Be Quiet - it may save a bird

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 13 July 2008

I read this newspaper article the other day about songbirds in cities in the UK, that are 'damaging their health, exposing themselves to predators and weakening their gene pool by trying to be heard above the din of urban life.' Apparently male birds, who sing to attract a mate and to mark out their territory, are having to sing louder and higher to compete with traffic noise and other urban sounds. This, as well as straining their vocal equipment reduces their control over their sound, leading to harsher, shriller, and simpler calls. Some birds are choosing to sing at night rather than during the day, which makes them vulnerable to attack. And, because they still need to be up to feed during the day, they are becoming stressed and exhausted.


I was horrified by this article. I felt ashamed of being human. And the more I reflected on it, the more I felt the message of the article is something we need to pay careful attention to. The article ends by noting that 'it harms us, as well as the birds, if their songs become simpler, shriller, and louder,' because birdsong has such a strong positive effect on human wellbeing. In the interconnectedness of all life on this planet, the negative impact of our lifestyle choices on birds bounces back onto humans in the end. That's one reason to be concerned. But shouldn't we care about the birds simply because God made them, and gave them the earth to be their home? What does it say about us as a species that by our lifestyle we force one of the most beautiful sounds in the world to become a harsh and ugly noise? Isn't it enough that we stress and exhaust ourselves, without forcing it on the birds as well?


Next term, the Cityside children will be learning about St Francis of Assisi in their children's space sessions. This is the same St Francis whose famous Canticle praises God along with the sun, the moon, wind, water, fire and earth, naming these created things as our brothers and sisters. The Canticle says 'praised be you, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth who sustains and governs us.' It seems as though this sentiment, along with St Francis' other commitments to poverty and compassion has vanished from human understanding. Instead, we have piled up all a whole lot of noisy and polluting artefacts that convince us that we don't need each other, or this good mother Earth in order to survive. If St Francis' devotion to God inspired him to reverence creation, what does our destruction of this good earth say about our disdain for God and for our own soul-life?


However, this story about the birds is more than a wake-up call to remind us how our human behaviour harms our fellow creatures. It should also be for us a wake-up call to force us to ask what all our noise is doing to us. These urban British birds are almost literally a canary in a coal mine for us. If our din is making their beautiful voices loud and shrill, what is it doing to our souls and bodies? What is the effect of constant noise on our capacity to be authentically human? Why do we need to distract ourselves with so much noise? These are the main questions I want to reflect on this morning.


In the First Testament of the Bible, when God wants to communicate with a person, it's by way of a messenger, usually an angel. And the response of the person is usually some variation of 'here I am,' or, 'I'm listening.' This format is followed in the depictions of God's encounters with Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah. The angel calls them by name, and they reply with a statement of though they had nothing better to do than to be alert to the moment when God would call them. In order to engage with God's movement towards us, we need to be in an attitude of listening. Jesus asked the crowds 'are you listening to this, really listening?' In order to listen, we need conditions for listening, both inwardly and outwardly. 'Here I am' implies a quality of attention, a fullness of presence and being oriented completely to what another is saying or showing to us. 'Here I am' is not distracted with a million and one other things. 'Here I am' is attuned to the moment and ready to receive a glimpse of God's intent in that moment, even if it's fleeting.


The word 'angel' literally means 'messenger.' Angels don't have to be winged figures. A whole range of things can function as 'couriers' to us of God's messages. This newspaper article felt like an 'angel' to me. Angels can be other people, they can be words or images that quietly unfurl inside us, they can be chance encounters with pieces of music, or an art work, or a duck or a kitten or a tui. In order to meet these messengers, however, we have to be present to the moment we are in. When we bath a baby, are we open to the angel of that baby in that moment, or are we thinking about what happened at work today? When we read a book, are we really hearing its words, and receiving its ideas in our hearts, or are we turning pages?


Within the monastic tradition, the 'canonical hours', are depicted as angels. The canonical hours are the points of the day where the monks turn from their work or other tasks and pray and chant together. You'll probably have heard of 'vespers' or 'matins' or 'compline' - those are the names of three of the eight 'hours'. While they happen at a specific point in the cycle of the day, they are considered to be more of a 'presence' than a 'measurement'. That is, the monks deliberately enter into the designated prayer time, to receive the spiritual message that is specific to the character of that hour.


While we are not monks, we too are invited by God to see our lives as a series of encounters with the events and rhythms of the day, rather than letting life zoom distractedly past us. In order to receive the angels of God, our ears need respite from the ticking of the clock, the revving of the car engine, the wall of sound coming from a television that nobody is watching. To be able to say 'here I am' when the angel of this moment speaks, is to be committed to deep listening, and unafraid of silence.


Fra Angelico painted images of the angels of the canonical hours. This is one of them:


It's the angel for vigils, sometimes called matins. This is the night watch - it happens in the darkness before dawn. David Steindl-Rast, in his book on the canonical hours (The Music of Silence), notes how this angel is set to blow the trumpet, but is pausing, with hand raised as if to imply waiting. This angel is listening, waiting 'in that reverent silence out of which every genuine sound must come.' I assume that this angel waits to hear God in the silence, before trumpeting the music of God's utterance to the mortals gathered in prayer.


When angels visited humans in scripture, it is because they were being invited to perform some genuine or authentic action from God into the world. They needed to receive that angel and listen before they spoke or acted in response. Before we can act with value and meaning in this world, we must listen, and say 'here I am.' Silence precedes true sound, true speech, true music. All other sound is just noise, and this world is full of noise. God brooded over the darkness of the beginning and then spoke words of creation into the silence. If our speech, or our action, is to be creatively attuned to the work of God in the world, then we too must learn to brood in the darkness and wait in silence before we speak or act.


We live in a world where silence is all but lost, even (maybe especially) in the church. Just as the birds have to shout to be heard over the traffic, so we humans congregate in social settings like bars and clubs where we have to shout at one another in order to relate. We put music on headphones in our ears to drown out the incidental noise that's constantly part of our environment. When we are confronted with silence we begin to twitch. And, if external noise subsides for a bit, we become uncomfortably aware just how much noise there is going on inside us. And so, we turn up the volume a little bit more, rather than confront the reasons why we distracted ourselves in the first place.


And, our 'voices' - that is, the distinctive character of what we say and do in the world - become harsh, loud, shrill, and vulgar. Subtlety is lost. Consideration and gentleness are lost. The abuse and childishness of parliamentary question time becomes a model for interpersonal dialogue. Because we don't listen before we speak, and say 'here I am' before we act, our speech and our actions begin to lose their value and significance and beauty. The good song of the human is in danger of becoming extinct.


Andrew's calendar bites this week referred to the resurgence of all things Benedictine in contemporary spirituality. According to Benedict, the call on the monk before all other calls is to listen. To listen primarily to God, and also to the angels of the hours, and the story of the stranger. The Benedictine monk learns to hear God in everything and everyone. As I've said, we're not monks. But lest we lose our souls in the midst of all the shouting, maybe we need to take into ourselves something of that Benedictine ethos, and learn again how to listen in the silence.


So, here are some questions to take into the week:


What can I do to create a moment of silence in each day?

What unnecessary noise do I contribute to the world?

What would it look like for me to listen to my say 'here I am' to the angel of each moment?






Nice reflections, Brenda. There's something chilling about the suffering of an animal that I don't feel in the same way when I consider the suffering of a human adult. Strange, that.

As I read through your sermon, I recalled the frequent connections made by various peoples in different times and places between birds and messengers from the heavens -- an idea which might add a complementary perspective to your thoughts. Maybe. For example, at ancient Ugarit the Rapiuma came to the grain-floor in the form of birds. In Egypt the departed dead moved back and forward to their bodies in the form of a bird. In the Qur'an Mrs Allah (Allat) is described as a bird who acts as a messenger between Allah and humanity, in the episode made famous by Sir Salman Rushdie. Birds may well be the form of messengers between this world and another, if only in our contemplation. That is, while we might see a bird, others may well perceive an immense world of delight, closed by our senses five. ;-)

thanks Deane - interesting. Maybe that's part of why it seems so horribly wrong (and apt) that our angelic birdsong messengers are being all bent out of shape by human noise.