"The first time ever I saw your face...
I felt the earth turn in my hand
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at Your command, my Love..."
- Roberta Flack
This weekend I was with an extraordinary family of spiritual thinkers who are committed to exploring the power of grace in their lives. A conversation came up about the value of listening deeply to the wisdom found in nature. We considered the lessons we learned while communing with other creatures...than humans. Turtles, puppies, fish, horses...and, this story about my encounter with a hummingbird. I'm re-posting it today because it's been so present in my thought this weekend. I offer it with love...
I hope you will understand why Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," leapt into my heart, when I began to write about this experience. In it, a tiny conscious being, leaves a very large imprint on my heart.
One of my favorite camp activities are the theme-inspired dinner dances that have been introduced by our extraordinary Lodge Manager, Eddie Cox. Let me take a moment here to go on record as saying that Eddie is amazing…really. He has taken what is, without question, one of the most challenging jobs at camp, and turned it into a platform for sharing his ebullient joy, awe-inspiring grace (on the dance floor and in his every interaction with campers, parents, and fellow counselors), pure love, and breath-taking humility.
The CITs (Counselors-in-Training) may have learned more about servant-leadership from working shoulder-to-shoulder and broom-to-broom with Eddie Cox, than on a Peace Corp mission in Kenya, or any Noles course in Patagonia.
Okay…now that I’ve honored a really great guy, let me continue with the real story here…
Sidenote: This post was originally published in 2007. This is 2012, and this summer Eddie will be one of the Camp Directors. I'm so grateful for his willingness to accept this post.
It was mid-session after the campers returned from their three-day trips, and Eddie and his chain gang of CITs had worked furiously to create a feeling of New York dinner club elegance in the middle of a pine log lodge. And they had succeeded admirably. Everyone had been encouraged to wear their Sunday (or Friday night) best for 40s-style swing dancing during dinner. Long rectangular and large round tables bordered an open space that was carved out for dancing. Once dinner had been served, the music filled the lodge, swirling through the rafters as dancers left their plates for a turn, or two, at imitating Fred and Ginger.
Eddie hosted as our resident “Fred,” and we watched and twirled right next to him while our dinners cooled on abandoned plates.
I had just returned to my place at the table to catch my breath when Amy, a counselor and long-time friend, approached.. She asked me to come outside as there was an urgent need for spiritual care.
I was really at camp for only one reason--I am a Christian Science practitioner. Our campers come from families who live and practice Christian Science, and rely on its teachings for health care, life guidance, and to discover more about their relationship to God. I am very accustomed to being called away from dinner, sleep, shower….you name it. It's always a privilege to prayerfully support a counselor, camper…or horse…in need.
The sound of the music, the clatter of dishes, the squeals of joy from the dance floor, the grumbling of my tummy, receded into a hazy muffle of white noise as I mentally descended into a space of conscious stillness. A conscientious awareness of God’s All-in-allness-- one that I have learned to completely surrender to.
I followed Amy to the deck just outside the dining room. There sitting on the rock wall banked with wildflowers was Ryan with something very small cupped in his large, calloused, rock-climber hands. His face was as tender as a child’s, and his eyes looked up imploring me to “do something”. I reached him quickly and discovered that a tiny hummingbird was lying limply in his palm. He extended his hand to me and I took “her” into my own, much smaller hand, gently. She was unresponsive and felt as soft and broken as a small silken sack of loose flax seeds.
As I held her, I turned to God with my whole heart. I had spent years of summers on my cabin porch with these vibrant creatures darting and hovering…weaving their way between the bird feeders swinging from porch rafters, and the profusion of colorful wildflowers that pepper the flowerbeds, clay pots, and hanging planters around camp. This gentle creature was His...God’s. It was clear to me that only He could combine such intricate beauty, strength, speed, tenderness, and grace in such a tiny form.
I turned to Amy, and there were tears streaming down her face. She shared with me that while eating dinner she noticed something skirt across the wooden floor of the dining room. It had looked like a hockey puck, being kicked back and forth by the unwitting dancers. By the time she realized that it was this tiny hummingbird, and picked it up, it was unresponsive. The bird had somehow found its way into the lodge earlier that morning, and had spent the day trying to get out through the tall windows, as the CITs worked on preparing the lodge for the dance. They had tried to help her find her freedom, but had not been successful. She would just fly higher, and higher, into the pitched ceiling of the lodge.
It was obvious that she had become exhausted, and had finally fallen to the floor of the dining room.
Amy finished her story by looking up at Ryan, who had been listening carefully. With a shy gulp she said,
“We named her Life…”
So, that was where I started: what did I know about Life? Life is God. Life is good. Life was not vulnerable. Life, synonymous with Love, asserted itself as the only real power in the universe. As Mary Baker Eddy asserts in her poem “Love”:
“Love alone is Life.”
So then, as I further reasoned, with mathematical certainty that, if Love alone is life, then Life alone is Love…and Love doesn’t make you weak, tired, vulnerable or fragile. These were ideas that I had been clinging to all week as I'd prayed for an indomitable sense of conscious being. Love as life is a divine promise of invulnerability, strength, clarity and assurance. In fact, it is a clear, that when we are love, we are living.Alive and safely sheltered in Love’s encircling care. It was clear to me that this hummingbird, because she was a hummingbird, loved the sunlight. She was one with the rich beauty and color of her surroundings...the fresh mountain air, the scent of pines, the sound of a the river. Her efforts to reach what she loved could not have made her weak, but could have only made her strong.
The campers and counselors loved one another. And they loved this hummingbird. They loved the beauty of the mountains. They loved the lessons they were learning from the birds, rocks, water, trees, creatures around them. Therefore they were safe from being placed in a situation where they could be harmed, or cause her harm.
I looked down on her small broken form, and it was clear that any brokenness was incongruent with renewed my sense of “Life.” ”Life” was more than this small -- however exquisitely beautiful -- form could ever fully express. Life, God, was what this little bird’s body was only a tender whispering of. And yet I knew that each mental molecule of Life's expression of itself, had to be in consonance with the integrity of the overarching character of Life. It was a self-enforcing law.
It was clear to me that we needed to, as Eddy says:
“act as possessing all power
(to be kind, compassionate, caring and nurturing)
from Him (Love) in whom [we] have our being.”
I asked Amy to get me a small saucer of sugar water, the same solution we put in the hummingbird feeders around camp. At first I just put a little of the water on my finger and put my finger near her long slender beak, lying on the palm of my hand. Within a moment or two her eye flickered, and her beak parted ever so slightly. But it was obvious that she was struggling, and felt too weak to take the water into her mouth.
I closed my eyes in prayer. The image came to me of a hummingbird hovering in front of a flower with her beak dipped into the mouth of the blossom. So I put a spoonful of the water into my own mouth. Then I made my lips into a pursed opening…imitating, as best I could, the opening of a flower. I then lifted my hand to my face, and placed the end of her beak into the opening of my lips filled with the sugar water solution.
I was shocked to feel a tiny hair-like tongue darting in and out across my lips. I opened my eyes, and there, looking into my face with all the spiritual maturity of a Ghandhi or a wise child, were the eyes of this extraordinary creature. She locked her eyes with mine, and shuddered into full conscious being.
When I felt her no longer drinking greedily, I pulled her away from my face and looked down at her lying in my palm. Her little body began to “purr” with life. As we watched, our little girl hummingbird, became a boy hummingbird. Her dull brown feathers pulsing into an iridescent green that caused us to gasp with delight. Her throat throbbed a ruby color I hadn't imagined possible.
Within a few moments, the three of us together held her, fed her, loved her.
She would “rev” (the only word I can think of to describe the feeling in my hand when her body would begin to buzz, just before her wings would start to flutter), and attempt to fly out from my hand over and over again.
Each time we celebrated her freedom. She'd fly a few feet, and then fluttered to the ground where I'd pick her up. After resting in my hand for a minute or two, she'd try again. A small group of campers and counselors emerged from the dining room, and she continued to make her flight attempts in front of a loving, but concerned audience. Since it was time for the evening program to start, I took her up to my cabin and sat quietly with her on the porch.
A young counselor followed me, carrying the saucer of sugar water. She sat next to me as I held our little friend. This young woman and I had already spent a lot of time on my porch that summer. One of her best friends from home had been killed, just after she had arrived at camp, and she had been haunted with questions about life and death. We had talked well into the night about what we were both learning about God’s love for humanity. But her heart was still not fully at peace.
As we sat there with “Life” I realized that all our talking was nothing compared to what we were witnessing that evening of God’s expression of Himself as Life...as conscious being...through this small creature.
Once again, “Life” attempted a flight and this time she succeeded in making it onto a branch in one of the large pine tree that canopies my cabin. The counselor watched as "Life" made one attempt, after another, to fly from branch-to-branch, and then tree-to-tree, until she was no longer visible. We continued to sit and talk...the sky moving from evening into twilight...when suddenly out of the blue (literally), “Life” returned to the porch and landed on my knee. She sat there for a moment or two before I picked her up and held her. And a few moments later, she took off again.
At some point, my friend decided she should go down and join the rest of the camp community for the evening program. After praying for a little while longer, in gratitude for what God had shown me of Himself as Life that evening, I too went to join the others at the campfire.
On my way down I ran into Amy and another counselor, Peter, sitting on the rock wall just above the fire ring where everyone was gathered for a campfire sing. I sat down to let Amy know what had happened to “Life,” and to share together our gratitude for the experience, when “Life” herself (himself...only males are supposed to have ruby throats…although I don’t know that I will ever think of her that way) flitted into view and landed on top of my foot. I reached down and picked her up and held her. I petted her beautiful tiny iridescent green feathers, and stroked her ruby throat until she started to whirr into pre-flight again. When she lifted off and flew into the lavender dusk sky I was so happy to see how strong and sure she appeared.
Amy and I finished our conversation with Peter, and I'd walked down to the pines behind the benches surrounding the fire-ring, when suddenly I felt something at the nape of my neck, moving the hairs that had escaped from my ponytail.
For a few moments, “Life” was on my shoulder without the slightest movement. I turned my head and she again stared into my eyes. There was such apparent intelligence, wisdom and gratitude pouring from her heart. I could see her desire to communicate her love, as clearly as I could see it in my daughter’s eyes each night as we lay in her little bed snuggling before she fell asleep...neither of us saying a word while we listened to her daddy singing hymns.
“Life’s” eyes held all the awareness of love and affection, gratitude and goodness that my daughter’s did. There was no lesser intelligence, no lesser life.
When “Life” flew off this time into the branches of countless pine and aspen trees above us, gently swaying against the background of a cobalt night sky filled with stars, I knew she was ready to let me go. She had told me all that I needed to know to stop being concerned for her.
Over the course of the next weeks a single hummingbird would hover around the Adirondack chair on my porch whenever I sat there to pray or study. Every now and then she would light on the arm of one of the chairs as I sat quietly In the weeks following this experience, a handful of hummingbirds decided that the flowers in hanging baskets and pots on my porch were the most tasty at camp.
And one day, soon after we'd returned home to St. Louis at the end of camp, I discovered that my window boxes, filled with pale coral geraniums, deep blue gentien and lobelia, were where a half dozen hummingbirds would gather to feed, while I worked at the kitchen sink. And when I was sitting at my desk near the back deck, they'd relocate to just outside the nearby windows where pots overflowed with fragrant lavender and waterfalls of petunias as soft and pink as a sunrise over the Rockies.
I offer no interpretation of these experiences….I just extend them as a gift of Life, and Love.
"And Life most sweet as heart to heart,
Speaks kindly when we meet and part."
- Mary Baker Eddy