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
Often nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
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
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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