Lord Jesus, I am not an eagle. All I have are the eyes
and the heart of one. In spite of my littleness, I dare to gaze at
the sun of love, and long to fly toward it. I want to imitate the
eagles, but all I can do is flap my small wings. What shall I do?
With cheerful confidence I shall stay gazing at the sun till I die.
Nothing will frighten me, neither wind nor rain. O my beloved sun,
I delight in feeling small and helpless in your presence; and my
heart is at peace.
St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-97)
from her autobiography
Story of a Soul
AT FIRST glance, this appears to be a prayer about lacking
things. St Thérèse begins very matter-of-factly: "I am not an
eagle." Then she goes on, expressing her desire to be like a bird
of prey. It seems that the eagle, in as much as it stands for a
spiritual truth, has stirred up in her the consciousness that she
has not achieved this reality, and that she would like to.
We are prepared for this to be a petitionary prayer, beseeching
Jesus to give Thérèse the gifts she needs to be a spiritual eagle.
If we look again, however, we see that the prayer is not driven
forward by a request; instead, its energy lies in trust and
St Thérèse of Lisieux received her calling to the religious life
while very young. Responding to her vocation, she became a
Carmelite nun, and joined in the order's work of supporting priests
through prayer. After her early death from TB, her writings and
accounts of her life were quickly taken up with joy by the wider
Roman Catholic Church. She left behind a witness to a life with God
marked by its vitality, intensity, and love. This prayer contains
some of her characteristic themes.
In the prayer, Thérèse uses the symbol of the eagle to explore
her experience of being in the presence of God, and her selection
tells us much about how she understood this. Eagles are majestic
birds that have captured writers' imaginations for millennia. They
are used to suggest apparently contradictory things, such as mercy
and merciless attack (Deuteronomy 32.11 and 28.49). In this prayer,
it is the eagle's ability to fly high and its traditionally
attributed ability to look into the sun that are its prime
Thérèse knows that she cannot soar high like a fully grown
eagle, and she pictures herself flapping stubby wings. What she can
do - and here is the root of her happiness - is to see as clearly
as an eagle. And it is what the eagle gazes at, and flies towards,
that is important. The sun in this prayer stands for God. Thérèse
calls it the "sun of love", and it is this source of light and
blessedness that she trains her spiritual eyes upon.
The phrase that is the beating heart of this prayer is "cheerful
confidence". Thérèse is not worried about what she does not have,
or anxious about the world around her; rather, she knows the
delight of being sustained by God, and the privilege of gazing upon
She exhibits a mixture of acquiescence and daring, acceptance
and striving, which results in a deep inner peace. If we are to
know cheerful confidence in our faith, what littleness in our lives
ought we to acknowledge, and to what spiritual daring should the
delight of God's love propel us?
The Revd Alison Fulford is the Rector of Hickling with
Kinoulton and Upper Broughton, in the diocese of Southwell &