Hands down, the most disgusting thing I’ve ever received in the mail came courtesy of a Dominican nun. It was a picture of baby birds. But not the cute, cotton-ball chickadees that look like little yellow dandelions. Instead, my letter-opener unleashed a horde of wet, blind, monsters.
The shattered bits of shell scattered at their feet indicated that the terrors had just spawned. With their immoderate maws gaping vertically and their lidless, unseeing eyes raised likewise, the beasts obviously wanted food. The mother—who alone could love such hideous creatures—stood somewhere beyond the picture’s frame.
All-in-all, it was a bizarre and shocking thing to get from a nun. Where’s my holy card of St. Joseph? Where’s my medal of St. Dominic that Fr. so-and-so blessed when he came to give the 30-day silent retreat? Where’s my comforting letter of sisterly affirmation, telling me what a good priest I’m sure to be? Why am I holding monsters?
The reason (and the raison d’être for this blog post) came on the flip-side of the picture, where Sister had scribbled a brief note. Unfortunately, I can’t quote her directly (not realizing that I would one day want to use it—and realizing that I enjoy nights without nightmares—I threw the picture away), but the message was so simple, so profound, and so memorable that paraphrasing is easy. The back of the picture said this:
Yeah, deal with it.
The point is not merely that sin makes us monsters (which is true, for sin is nothing if not monstrous). The point is not even that God, like a mother-bird, loves us despite our monstrosity (which is also true, for “God loved us while we were yet sinners”). The point of the picture is the blindness, and the up-turned mouths.
Those ugly birds actually paint a beautiful picture of prayer.
We, like them, are blind. Not only do we not see God face-to-face, we basically don’t see anything: not our true selves, not our true needs, not even our equally-blind brothers and sisters beside us. And yet, in the midst of all that blindness, we do know that we need something. We hunger for something we cannot see, and so we raise our blind eyes to heaven, open our mouths, and wait.
Prayer begins with humility: we honestly acknowledge that we have needs we cannot meet (and often cannot even name). It continues in hope: even if we can’t meet our needs, God can, and he will, because he loves us and wants us to be truly happy. It ends in joy: at this very moment, we already have the only thing we’ve ever really needed in the first place—God himself.
Just because the mother-bird wasn’t pictured doesn’t mean she wasn’t there. She was always hovering over her hatchlings, waiting for them to open their mouths, that she might fill them. And so it is with us. God is always present to us, always protecting us under the shadow of his wing, and always prepared to lavish us with gifts of grace. If we open our minds to him in prayer, we will certainly receive all we need to grow, take wing, and soar the heavens.
So at some point today, take a moment to say the Our Father, and remember that you’re an ugly bird with a bright future.
Image: A Monster?