Am I Really a Contemplative?
Someday I Will Visit Hawk Mountain
By M. Soledad Caballero
I will be a real birder and know raptors
by the shape of their wings, the span of them
against wide skies, the browns and grays
of their feathers, the reds and whites like specks
of paint. I will look directly into the sun, point and say,
those are black vultures, those are red-shouldered
hawks. They fly with the thermals, updrafts, barely
moving, glide their bodies along the currents, borrowing
speed from the wind. I will know other raptors,
sharp-shinned hawk, the Cooper’s hawk, the ones
that flap their wings and move their bodies during the day.
The merlins, the peregrine falcons, soaring like bullets
through blue steel, cutting the winds looking for rabbits,
groundhogs that will not live past talons and claws.
I will know the size of their bones, the weight
of their beaks. I will remember the curves, the colors
of their oval, yellow eyes. I will have the measurements,
the data that live inside their bodies like a secret
taunting me to find its guts. Or this is what I tell myself.
But, I am a bad birder. I care little about the exact rate
of a northern goshawk’s flight speed. I do not need
to know how many pounds of food an American kestrel
eats in winter. I have no interest in the feather types
on a turkey vulture. I have looked up and forgotten
these facts again and again and again. They float
out of my mind immediately. What I remember:
my breathless body as I look into the wildness above,
raptors flying, diving, stooping, bodies of light, talismans,
incantations, dust of the gods. Creatures of myth,
they hang in the sky like questions. They promise
nothing, indifferent to everything but death.
Still, still, I catch myself gasping, neck craned up,
follow the circles they build out of sky, reach
for their brutal mystery, the alien spark of more.
(Helpful to read out loud if you don’t listen to the audio)
A poem touches each of us a bit differently, yet the same – a moment of encounter in the imagination that reaches deep within us. The bold italics indicate what captures me from what the Allegheny College professor and poet, M. Soledad Caballero offers. To hear these words read by the Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama further enhances the resonance I experience in the listening.
Walking along a slough bordering Camano Island, I witness a flock of herons, or the proper group name siege, hurling into the sky when Caballero’s words speak to me “what I remember: my breathless body as I look into the wildness above.…” In that moment, I hear my own thoughts that there is a wildness that runs through my own remembering and breathless body. It’s contemplation. That’s how the contemplative life engages my heart and soul and mind.
Analogous to the poet, I forget all the knowledge of what makes a birder a birder. For me, it’s the contemplative life. I want to live contemplatively, but I forget. I’m a “bad” contemplative in the sense that I fall and rise again, fall and rise again. I try harder, only to fall down again. The knowledge of what it means to be contemplative is helpful. But it quickly flies out of my head, especially in my greatest need.
My longing suggests that I want to know more, but seeking knowledge in the way of information lacks the power to transform my engagement with the world, others, God, even my own life. There is an “alien spark of more” when it comes to the contemplative life. I want to encounter more, go deeper more where wonder and curiosity generates movement and engages mystery.
As the poet seeks to know more about the birds, she recognizes they capture her heart not by the important details that she can learn, but how they live in the world. Witnessing their flight brings about questions, hopes and fears, stories of mythological gravitas. Interestingly, she does know quite a bit about the birds. Yet she longs for something more.
For me, I too learn about God, and want to know more about Divine Holy Mystery. But how quickly the energy in engaging God dissipates if I only stay in the grasping of intellectual attainment for what I think I need. My encounter with the Divine requires, demands, invites me into something that goes beyond my thinking. In the wonder and colorful mystery of who God is, I find a depth crystalizing the beauty of encounter. The crystalizing depth becomes a way of remembering. It is there that I see God move in and through my being so that when I do fall, or am a “bad” contemplative, I am not alone.
Perhaps the remembering is the spark for knowing birds, for knowing what is unknowable.
By Mary Pandiani
Mary Pandiani, D.Min, serves as Selah’s Executive Director, leading the community and organization through its current transition period into future possibilities. Mary has served in various capacities for Selah, including as a founding board member, seminar/group leader, and co-facilitator for Selah’s extended programs, Living From The Heart and Way of the Heart. Mary is a spiritual director and coach, co-facilitator for a spiritual direction training program, and advisor for doctoral students. Mary received her Doctorate of Ministry at Portland Seminary, and her work focuses on a posture of contemplative living across the seasons of life. Her foundation starts with a love for the God who wants to be known and a desire to help others to pause-notice-listen-respond in ways that lead to a deeper understanding of God’s divine invitation. With the support of her husband Bill, Mary serves Selah while also enjoying her family of four adult daughters and their families. Mary lives in Gig Harbor WA where she knows the value of beauty in creation and the gift of community.