This spring saw our backyard filled with new life: families of quail scurrying across the grass, baby doves peeking out from the eaves of our patio, and a special surprise: a little killdeer mother, nesting on the ground in a shallow depression in the gravel out near the children’s basketball hoop. They were the first to find her, running in breathless one day to report that we had a new tenant. Sure enough, there she sat, seeming both a bit smug and suspicious on her small speckled eggs. My heart sank a bit, worried about her safety so near the children’s play area. Her curious choice of a nest was instinctive, I had recently learned. Only weeks before, another killdeer had made a nest recently on our neighbors property – in the rocks right next to their busy driveway. My neighbor, concerned, had researched the birds and told me about these indignant little mothers. We were both amazed at their unusual habits. They always nest on the ground, sometimes taking turns on the eggs with the father. So slight an indentation do they make on the desert ground, and so like stones are the eggs, that they blend into gravel perfectly. It’s good camouflage, but still…this one had no idea what she was in for.
I cautioned the kids to give her plenty of room and explained that she needed to stay put to care for her tiny family. These birds seem to tolerate humans pretty well, and she grudgingly eyed the children as they ran about the yard this mild May. But when one became too curious, or too careless, and trespassed near her spot, she would jump up, make the distinctive cry that gives the bird its name, “KILL- DEE!” and cock a crazy pose with her wing, hopping as if injured across the yard. Apparently, it is her brave and clever way of distracting predators (or three-year-olds) by trying to look wounded so they will follow her, as easy prey, and leave the nest alone. We became used to her, the dear, diligent little thing. Every night as I closed the shutters, I knew she was out there, huddled on those eggs. And every morning, as I opened them, the sun would stream in, and there she’d be, squatting still.
The story doesn’t end well, I’m afraid. After just a week or two, the kids noticed there was only one egg left, and the next day, she was gone, the nest empty, no broken shells left behind to hint at happy hatchings. I suppose another animal, unimpressed by her playacting, had the last say.
As I bent over the barely-there nest, investigating after the kids reported her missing, the words of psalm 84 ran through my mind. I had, just days before, chosen “even the sparrow” as the title of my own new blog because I identified with the small, scriptural birds who sought better shelter for their own fragile treasure.
Clever little sparrows. So small, these mothers could squeeze into the eaves of the temple and boldly build their homes in the very presence of God. They nested near His tabernacle. So insignificant were they, no one bothered about them although they lived where only the select few were allowed to enter. And the psalmist is full of longing as he sees that even these little things had a favored place close to the sanctuary.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. ~Psalm 84:3
We know of their humble lot from the words of Christ himself:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are numbered. Fear not therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. ~Matthew 10:29-31
And so common were they, that you could get a good bargain: buy four, get the fifth thrown in for free!
Are not five sparrow sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten by God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows. ~Luke 12:6-7
Yet their home was not in a shallow desert hole. It was in the heart of divine worship. And there, among the incense and the lifting of prayer, they warmed their eggs and fed their young.
I think of us Catholic mothers who build our “nests” within the loving embrace of the Church. Hopefully, we have the secret of the sparrow in our heart pockets: humility. It’s very St. Therese-ish, I think. We know our littleness and settle into the small spaces closest to the front, the hidden homes that almost touch the tabernacle. We are confident He sees us up there. We know how close to Him we need to stay, and we know He wants us there. We watch the offering of the sacrifice with awed and prostrate hearts. Maybe because we know need it more, we hungrily soak up the words of worship and we delight in the Bread of Salvation, feeding the open mouths of our chicks with sacramental food. We mark our hours and days by the rhythm of the Church’s gentle bells. We feast when she feasts, fast when she fasts. When long nights are filled with anxiousness and uncertainly, the red glow from the tabernacle lamp is like our night-light. It’s his promise. He remains with us.
His earthly temple, Jesus assures us, is built on a rock. And we are banking on that promise, too. Because we see lots of others who seem to have settled in very comfortably on the sand. And we see the tide coming in. Or those buying houses of straw built by a cheap culture of quick fixes. But from our perch, we are watching the storm clouds brewing. Or those like the poor little killdeer, who, in an effort to blend into their (rather dubious) surroundings, sit completely exposed to one who is always prowling. We worry about them. But we also pray for them, all of them, because from our vantage point we see the vastness of this temple. And we know a that there is lots of room up here, lots and lots of room.
Let not your heart be troubled…in my Father’s house there are many rooms… ~John 14:1,2