Thinking Anew – In the eye of the beholder
Berlin’s cathedral and television tower. Photograph: Stanislav KrasilnikovGetty Images
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some years ago I saw a rat heading down a hole in our back garden. I went over to the hole, the rat paused before he finally disappeared, and we looked into each other’s eyes for a few long moments.
He was bright-eyed and fearless and his whiskers were twitching with so much character and sweetness. Readers, I fell for him, and I regard rats differently now. It was a sad experience though because we were advised we needed to call in pest control given that the nest was so close to our kitchen. Reluctantly I found myself at war with this intelligent, busy little creature, artlessly going about his life as he was created to do.
As well as being a rat fancier I am a pigeon fancier: not in the technical sense of owning a flock of racing pigeons but in the sense of treasuring each pigeon I see.
Pigeons are often unfairly vilified, described as rats of the air. If this is the case – so be it! Rats are beautiful too. I experience every pigeon I encounter as a little love-sign from God. Even their liquid maternal coo sounds like ‘I love you . . . I do . . . I love you . . . I do . . .”
Pigeons and doves are one and the same and they come in hundreds of varieties.
A plump healthy specimen is truly exquisite in all its everyday splendour, with the ample bruise-coloured breast of the domestic pigeon or the exquisitely gentle dove-grey (what else?) of the collared dove.
They mate for life – so romantic! – and are brimful of spiritual significance. Thoroughly biblical creatures, a dove bore the olive twig to Noah in his ark, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism in the form of a dove.
A dove is a gentle, powerful signifier of peace, and pigeons are renowned for their miraculous homing instincts.
My ordination prayer card was of a white pigeon flying through the darkness.
I am sharing these simple thoughts about these common creatures because it does the heart so much good to see the natural world (no matter how urban the setting) going about its business full of grace and truth.
An animal is full of nobility when it lives according to its nature. We human beings have a far more complicated relationship with our own natures.
Grace and truth abound, yes, but so also does the DISgrace of our degraded collective nature, spoiling everything for everyone.
We are that part of creation which knows the distinction between good and evil and sometimes this can feel like an intolerable load to bear.
I am reminded of the words of CS Lewis: “When we have understood free will, we shall see how silly it is to ask, as somebody once asked me, ‘Why did God make a creature of such rotten stuff that it went wrong?’ The better stuff a creature is made of – the cleverer and stronger and freer it is –then the better it will be if it goes right, but also the worse it will be if it goes wrong. A cow cannot be very good or very bad; a dog can be both better and worse; a child better and worse still; an ordinary man, still more so; a man of genius, still more so; a superhuman spirit best – or worst – of all.”
In tomorrow’s gospel reading from Matthew 11, Jesus issues us with a tender invitation to come to him with the burdens we are staggering under and receive his rest; to hitch ourselves to him and let him do our heavy lifting for us. Only by drawing close to the God who loves us can we rediscover, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “the unforced rhythms of grace”.
If we want to see a human being fully alive we need look no further. Jesus is that person, living without guile, malice, cowardice, fear, utterly bonded to his heavenly Father.
We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.