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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s corner

06 October 2017

St Francis’s Day prompts Malcolm Guite to consider feathered friends

I TOOK part in a service in Ely Cathedral recently. Three different poets had been invited to reflect with the evening congregation on poetry and the environment.

While one of the poets was reading, a remarkable thing happened. She was reciting to us a beautiful and thought-provoking poem that invited us to imagine human life from the perspective of a bird soaring above us and, puzzling over our slow, earth-bound, con­voluted struggles, calling us to tread on the earth more lightly.

As she read, we were suddenly aware of a fluttering whirr and whisper of wings, as a wood pigeon launched herself from a high ledge, and circled out above us in the wide and sacred space beneath the cathedral’s famous lantern, almost as though she had been sum­­moned by the poem.

The poet, quite rightly, paused, and let the bird play her part in our worship and reflec­tion, lifting us unexpectedly into another region.

I’m recalling that moment now, around Francis-tide, when churches might be opened more intentionally to birds and animals. Indeed, I once preached in Ely on St Francis’s Day to a congregation that consisted not only of people and their pets, but of several thousand bees, brought in their glass-sided hive for the occasion.

The feast of St Francis always brings to my mind Seamus Heaney’s fine early poem “Saint Francis and The Birds”, where he says:


When Francis preached love to the birds

They listened, fluttered, throttled up

Into the blue like a flock of words


Released for fun from his holy lips.


Those lines give me a great deal to delight in, but especially that image of the birds themselves as a flock of words released for fun. It strikes me that this is both a helpful image of preaching and, perhaps more profoundly, of creation.

There is always a danger that any preacher’s words will fall like lead: weighty words, lifted with great labour from solid commentaries, carried assiduously up the pulpit steps, and then dropped from a great height, with seriousness and gravitas, on the heads of an unsuspecting congregation.

What fun to think of them, instead, as a flock of birds, alive and feathered, exploring an open space, wheeling and pirouetting, landing, perhaps, and nesting in the dry branches of those weary souls that need them most!

And, even when the readings call for something darker and more dense, a good sermon might still lift into the open, darken, shift, and shiver, like a dense throng of starlings, all flying freely, and yet somehow bound together; a mysterious murmuration, summoning new shapes and patterns against October’s stormy skies.

Heaney’s lines hint at creation, too. Francis released words from his holy lips, but his Lord, the Living Word, speaks the whole creation into being.

Perhaps all the birds that dance on the wing through our world have been released for fun from the holy lips of our Maker, just like the one that helped a poet’s words take flight in Ely Cathedral.

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