To Catch a Kingfisher {The Grove: Prayer}

Prayer Is Like Watching For the Kingfisher: A Poem by Ann Lewin

Prayer is like watching for

The kingfisher. All you can do is

Be there where he is like to appear, and

Wait.

Often nothing much happens;

There is space, silence and

Expectancy.

No visible signs, only the

Knowledge that he’s been there

And may come again.

Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,

You have been prepared.

But when you’ve almost stopped

Expecting it, a flash of brightness

Gives encouragement.

I look for kingfishers in art and literature, so this poem was a boon. A kingfisher is a bird, in case that hasn’t come through yet. If you’ve been around Velvet Ashes in the last year, you know we’re taken with birds and what they have to show us about God, ourselves, others, and nature.

The birds we read in book club all make an appearance in the Bible; they are biblical characters. Although I had hoped for it, kingfishers aren’t in the Bible. Instead, the kingfisher is an icon, like the saints that came after the Bible was canonized, who showed us how to live the faith and were venerated in art for it.

The kingfisher is a boundaried bird. They are rarely seen far from water, and they live alone or in mated pairs. Mates work together – both hunt, excavate a deep cavity in the bank of a river or lake for their nest, and take turns incubating the young. They recognize each other by their call and are monogamous.

Madeleine L’Engle writes of icons as metaphors in A Circle of Quiet, the first volume of the Crosswicks Journals:

“ ‘Close your eyes,’ I’m in the habit of telling my students of all ages, ‘and think about the person you love most in the world. Do you really see him visually? Or don’t you see on a much deeper level? It’s lots easier to visualize people we don’t know very well.’”

 Sounds a bit like coupled kingfishers that know one another by their call. Icons give us powerful metaphors. Metaphors, I think, that inspire pure prayer.

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun includes iconography in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. She points out that one purpose of making and contemplating icons is to lead one into prayer. That happens because subjects are purposefully skewed not to look like reality, but intentionally crafted to point beyond reality to what is essential.

For example, an icon of Mother Teresa might have disproportionately large hands. The small woman did not actually have large hands, but they represent the great love with which she served many poor, dying, and orphaned.

Ahlberg writes, “Icons are not a work of art that people worship. They are a sort of visual shorthand for what matters most…because we understand through picture and symbol and beauty.” Each feature of an icon communicates something. Over time, we must learn to read them if we are to appreciate what matters most.

There is a species of kingfisher native to New Zealand called the Sacred Kingfisher. I take that to mean I’m on the right track calling the kingfisher an icon. The conservation status of the sacred kingfisher is: not threatened. Not threatened or threatening, like the ancient sacred art of iconography.

Consider the classic poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins: As Kingfishers Catch Fire. The bright wings of a kingfisher spread in flight catch the sun and flash just as Christ flashes from the limbs and eyes and features of human faces. Audacious, right? It’s a bold theological statement to say that we incarnate Christ, especially bold because we do it so imperfectly, so rarely, not at all like Jesus who incarnated God perfectly and permanently.

The kingfisher, however, uncovers this truth that we can’t say so boldly with words. He’s been there and may come again. A flash of brightness brings encouragement.

I’m convinced that there are icons all around us, and they can lead us into the most natural and essential prayers. So, let’s pay attention. We may catch a Kingfisher.

Is there an icon that you keep noticing – in Scripture, poetry, art, or nature? What essential things is God communicating to you through it? How does that lead you into prayer?

~~~

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8 Comments

  1. Michele January 6, 2017

    I love this poem so much, I just printed it out along with the art (who does this beautiful art?) and put it on my new bulletin board!

    I have never really given much thought to icons, but after leaving my beautiful little land-locked host country for two weeks on the beach, I guess the ocean and its waves have become iconic to me. It was more than relaxing and beautiful, I found God speaking to me so much through them and I found it so easy to pray as I watched and listened to that pounding rhythm, even as I let them wash up over my legs, or jumped right in and let myself be moved by them. There were hints of eternity, power, faithfulness and yet a certain unpredictability, and joyful homecoming.

    1. Kimberly Todd January 6, 2017

      Michele, I’m so glad this poem was a boon for you, too! Karen Huber directs all the wonderful image design for Velvet Ashes. She also wrote the excellent post for yesterday.

      Your description of the ocean and its waves as iconic is spot on. Just this description and the memories they provoke of my own experiences at the shore draw me into prayer. Many blessings to you this epiphany day.

  2. Rebecca M. January 6, 2017

    It is the dry season here. The very, very end of the dry season. Rain will come any day but for now it is parched and ugly. This dry season, just like the last two, a gorgeous kingfisher has been seen every morning as we sip our coffee. We have an open water tank that he dips in. There is no other open water for miles & he is drawn here. We catch the first bright flashes of his wings & then sit back & scan the trees for where he will rest. We only get about 10 minutes with him each morning but it is enough to feel hope, encouragement, wonder. It is enough to be grateful that he is refreshed by our water, and us by his arrival. Such an intimate gift from our Creator reminding us that he sees & understands & is able to refresh in the driest of seasons. The rain will come.

    1. Kimberly Todd January 6, 2017

      Rebecca, thank you for this comment! What an awe-inspiring God-gift to have an actual kingfisher visit when your surroundings are bleakest. Your poetic description itself inspires prayer of gratitude.

      To my memory, I’ve never seen a real living flying kingfisher. (I have seen them preserved in museum displays…not the same.) There is a species, the belted kingfisher, that lives where I live. When the spring comes, maybe I’ll go sit where he is like to appear and wait. =)

  3. Ellie January 6, 2017

    Beautiful post as always Kimberly. I think for me the dandelion clock (seedhead) has become a kind of icon to symbolise all kinds of things and whenever I spot one printed or painted on something I’m drawn to it and it causes me to pause and reflect somehow. I think that it symbolises sowing gladly and freely (because the seeds float away in one puff) and art (in a VA retreat I shared how I had a picture of me throwing the seeds out and them floating away and it was about sharing my art/words with people I think) and it symbolises beauty and fragility and that speaks a lot to me of our lives here on earth – that we only have beauty in a fragile way. *But it’s still beauty.* And beauty is so incredibly valuable.

    1. Kimberly Todd January 6, 2017

      Ellie, I love this. I was still editing this post in my head this morning (hours after it posted) as I often do, and I felt a prompting to release it, that the work was done, and I could get out of the way. 🙂 Your seedhead icon confirms that for me. Thank you for commenting, and for finding beauty in my words.

  4. Phyllis January 22, 2017

    I’ve had this sitting in my inbox for rereading, and because I wanted to comment.

    I’ve already written about “my” kingfishers here, somewhere in the comments on the book club bird posts. We have a gorgeous kingfisher in our area. It’s sparkly blue and bright orange.(Okay, I found my comment from before. It’s here: https://velvetashes.com/the-endless-overflowing-of-the-bible-book-club/ )

    So, for me, those kingfishers–not the plain grey ones of my childhood, the ones that sat on every power line–are icons of special gifts from God, just for me. Little things that I have to search to see, and often I may be the only one who notices them.

    Random: I was invited to attend a week-long icon class next week, but I can’t go. It really fascinated me, though.

  5. Kimberly Todd January 23, 2017

    Phyllis, thank you for coming back to reread and comment. And thanks for digging up the link to your previous comment; I hadn’t seen it before. I love the way you describe the intimacy with God that kingfisher sighting inspires for you.

    A week-long icon class sounds so intriguing! Even though you can’t make it, it’s kind of cool to have icons come up in multiple places. Those are the experiences that help us know to pay attention, yes?

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