Where I grew up, I lived around both crows and ravens. Most of the people I know who have never seen ravens before and only know crows are a little worried by the size and fierce attention of the bird they think is a really big crow, a crow that’s been pumping iron and is going to take on the world.
Crows and ravens both engage with people. I’ve lived with crows that have come and tapped every day on my door and waited for me to come outside and say good morning, call in the cat or dog, and wish the crows well as they came out of their roost to get busy with crow work. Ravens, however, have been my companions on longer circuits, flying from roost to roost while I work along through the bog and woods in my clumsy slow fashion. The ravens are mostly quiet, unless there’s danger, and many a raven’s warning has stopped me from stumbling upon a bull moose or a bear. Yes, I could smell there were bull moose and bear around, but when the area is thick in their scent, neither my nose nor my eyes are sensitive enough. Yet ravens have warned me.
Ravens have a reputation for long attention spans and crows for short ones. I suspect that’s pretty mythical, and depends both on the attention span of the observing person and the particular ravens and crows they’re watching. But it is true that crows like bright and shiny things. Right after Halloween, I used to see a lot more crows around car parks and schools, wherever children had been shedding tinfoil candy wrappers. There was a lot of bright and shiny to gather in, lots of distracting light to carry back to the roost tree. I haven’t yet seen a raven excited about candy wrappers. But then candy probably interferes with their health regimen.
So often, spiritual practice comes back to attention, and many of us, feeling like crows in the surfeit of post-Halloween candy wrappers, find attention boring. We’re restless, wanting to gather in the bright sparks of light and make sure the sun and the moon and the stars don’t get lost in their scattered ways. Some of us are even like this about religious stories and celebrations and traditions: we want to gather little bits up and hold them as one glorious sparkly whole. We’re distracted by bright and shiny things and keep turning away toward them. We’re impatient and ready for instant gratification. There is very little in spiritual practice that provides instant gratification. Spirituality isn’t candy, even if we want to treat it that way, and always have it sweet, on tap, and at hand.
The story of the golden calf is about how quickly and easily we’re distracted by the allure of bright and shiny things (Exodus 32:1-14). We, the people, are not long out of slavery, but more than seven seconds from it, so that it is possible for us to forget how we got out of slavery, or who brought us out of it. Moses, who has gotten sucked into the leadership role of being the conscience of the people – it is ever so much more convenient for us to name others to that role rather than take responsibility ourselves – is up the mountain connecting with God. Aaron has been designated as the go-to-guy in the meantime. Everyone likes Aaron: he has a great voice; he’s a nice guy; he’s not nearly as grumpy or wild as Moses. Remember how Moses insisted to the burning bush that Aaron would be more acceptable as a leader of the people? The people shrug their shoulders and tell Aaron to make them a new god. And Aaron agrees. What the people want, the people get, which is the definition of a good leader to a great many of us. But what we want in our distraction and get in our distraction isn’t leadership, but a vending machine, subject to our easily distracted wants and stocked by something that does not have our best interests at heart.
In the middle of that distraction, I’m surprised that God isn’t happy with the pile of candy wrappers I’ve collected, that maybe I’ve made the wrong choice. Moses makes his appeal, God relents, and I get another day to turn back and focus on what really matters….until I’m distracted by something bright and shiny again.
Idolatry is really easy for many of us to slip into. We might even start out with good intentions and seek to worship the holy, to do the right thing, but then we end up with a pile of hollow waste. We make idols out of wealth and we make idols out of power and we make idols out of any number of creature comforts, even ideas. Focused on idols, we punish leaders who do not give us what we have selected, so, unsurprisingly, we create harried people who are afraid to do something unpopular and who depart from community to recharge their spiritual stock, so they can turn back around and vend that stock.
A lot of spiritual practice is about the discipline of attention, so we know when to gather in the bits of bright and shiny and recycle them so the earth is treated with reverence, and when we need to be uncomfortable to make room for our neighbors, and when we need to sacrifice in order to practice compassion, merciful justice, and true generosity. Giving thanks is a way of paying attention, and so is prayer – though not vending machine prayers that go “I need x, y, z, God” . Serving others without thought to what’s popular or expedient, but just because someone is suffering is a way of paying attention.
When I find I’ve been behaving like crow after the Halloween bounty, I remember the raven paying a fierce attention, warning me about danger. I turn back to what is worthy, and get comfortable again with my discomfort, and give thanks for this chance to turn back with reverence.