“How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird” – a reflection on Benedictine life

Lynne Smith, OSB Monastic Life, Spirituality Articles 2 Comments

How to Paint the Portrait of a Bird

First paint a cage
with an open door
next paint
something pretty
something simple
something beautiful
something useful
for the bird
next place the canvas against a tree
in a garden
in a woods
in a forest
hide behind the tree
without saying anything
without moving …
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but it could just as well take long years
before it decides
Don’t be discouraged
wait years if necessary
the speed or slowness of the bird’s arrival
has nothing to do
with the success of the painting
When the bird arrives
if it arrives
keep the deepest silence
wait until the bird enters the cage
and when it has gone in
gently close the door with the paintbrush
erase one by one all the bars
taking care not to touch
any of the bird’s feathers
Next paint the portrait of the tree
choosing the most beautiful of its branches for the bird
paint also the green foliage and the freshness of ­­the wind
the dust of the sun
and the noise of the creatures in the grass in the heat of the summer
and then wait until the bird decides to sing
If the bird doesn’t sing
it’s a bad sign
a sign that the painting is bad
but if it sings, it’s a good sign
a sign that you can sign
Then you very gently pull out
one of the feathers of the bird
and you write your name in a corner of the painting.

—Jacques Prévert
(translated by Shawn Carruth, OSB)

This poem touches me deeply as a metaphor for our Benedictine life. We seek God like the artist seeking to paint a portrait of a bird. First we provide the environment conducive for seeking God in our houses and in our hearts. We know environment shapes us. We create a simple, beautiful environment to support our seeking God. We seek to make our hearts simple, beautiful, useful for God. We wait expectantly.

When the bird comes, when we have an experience of God, we wait in the deepest silence. You know what that is like. We can hardly speak of what we know of God. We hold the space inside within us and in our monasteries as open and free as possible for God. When we experience God’s presence, we keep the deepest silence out of respect and awe. It is not something that we have a lot of words for. Over the years, we learn through this silence and waiting to be present to the presence of God both within us and around us. This presence is not just for ourselves. It seeks to be shared. We carefully remove each bar of the cage around our heart that would keep God from being free within us or that would make God smaller than God is.

Like someone watching the artist, others are watching us. We create the environment and they come to wait and watch with us in the silence. They see the importance of what we are doing as we seek God. They want to learn how to seek God too.

We wait for the bird to sing. We can’t control God’s coming nor God’s speaking. We wait to hear God’s word speaking deep within us. We wait and others wait with us watching. They too want to hear the bird sing. We wait through good times and bad. We may wait our whole lives.

When we hear the Spirit sing, others who have been waiting and learning from us are with us and we hear it together. The Spirit’s song is for them as well as for us. Then we turn and pass the feather to them because they, too, have learned to paint the portrait of a bird, to seek God with us.

It is from this deep place where I am learning to paint the portrait of a bird, where I am learning to hear God within me, that I want to live Benedictine life.

Ed Note:  The poem, “How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird,” was translated and shared by Shawn Carruth, OSB in a presentation to the Chapter of the Federation of St Gertrude, July 2014. This was a gathering of the 14 monasteries of the Federation of St Gertrude, and her presentation was given in the context of the sisters’ visioning for the future. 

Shawn Carruth, OSB is a member of Mount St Benedict Monastery in Crookston, MN. She earned her PhD in New Testament from the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California in 1992. She is recently retired as Professor of Religion at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.



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