From the rectory window facing the church, I saw the most red, the reddest, the max-reddest cardinal I’ve ever seen. Sure to get a fine mate, I thought. Sure enough, an hour later when I left the house, I saw a flash of that reddest red in the lilac hedge and slowed my pace so as to not startle it away. Handicapped by not having my eye glasses, I squinted to discern the finer features of the bird, the black ring around its beak and the tufted crown of its head sticking up like my own cowlick often does. I sensed movement to my right then, and there she was, presumably, his mate. She didn’t command my attention like her chosen one did, her gray feathers blending seamlessly into the foreground and background of branches.
For mates, they didn’t get very close, I thought. Despite the phrase “love birds,” maybe they are not all that romantic. I do recall, however, a pair of speckled flickers, in a tree near La Crosse that I caught sight of in a sugar maple, rubbing their chests together and making such a straining sound that I had to avert my eyes. In any event, these cardinals in my lilac hedge were no speckled flickers. When the male flew over to a branch a little bit closer to the female, the female flew a little bit farther away. Then, she would approach, and he would move away. I guess people are like that, too, when they are getting to know one another. Few of us are willing to go “all in” without some testing of the waters to see how much we can trust. Will he come after me if I fly away a little bit?
Farther along my walk, I saw a family of three walking away from their house, a dog barking desperately nearby. It turns out that that dog was theirs. While the dad pushed the baby stroller, the mom craned her neck toward the house, “Be quiet, Buddy!” In this instance, at least, Buddy was extremely disobedient. The farther away the family walked from the house, the louder Buddy barked. It occurred to me that it was not the raw distance between them that panicked Buddy but the fact that the distance was growing. They were walking away, and Buddy knew it. Clearly, he was not sure they would come back.
I observed the birds and Buddy and his family in these days of social distancing. Oncoming walkers swerve away from each other on the sidewalk in a dance of politeness with a splash of fear. A friend of mine reported on Facebook that in the grocery store line, the man behind her was too close for comfort and she asked him to move back. He rolled his eyes and moved. Spring break revelers on southern beaches scoff at distancing their invincible selves, and we roll our eyes at them.
We sometimes speak of God with the metaphor of distance. God seems far, or God seems close. Maybe you have heard the pious phrase, “If you feel far from God, guess who moved?” There is something I love about that question and something I hate about it. I love that it can motivate me to take prayer and my moral duty toward God more seriously and kick start a sagging spiritual life. I hate that it can add guilt and shame to someone who, through no fault of her own, has lost confidence in God’s nearness.
Keeping distance from others in these days of contagion makes me aware of the pain that distance causes in people’s lives, whether between themselves and others or the perceived distance between themselves and God. With people, if we cannot bridge the gap with a hand shake, we can certainly smile, laugh or a phone call to others. And with God? That is more of a mystery, but it helps me today to believe that God wants to be with me even more than that female cardinal desires the redder than red male who seems to not want to get too close, and that God is as desperate as Buddy to have us home with him.