A Bird in the Hand
“Pray with open hand, not clenched first” (Jim Cotter)
Take a look at the first picture. This is a print about prayer and refers to the bible verse in which prayer is referred to as sweet smelling incense, a subtle yet present reality.
What do you think of when you think of prayer? Is it a quick-fire request for help when the chips are down? Is it something that is meant to be important, but you can’t quite work out why? Is it a boring duty? Is it irrelevant? is it another version of mindfulness? A few years ago, I stayed with a monastic community as artist in residence. I remember talking to a local artist I met who could not see the relevance of the life of prayer the brothers were engaged in. According to him they didn’t ‘live in the real world’. But what is real? And what is relevant?
I have friends, who to the outside world, appear to be irrelevant. They live solitary lives due to circumstances beyond their control. These are the people I go to for advice and for wisdom. They are the people who pray. To all intents and purposes, they appear to do nothing, but they do everything.
There is a legend about St Kevin, who spent long hours alone in prayer. While he was lifting up his hand to heaven through the window in his cell, a blackbird alighted on it, and treating it as a nest, laid an egg there. The Saint “showed such compassion towards it, out of his patient and loving heart, that he neither closed his hand nor withdrew it, but indefatigably held it out and adapted it for the purpose until the young one was fully hatched.” Seamus Heaney wrote in his poem about the legend, “a prayer his body makes entirely / For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird.”
The second picture shows Shekinah, an installation piece I made which showed at Left Bank, Leeds in the form of a giant nest holding a lino print of a feather. The title refers to the word used for the divine glory which hovered over the tent of meeting, or tabernacle, which was an early version of the temple for the then nomadic Jewish nation. The tent was made for the people as a concession to their need to see what was invisible: the presence of God. Shekinah is a feminine term and references sheltering in the way a bird covers her young with her feathers.
Marilyn McEntyre, in a reflection on the act of caring for others as a medical doctor, says “It can sound a little like overwrought piety—to “lose yourself” in service, but a vast body of testimony suggests that “losing oneself” is a kind of ecstasy. Self-forgetting may sound like the opposite of mindfulness, but both are ways of entering into deep consent to what is. They are rare and precious, these moments, if you are not St. Kevin, and you do not have a blackbird nesting on your hand. They become a measure of all other occupation. Every spiritual tradition, as far as I know, encourages this—releasing of desire, opening and emptying of self for a purpose that transcends the self, while also consenting to the life of the body … the aching, the stretching, the feel of weight and weariness. Stretch out your arms and see who comes to occupy the space you open”
My friends know what it is like to experience the ‘aching’ and the ‘weariness’. Many of them live with physical disabilities. Their bodies tell them that they are here on this earth, living in this world. And ironically, their physical limitations mean that I know exactly where to find them when I need them, because they have to stay where they are, rather like St Kevin with his blackbird. Their stillness shelters the divine and welcomes all. And they hold in their praying hands another reality: the sacred, self-forgetting openness to what others, including myself, bring with them. The collected twigs of discarded experience become a nest in which new possibilities can be hatched.
Take time to look at the pictures and consider these questions:
What does prayer mean to you?
How can you find stillness?
How can you transcend self?
What has been laid in your hand?
You will need your hands.
- Cup your hands together. What are you holding? What can it birth in your life? How can you wait for it to hatch?
- Imagine fledglings leaving the nest. What things do you need to let go of? What things do you need to shelter?
- If you like, offer your concerns, responsibilities and dreams to the divine.
This meditation is commissioned by Leeds Methodist Mission