Thursday, 6 September 2012

Disclosure (Ann Lewin)

Disclosure, by Ann Lewin
Philip Harvey
Written by request for the students at St Peter’s Eastern Hill Melbourne studying for their Trinity College Certificate in Theology & Ministry, February-April 2011, under the direction of Bishop Graeme Rutherford. 


Ann Lewin

Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes when you’ve almost stopped
Expecting it, a flash of brightness
Gives encouragement.

Ann Lewin is drawing on an established tradition in modern poetry of using the kingfisher as a sign of anticipation, breakthrough, recognition, wonder, and revelation. Her understanding of prayer comes from the contemplative and mystical traditions of Christianity, though in this poem we have the groundwork of the ‘moment’ that is the purpose of the Japanese Zen form called the haiku. The poet is describing a process in prayer that is also well-known in other religious traditions.

In the opening she is saying that prayer involves vigilance. It is about doing it even when you cannot be sure if it is working and what the results might be. All we can do is begin to pray and to continue in the belief that something more will happen. The poet is quite clear, by the way, that something will happen. Prayer is about paying attention: it is an activity of direct concentration.

When we read that “there is space, silence and expectancy” we are reassured about the reality of our surroundings, about the state in which prayer exists and develops. But we also have confirmed through that awareness that something is happening, something that does not happen when we are not praying.

We know that he is there because we have seen him before. For me, the important message here is that prayer is ongoing and that no matter how well or poorly we do it, we are never discouraged from praying. The “flash of brightness” is not about the process of prayer itself, which will be done, but the way in which prayer brings about so much good: breakthrough, recognition, wonder, revelation. The conclusion explains that prayer itself is the encouragement for more prayer. Encouragement is not itself the answer, the answer is more prayer.

At its most elementary, the poem is using bird-watching as a metaphor for prayer. But what is most important to observe is the kind of bird: we are looking for the most special of all birds. The poet has chosen the kingfisher with care, knowing its related meanings in the poetry of our time. Here now are four poets amongst many who have used the kingfisher for different poetic purposes.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote a sonnet that opens, “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” The poem says that each of us has our essential self, which is the reason why we exist. But Hopkins goes further, saying that the most essential self is Christ in us and that, truly understood and lived, Christ will lead us into justice, beauty and the will of God.

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) in ‘Burnt Norton’ of ‘Four Quartets’ writes
After the kingfisher's wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the still point of the turning world.
The whole of this long poem is concerned with our understanding of time and personal relationship. Existence becomes meaningful through our deepening understanding that we live eternally in the present. Although not stated explicitly, both the kingfisher and “the still point” are other ways of talking about Christ. Eliot had a lifelong interest in the myth of the wounded kingfisher, a symbol of death and rebirth. The kingfisher is sacred because of its wound. 

Mary Oliver (b. 1935) writes a poem called ‘The Kingfisher’ in which the bird does what it does, just as it always has and will. She says that the bird “wasn’t born to think” about happiness, religion, or any of the other things we humans would read into its actions. At the same time, she says that the kingfisher does what he does “religiously” and in fact “perfectly” in a way that she could never do in her own human life.

Seamus Heaney (b. 1939) has composed a number of poems about Mad Sweeney, a medieval Irish king who threw a Gospel Book in a lake. His punishment by a humourless local bishop was to turn Sweeney into a bird. In one of these poems (‘Drifting Off’) Sweeney remembers all the types of bird he has met through his life, for example

I learned to distrust
the allure of the cuckoo
and the gossip of starlings

All the birds he meets have some quality that is questionable, less than perfect, if not downright underwhelming. Until the final two verses:

But when goldfinch or kingfisher rent
the veil of the usual,
pinions whispered and braced

as I stooped, unwieldy
and brimming,
my spurs at the ready.

For Heaney, the kingfisher reveals what is possible. The kingfisher is real, a part of the real world, yet through its activity it reveals something beyond the mundane. This bird inspires Sweeney to rise above the general melee of everyday existence, if only for a time.

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