The enduring simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer given in Matthew 6 is couched within a myriad of warnings about how not to pray and how not to work, culminating in the injunction not to worry: ‘Therefore, I tell you, do not worry.... And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?’ (v.27). Interwoven among them is the continual return of focus upon ‘Our Father in heaven’ (v.9): ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’ (v.8); ‘your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ (v.4); ‘your heavenly Father will also forgive you’ (v.14); ‘and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things’ (v.32).
Throughout Jesus’s sermon, worry, greed, and obsessive self-focus are shown to malform like a disease. Worry, it seems, is particularly toxic, for this natural response to the uncertainties of life becomes mistaken as a kind of remedy—we cling to worry and spin ever more fruitlessly. There is no promise there won’t be trouble or things to worry about—indeed, its reality is affirmed as a perpetual aspect of each day. But the Gospels invite us to exchange patterns built up by the habit of worry with the habit of prayer—with the ‘Our Father.’ In this, the lilies and the birds become our teachers.
The growth of the flower is purported to outwit and outshine even the Hebrew sage and king, Solomon himself, bequeathing to whomever would sit before her a way of life made beautiful by this contemplation of nature’s wisdom. Paul Cézanne’s Vase of Tulips gathers these wordless forms of grace in a clay vessel, inviting us, too, to be still and behold their bounded yet bountiful appearing. The crows cutting across the wheat fields and trembling skyline of Vincent van Gogh’s oil painting recall the scandalous birds of Christ’s sermon: not earning their keep, yet recipients of divine favour, ‘your heavenly Father feeds them’ (Matthew 6:26; Luke 12:24). The bride of David Jones’s wood-engraving, clothed in the lilies of the field, attunes her ear to the bird who joyfully sings before the cross. On the hill of Golgotha—literally, the place of the skull—Jesus does not teach as one who keeps himself in a realm above or separate from the troubles and concomitant worries which infect and inflict our existence, but who has plumbed its depths, wedding our weakness indissolubly to divinity’s healing grace.
The lily’s effortless becoming and the birds’ shameless reaping what they haven’t sown flies in the face of a certain sense of human justice; of an insistence on what is mine and getting what one deserves. But the birds and the lilies return us decisively to the realm of gift: ‘what do you have that you have not received? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?’ (1 Corinthians 4:7). From the lily, we remember the very gift of our existence as creatures unfolding in time, and from the bird we remember that the fields are still our heavenly Father’s way of feeding us, too. Even when agriculture is mechanized, the dependency we have on labour that is not our own and systems we do not control can remind us not to boast. Humility and thankfulness become the seedlings from which a more just society can spring, drawn by the light of the living God who attends, cares for, and sees all that is done in the earth, on street corners and in secret rooms, perceiving physical needs as clearly as intentions of the heart.
To take the birds and lilies as our teachers is not to deny or take flight from the necessities and often brutal realities of existence, but to (re)discover a wisdom by which we may become more fully and truly human within them. In his meditations on this passage, philosopher Søren Kierkegaard suggests we learn from the lily and the bird the art of being silent before the Creator in order to pray, ‘Holy is Your Name’; to practice obedience in order to yield to the words, ‘Your will be done’; and to discover joy in the labours of mutual forgiveness and in the hope of ‘Your kingdom come’ (Kierkegaard 2018: 5).
Together with these works of human hands—Cézanne’s bouquet of tulips in a clay vase; Van Gogh’s crows over a cultivated wheat field; Jones’s engraved bride making her vow—we may listen anew with the gospel for the secret of the lily and the bird as an antidote to the heady elixir of worry which encumbers our daily lives, learning once more this way of life infused by the continual return to ‘Our Father’.
Abram, David. 1997. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage Books)
———. 2011. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (New York: Vintage Books)
Kierkegaard, Soren. 2018. The Lily of the Field and the Bird of the Air: Three Godly Discourses, trans. by Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light; 23but if your eye is not sound, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.
34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.
22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. 23For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25And which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? 26If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28But if God so clothes the grass which is alive in the field today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O men of little faith! 29And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be of anxious mind. 30For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. 31Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.
32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. 34For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.