Advent with Black Elk: A Relative to the Birds

Chapter 4: The Bison Hunt

After his vision, Black Elk says he felt “homesick for the place where [he] had been” in his vision. He also felt more connected to all other living things. He says, “There was a bush and a little bird sitting in it; but just as I was going to shoot, I felt queer again, and remembered that I was to be like a relative to the birds. So I did not shoot” (32).

There is an old Celtic poem called “The Scribe in the Woods” which begins,

A hedge of trees surrounds me, a blackbird’s lay sings to me, praise I shall not conceal,

Above my lined book the trilling of the birds sings to me.

A clear-voiced cuckoo sings to me in a gray cloak from the tops of the bushes,

May the Lord save me from Judgment; well do I write under the greenwood.

A few years ago, I taught a seminary course on Celtic Spirituality in which I invited students to go on an intentional nature walk and pay attention to God’s immanence in everything around them. This was a way of experiencing what some scholars of Celtic spirituality call chthonic pan-entheism. Pan-entheism is not be confused with pantheism which asserts the divinity of the earth, an assertion that is outside the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy. Pan-entheism, on the other hand, asserts that God is immanent within all of creation, an assertion that is in fact rooted deeply within Christian orthodoxy.

Anglican priest and scholar Urban T. Holmes attempts to define the word “chthonic” when he writes, “‘Chthonic’ has no synonym. It calls for a receptive consciousness and describes the underworld of ancient mythology, with all its fearsome power.” He also says that “sacraments are rooted in the earth in all its chthonic power,” concluding that Anglican spirituality, in general is “earthy.”

I asked the students to write reflections on their nature walk. One student wrote, “I delight in the raucous calls of the birds even as I silently recall their names: song sparrow, common raven, Western bluebird, American crow, ring-billed gull, dark-eyed junco. Their names replace those of the Celtic gods I brought to mind at the beginning of the walk…The great value of nature for the spirit is that it forces us to attend to its rhythms, to slow down long enough to meet with its timid inhabitants or bask in the patient solidity of the trees.”

Another one of my students who happened to be Navajo and the daughter of the late bishop of Navajoland wrote, “There is something very solemn and reverent about hearing and feeling your own heartbeat and breath while walking…the prayers I longed to say, were already being sung by a nearby bird.”

Like Black Elk and the Celtic poet, my students experienced a deep connection to and discovered prayerful delight in birds. I remember one of the first songs I wrote in high school with my new ukulele was called “The Language of the Birds”: Lord, you know the language of the birds, Lord, you hear each word. Perhaps birds sometimes intercede for us with chirps too transcendent for words (Rom 8:26).

The birds are indeed spiritual teachers. People have known this for centuries. The term “augury,” which means “divination,” has its etymological origins in observing the flight of birds in order to foresee future events.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet says, “We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…Let be” (Act 5, Scene 2, lines 5 – 10). Here, Hamlet appears to be referencing the words of Jesus when he says, “Are not two sparrows for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father” (Matthew 10:29). In other words, we might not be able to tell the future by watching birds, but birds can still teach us about God’s providence, even when a bird dies.

And Leonard Cohen says, “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried, in my way, to be free.”

Birds are our relatives and teachers, showing us how to pray, reminding us of God’s providence, and inviting us into freedom.


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