24 Apr Ternura
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Last week I treated myself to a day away at a local beach for a long overdue retreat of silence and solitude. Wrapped in a blanket to ward off the chill of the morning air, I settled into my chair and let my soul unfurl.
As someone accustomed to striving and lauding productivity, I struggle to slow down and do the harder work of listening and waiting. For most of my life, I’ve filled gaps with activities to keep myself engaged. I like to stay busy. Over these past few months, however, I’ve had a nagging feeling that something is amiss.
It’s not the first time I’ve had this impression. However, when I’ve felt it in the past, the sensation has usually preceded some major shift in perspective – a yielding. My underlying motives were examined, fears exposed, and expectations questioned.
Caught up in these thoughts, it took me awhile to realize my eyes had fixed on a small, black and white tern hovering over the waters and periodically diving to capture fish. As the mind does on occasion, this image took me back to another instance when I was at a beach in Portugal observing a similar scene.
Seated at a quaint café on a cobblestone seawall, I noticed a lone seabird gracefully hovering over the water, patiently waiting for just the right time to fold its wings, plunge into the Atlantic and seize a fresh meal. Like a beautiful dance, it would alternate between floating effortlessly on the air current and flapping its wings strategically to stabilize its body as it focused on its prey.
I’m not sure how long I watched this scene before I was jolted out of my peaceful reverie by the sound of a colony of squawking Herring Gulls. A fishing vessel was approaching, and surrounding it were at least 50 seagulls screeching, swooping and competing for scraps of dead fish being tossed overboard by the fisherman.
Unlike terns and other seafowl which are delicate, graceful and discerning about what they consume, gulls patrol shorelines and the open ocean, plucking scraps off the surface. Convening around refuse dumps or fishing boats, they are boisterous and competitive scavengers, happy to snatch another bird’s meal. Not only that, I learned in a documentary that they also feed off each others offspring. NOT cool.
I sat engrossed, observing the seagulls fighting each other and annoying the fishermen. Then it struck me that this scene mirrored what my internal life often looks like. I was ashamed to realize that my outward compulsion for busyness often camouflages a primal urge to be noticed by others and to feel important. By seeking the approval of others, I become double-minded and conflicted. My pride competes for morsels that lead to death not life; scraps that contaminate love for God and others.
Shifting my gaze back to the tern, I sensed a voice in my soul nudging me to pay attention. In sublime contrast to the exhausting pursuit of selfish ambition, God was asking me to rest in His mystery and purify my thoughts. Rather than trying to please others, He was challenging me to humbly enter the fullness of His love and embrace my intrinsic value and uniqueness. He was calling me to renounce double-mindedness and pursue singlehearted devotion to Him; to lay down the burden of hypervigilance and learn from Him. In so doing, He would release me to soar and feast on what could truly satisfy.
I was humbled to be confronted with my duplicity, yet grateful for the grace that gave me words for it. While I’m not foolish enough to think I am now immune to this temptation, I know something broke free that day. There is more peace in my heart, now, and a contentedness.
Funny thing is, ternura means tenderness in Portuguese. Now, every time I see a tern gliding on the breeze or diving for fresh fish, I remember the tenderness of God toward me. And I remember that only single-hearted devotion to Him will bring true fulfillment. Everything else is mere refuse.
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30