“The cosmos is a congregation in need of a cantor” — Abraham Joshua Heschel
I am sitting in a lawn chair on a patio, basking in the sun, halfway up an Italian hillside. After several hours of driving the twisting roads of the Italian Riviera, it is good simply to be still and quiet. In front of me is the Mediterranean Sea, its deep blue waters sparkling in the sunshine. To my left is a rolling forested valley dotted with scattered villas, their walls glowing with the deep yellow colour typical of the area. Above, soft white clouds, blown by a strong wind, are skittering across the sky. Their shadows create an ever-changing pattern across the land and water.
Below, I see traffic flowing through the streets and boats and ships navigating the waters. It is mid-day and I know the world is a’bustle with activity, work and plans; everyone has places to go and people to see. Will anyone stop and see this beauty, I wonder? How many will stop and acknowledge the glory that surrounds us? I realize, at this moment, all that is required of me is to appreciate it and to say thank you. Listening to song birds, hearing the wind in the trees and watch the interplay of light and shadow, with beauty and silence surrounding me, my heart sings a song of praise.
“The cosmos is a congregation in need of a cantor,” Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, and on that blessed day, I realize I am to be the cantor; the congregation is creation itself. The awareness comes courteous of a small essay Heschel wrote for Vox Humana. In it, he points out that even as the psalmist proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God,” one has to ask, ‘How do they declare it? How do the heavens reveal God’s glory?” They do not speak; they have neither voice nor words and so their glory remains inaudible. It falls to women and men to give speech to their silence, to sing the praises they cannot, to shout the hosannas to the skies, and to offer the thanks. It is for humans to utter what is in the heart of all things.
On this day, sitting in the sun, I realize anew what is required: one needs first to see, and to see requires attentiveness and to be attentive requires time. The gift for me this day is that I have both time and attentiveness. It is perhaps one of the great benefits of being older. Semi-retired, released from the inexorable and hectic demands of full-time work and raising a family, I now have more time to pay attention to what is around me and, hopefully, increasingly, the wisdom to appreciate its value.
It is a gift elders offer to an often distracted and preoccupied culture. I remember with amusement being in a cousin’s backyard on a beautiful summer day a few years ago. A group of us, all “of an age,” as they say, were enjoying a leisurely brunch. We were, if not all yet fully retired, at least well on that path. The conversation turned to gardening and the couple’s efforts to attract different birds to their yard. There were several large bird feeders on the property and we were discussing how various species prefer particular kinds of feeders. At one point, our host’s young adult daughter joined us and she sat silently listening to our conversation. After a time, obviously bored, she asked, in a rather disparaging tone of voice, “Do all old people watch birds? Is that all you talk about?” We laughed, mostly because we didn’t think ourselves old, but we changed the subject in order to include her.
In hindsight, though, I wish I had responded differently. I would have told her, “Yes, it is one of the things we do. We watch the birds because you don’t. We watch, we marvel, we appreciate and we say, ‘Thank you.’ We do it because someone should.” It has been a privilege for me to spend time with people who love birds. They have taught me to notice slight variations in birds’ colouring, the distinctive feathers, the singular shapes of head and beak, the unique bird calls and sounds. Each time, I am in awe at the creativity and diversity of these wonderful creatures and my heart sings.
“Our destiny is enchantment,” Brian Swimme writes, and it is a task I feel increasingly called to. When younger, I had neither the time nor perhaps the wisdom to know the truth of that statement. Now it is a gift I recognize. To immerse one’s self in a forest, contemplate a mountain or an ocean, savour a sunset, delight in a butterfly, is to be invited into enchantment. At some point we recognize our sole and sacred task is to be the cantors of creation itself, giving glory and thanks to God for the beauty of this earth. May you find some time this summer to be enticed by enchantment — and maybe a bird or two.
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.