Friday, April 9, 2010
Purity of Heart
The two birds in this tile are mounted above an old Wolf stove in our new kitchen. New, because even though we've lived on this acreage for 25 years, we've just finished building a second residence in the back of the property. Set among the oaks and olives, this small house with the big porch is the one in which we someday hope to die.
I bought this tile in the Ansel Adams gallery in Yosemite last summer, at the end of our annual sibling backpack in the Sierras. My sister-in-law Karin, a woman of exquisite taste, spotted it the moment we walked through the door. "Oh, how beautiful," she cried. "It's perfect for your new house, don't you think?" Our as-yet-unbuilt house, I hastened to remind her; we hadn't even broken ground yet, but somehow Karin could visualize the whole thing--you could see it in the bemused look on her face--even if this long-dreamed-of project still felt mostly unreal to me.
And the tile was beautiful, I had to admit that, even if the price made me balky. But Karin rarely pushes this way, and her eye for beauty is unerring, and she wouldn't stop hovering over her find with that goofy, starstruck expression, so I swallowed hard and said, okay, I'll do it. I'll buy that tile.
Now, looking at those birds singing their perpetual duet above my stove, I am astonished at the role they wound up playing during the long months of construction. They became the lodestone, the center around which all other decisions got made: wood, granite, tile, paint, fixtures. And the beauty of those two demanded that everything else become more costly. I hauled them to window stores and stone yards and lumber yards and flooring distributors. Even when they were entirely irrelevant--why did they need to be there when I was picking out the bathtub?--they were with me, hanging out together in the bottom of my backpack, warbling their laus perennis.
Single-handedly--or perhaps I should say single-wingedly--they pulled our little house together, a house we have occupied for less than two weeks, and one that still feels more like a chapel than a proper habitation for the likes of us. Yet now that they have found their permanent perch above the Wolf, they've become a different kind of lodestone for me--a curious symbol for what the old monks used to call "purity of heart."
Blessed are the pure of heart, says Jesus, for they shall see God--and the monks and hermits of the desert took this literally, spending whole lifetimes stripping away the inessential in order to arrive at the one true thing. They passionately believed in the existence of the pearl, that glorious pearl of legendary price. They staked their lives on the treasure in the field being not only real, but worth everything they might own or claim to be if only they could obtain it.
That firm belief determined what they ate or didn't eat, whether they slept or didn't sleep, and how many psalms they chanted in a day. It gave them the will to watch their thoughts, guard their hearts, and pray without ceasing: one thing coalescing the many. And with that pearl in their sightlines, focusing every effort, their hearts slowly emptied out and became pure.
We will grow into our new house. Given enough time, it will become as old hat as the battered but beloved family abode we've lived in for the past 25 years. I pray, however, that in the process of learning to take this new beauty for granted, those joyful birds continue to focus me the way they did during the building phase, when every single choice I made revolved around their singing.