unique and precious to him.
One of my favorite aspects of a garden is its songbirds. I have two feeders right across from my workspace, one for whole seeds and the other for suet, a compressed block of peanut butter and seeds. I spend so much time here that the birds grew accustomed to me and eat nonchalantly when I’m in Zoom meetings or writing emails. I wonder if at times they forget that I’m even there. I wonder, too, if we, in the busyness of our lives, forget that God is always there. I know I am often guilty of that.
Considering my urban location, I have a surprisingly diverse cadre of creatures visiting my feeder: sparrows, house finches, mourning doves, starlings, cardinals, mockingbirds, robins, a woodpecker and even pesky squirrels. They are all so pleasing to observe. The starlings argue with each other or shout at my cat. The sparrows stand in a row on the clothesline, waiting patiently for their turn at the feeder. The cardinals zip in and out like ruby streaks of lightning.
This year I cultivated a special relationship with a catbird. A grey bird with a long tail, black tuft of feathers on his head and particularly thin legs, the catbird was a daily visitor. Exceedingly cautious at first, he eyed me from a distance and moved closer to the feeder inch by inch, always watching me. Any sudden movement or noise would spook him, prompting him to fly away. He even screeched at me when he felt like my presence threatened him.
After some time passed, the catbird learned that I wasn’t a threat. He flew straight to the feeder, still minding me but enjoying his meal more comfortably than before. I even started giving him compliments, telling him what a nice bird he was. My voice seemed to soothe him, and soon I could coax him from a nearby branch to the feeder in no time.
Our friendship escalated when the catbird stood on a tree branch and belted out the most beautiful solo I’ve ever heard. He even let me film him singing and reprised his concert for three days in a row.
Then, all of a sudden, the catbird didn’t return. Nothing changed in my routine; I still kept the feeder full. But he didn’t come back.
I tried to rationalize his disappearance at first, jokingly telling myself that maybe he had found a more fulfilling feeder closer to his nest. But after a few days with no sign of the catbird, I grew really worried and hoped that he wasn’t caught by a cat, let alone my own predatory Shadow. I checked the yard for signs of feathers. Nothing. I even said a prayer to St. Francis that he was okay.
I came to realize that the anxiety I felt over this bird must be the same kind of worry God feels for us when we turn our backs from him. When we turn from the proverbial feeder of his grace, when we stop singing our praises to him, God must worry, too. Even though God knows what we’re thinking and what we will choose to do, he still has deep concern for us. Jesus likened this concern to a lost sheep in his parable: “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost ones until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance” (Lk 15:4-7).
God cares for each and every one of us so greatly that he goes out of his way to search for us and bring us back to him. I couldn’t realistically search every tree for my catbird companion. First, I would probably end up with a broken bone, and second, I’d break some trespassing laws. But I have deep hope in my heart that the catbird will return, if not this summer, then next year, to serenade our friendship again.
This hopeful waiting is something that God does, too. God’s hope and patience for us to return is everlasting and unwavering. He is always ready to receive us and embrace us in his love. We only need to turn around to find him already there.