Heaven Underneath Your Hand

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Thomas of Celano tells of a moment in St Francis’s life when he is crossing the Lake of Rieti. A fisherman offers the saint a little water-bird ‘so that he might rejoice in the Lord over it.’ Francis took the bird gently in his hands and invited it to fly away freely. The bird was content to rest in the saint’s hand and Francis ‘remained in prayer’. Here is how Ann Wroe reflects on that story in her wonderful book of ‘songs’ about Francis:

A water bird, he says it is,
as he draws on
his slapping oar to get across
before day’s gone;
a water bird, light as a shell,
whose rainbow sheen
breathes heaven underneath your hand,
intact, serene;
a water bird whose opaque eye
half-closed in sleep
contains this lake, this mountainside,
snowed height, black deep.
trembling you guard this being now,
warm as coal,
just-held, as by the dipping prow
your life: your soul.

This moment of utter simplicity seems to me to be a perfect icon of Francis’s way of being in the world – a chosen fragility whose strength is compassion. It is Christ’s way of being in the world – as fragile and as nourishing as broken bread.

In its freedom, the bird chooses to rest rather than to fly, just as the contemplative chooses to sit with the reality of the world in clear-sighted trust rather than to turn away towards the lure of any distraction that offers its momentary sparkle. In contemplative awareness, the bird ‘contains’ the lake and the mountain – no separation, no distance.

If the church were to offer only one gift to humanity in its struggle to restore nature’s fragile balance, it might choose to offer this contemplative way: holding all of life gently; choosing to abide with all that challenges us; open-eyed in contemplative awareness; seeing ‘heaven in ordinarie’; seeking the way of peace and rest.

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