Two men looked out from their prison bars.
The one saw mud, and the other stars.
That little ditty came from a pious book that someone gave me as a child, The Young Man's Guide. I would not recommend the book to anyone today. It was the kind of book that could spend pages talking about purity without ever mentioning sex. But the ditty has stuck with me.
One reason it has stuck with me is that my teen years were years of stories about priests being imprisoned in China, forbidden to "say Mass." Outsiders would sneak them tiny bits of bread and wine so they could say Mass on their chests, lying in bed. Presumably they had prison bars, and were probably limited in their view to mud and stars.
So I think of prison bars when I look out my window this morning. The windows in my house are too high for me to see directly out. All I can see are the tops of trees. But when you are limited in such a way, you start to notice details. I watch the different ways that the maple tree develops buds or leaves (I can't tell which) from the walnut tree which has not yet started developing anything. The walnut tree was trimmed back so drastically a year ago that I assumed it would be cut down. Instead it sprouted small branches and by the end of last summer you could hardly tell that it had been trimmed. Right now all I can see are those thin bare branches reaching to the sky.
We live in an ecological desert, even though it is reasonably landscaped according to prevailing standards. The diversity of insects and birds that we had in our back yard when I was a child are long gone. It has been years since I have seen or heard a catbird. We have robins, cardinals, sparrows, house finches, crows, and starlings. Some other species pass through on their way north. But those few species that I can see from my prison bars are gift enough. I never missed the passenger pigeon because it was extinct before I was born. People fifty years from now will never miss the species that are going extinct day by day.
Sparrows and starlings are invaders from elsewhere who now dominate the scene. I used to resent them, but they are, after all, the lower class of the bird world. As a Franciscan, I now identify with them.
How long will I be able to look out of these prison bars? My health could put me in a nursing home tomorrow. My Franciscan Order is aging, and in a few years, if I am still here, there may be so few of us that we will have to move somewhere else. There is a certain freedom in knowing that almost any window could be a new set of prison bars. Whatever I could see from those bars would be as much a gift as what I can see from the ones right here.
I have not traveled much. I lived six years in Boston and visited most of the famous sites there. Faneuil Hall (the site of the "Boston massacre") was just a few blocks from where I lived. I have learned that I can visit a place like Niagara Falls, and a month later the memory is not much different from the post cards I could have bought. It takes time to get to know a place, and the people in the place. So what is the value of standing for a few minutes in front of a famous Roman fountain, snapping a picture or two, and moving on?
My three days in Assisi were special, because of what they have meant to me as a Franciscan. But I always thought: As a Franciscan I have pledged to live poorly. No poor person I know can pack up and fly off to Italy. The poor have to find beauty where they are. So that's what I will do.
Everything I can see from my prison bars is a gift. Every day I can enjoy seeing those things is a gift. I have only so many days left to enjoy such gifts. Today is good.