The little bird and the Scottish midge

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St Therese called herself a Little Flower, but she also compared herself to a little bird that was trying to fly towards the sun, despite its smallness.

I was thinking about this recently and prayed that I would become a little bird like St Therese, and remain turned towards God despite the times I grow tired, distracted, weak or discouraged by the realisation that I cannot reach God by my own strength.

If St Therese was a little bird, then I must be something even smaller, a tiny humming bird, perhaps. No, that’s still too big. It would have to be something a lot smaller.

The Scottish Midge

I know what. I must be a midge (pronounced midgjee – meanbh cuileag or mini-fly in Gaelic). Anyone who’s visited the Scottish Highlands in the summer, will never forget the midges. They are tiny flies with a wingspan of only 2 to 3 mm, which like to live in damp peaty soil, of which there’s plenty in the Highlands.

Female midges feed on human blood. Lovely. They prefer cloudy days (typical Scottish weather), but don’t like the wind, so you’ll be able to avoid them if it’s windy. They can turn a summer outing into misery by clouding around you and biting any bit of skin they can find.

My worst experience of midges was at Sligachan on Skye where we had the bright idea of getting out the car so that we could enjoy the views of the Cuillin hills while we ate lunch. Big mistake. Within minutes, clouds of midges were hovering around our food and crawling over our faces. I think we ran back to the car.

To avoid them, people cover their heads with midge nets, or slather on all sorts of strange things like smelly baby oil, although I think you now get specially designed midge repellent.

Midges aren’t very pleasant for human beings, but they do have a few good points. One, they are persistent. If you flee from them into your car/house/tent, a few of them will follow you in and have another go at taking a bite. Secondly, they show solidarity. The reason that they will follow you in clouds is that when one midge has taken a bite, she’ll release a pheromone to let her friends know that she’s found a tasty dinner.

A small, weak flying thing

Okay, so I’ve found a small, weak flying thing which is not only particularly Scottish, but also Highland. A midge has its limitations (fortunately for us). It can’t go out in bright sunlight, and if the wind is above 7 miles per hour, it’s grounded.

So, if I’m a midge, then my chances of flying to the sun on my own strength are absolutely nil. That’s what St Therese was trying to say when she compared herself to a little bird. No matter how great her prayers and her efforts, she could never by her own strength encounter God.

That’s what Ignacio Larrañaga says throughout his book on contemplation (Show me your hidden presence). God by is always out of our reach, not because He is deliberately elusive, but because of the differences between His nature and ours. And yet we have to keep setting aside time for prayer and contemplation so that we can allow ourselves to be transformed by God.

We can never reach God on our own, and yet it’s important that we remain turned towards Him, keep fluttering in that direction, ready to receive the grace which will bring us closer.

St Therese as a little bird

Here’s what St Therese had to say on being a little bird:

I look upon myself as a weak little bird, with only a light down as covering. I am not an eagle, but I have only an eagle’s eyes and heart. In spite of my extreme littleness I still dare to gaze upon the Divine Sun, the Sun of Love, and my heart feels within it all the aspirations of an Eagle.

The little bird wills to fly towards the bright Sun that attracts its eye, imitating its brothers, the Eagles, whom it sees climbing up toward the Divine Furnace of the Holy Trinity. But alas! The only thing it can do is raise its little wings; to fly is not within its little power!
What then will become of it? Will it die of sorrow at seeing itself so weak? Oh no! The little bird will not even be troubled. With bold surrender, it wishes to remain gazing upon its Divine Sun. Nothing will frighten it, neither wind nor rain, and if dark clouds come and hide the Star of Love, the little bird will not change its place because it knows that beyond the clouds its bright Sun still shines on and that its brightness is not eclipsed for a single instant.

At times the little bird’s heart is assailed by the storm, and it seems it should believe in the existence of no other thing except the clouds surrounding it; this is the moment of perfect joy for the poor little weak creature. And what joy it experiences when remaining there just the same! And gazing at the Invisible Light which remains hidden from its faith!

O Jesus, Your little bird is happy to be weak and little. What would become of it if it were big? Never would it have the boldness to appear in Your presence, to fall asleep in front of You. Yes, this is still one of the weaknesses of the little bird: when it wants to fix its gaze upon the Divine Sun, and when the clouds prevent it from seeing a single ray of that Sun, in spite of itself, its little eyes close, its little head is hidden beneath its wing, and the poor little thing falls asleep, believing all the time that it is fixing its gaze upon its Dear Star. When it awakens, it doesn’t feel desolate; its little heart is at peace and it begins once again its work of love.

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Retreat

This summer I spent a few days in Pluscarden Abbey in Moray, the only medieval monastery in the UK which is still being used for its original purpose.

I simply didn’t know what to expect, beyond the fact that the womens’ guesthouse was in an isolated spot some distance from the main abbey and that I would have to bring my own food.

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Arrival

A taxi from Elgin was the only way to get there without a private car although I later realised that there is a pilgrim walking path which I would try to take next time. The taxi left the town and was soon travelling through wood and farmland along winding single-track road.

The driver, perhaps a little worried about leaving me outside the abbey when there was no-one in sight, set me down by the front entrance and rang the bell. A sleepy-looking monk appeared, muttered something about ‘meridian’ (which I later learnt was afternoon nap), and gave me a key to the women’s guesthouse.

The guesthouse was at the end of a track beside a large field. Each of the rooms bore the name of a saint. I chose St Clare, because she had been a friend of St Francis of Assisi, dumped my bags on the floor and burst into tears with relief that I had got here and could finally rest.

The last year has been difficult. When faced with challenges, I have learnt that I simply can’t operate without prayer. However, sometimes I don’t pray or don’t make it a priority. The week before going to Pluscarden had been particularly busy trying to finish things before I left, some of which could have waited. By the time I reached the Abbey, my nerves were so jangled that I couldn’t have gone on another day.

My first prayer was that my own state of un-peace would not disturb this peaceful place.

Awe

Bells rang out to announce each office. On first seeing the medieval church with its grey, stone walls, gothic arches and stained glass windows, I simply felt awe. The daily Bible readings during Mass are read out in English. Apart from that, everything else is in Latin although there are leaflets for each Office with the Psalms both in Latin and in English.

The Psalms are sung in Gregorian chant which after a while seemed to get inside me and go through my mind like the rhythm of prayer, even when I wasn’t in the church.

More than the building itself, I was impressed by the monks’ faith. Apart from producing their own food and some products, such as honey, to sell, they don’t have any way to earn money. And yet they open up their home to guests without charging any fee although donations are gratefully accepted. That takes faith.

The monastery was founded in 1230 and a community lived there for over 300 years until Scotland separated from the Catholic church in 1560 when it fell into private hands. By the twentieth century, it was a roofless ruin. However, the current owner, the Marquis of Bute, offered it to the Benedictine Community in Prinknash, England.

In 1948, five monks went north to live in the ruined abbey. Somehow, while spending five hours a day praying the Divine Office, these monks oversaw the restoration of the Abbey. As one monk said to me, ‘If they hadn’t prayed eight times a day, very little would have got done.’

Overwhelmed

In Pluscarden, everything revolves around prayer. On the website, the Prior says, ‘We came to the monastery to pray: we’re not in a hurry; we have nothing better to do.’

To say I was completely overwhelmed by the formality and beauty of the prayers and the solemnity of the Latin Mass would be an understatement.

Just as they had in Rome, my Protestant criticisms rose again. Was I really part of a church which spoke Latin, and made liberal use of the incense burner and holy water shaker? Why did the church expect its monks to pray seven times a day and rise once in the night for prayer? Wasn’t that a bit excessive? And while I was at it, I might as well have a go at the rules governing Catholic laypeople, the Sundays and the Holy Days of Obligation. My Protestant voice told me to pick and choose, take the bits I was comfortable with and leave the rest, whilst my agnostic voice told me to step back, view it from a distance without getting too involved or committed.

I didn’t expect to be assailed by doubts in a monastery, but that’s sometimes what happens when you take time to be still and another layer of doubt and mistrust is uncovered.

Refuge

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I overcame my doubts (with some help!)

During the Latin Mass, I listened for the bell and the words of the consecration as the priest lifted up the bread and wine, and I felt more peaceful. Christ was here. God is transcendent, but also immanent.

Compline was my favourite office, the last of the day, when we sat in the candlelit church for a few moments silence before an act of contrition and a Psalm. It ended with an anthem to the Virgin Mary. As a former Protestant, I struggle with devotion to Mary. How much is too much? How can focussing on Mary bring me closer to her son. However, sitting in a medieval chapel in the evening listening to the monks sing Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) sent goosebumps up my spine and left me with a sense of peace.

During my time in Pluscarden, I often thought of ‘Seven Storey Mountain’ by Thomas Merton, a convert and Cistercian monk. He describes saying the Rosary with the other monks as they returned from the fields and says, ‘Who knows what grace overflows into the world from that valley, from those rosaries, in the evenings when the monks are swinging home from work!’

I felt gratitude that there was such a place as Pluscarden. Surely some of these prayers must overflow, not just to guests, but to the wider world. It was also a place where I began to learn about recognising grace in the small things in life.

Take away

What will I take away? Calmed nerves and an increased feeling of peace, but that won’t last unless I continue in prayer. The monks’ witness is strong. I’ve seen what can happen if you make prayer a priority: medieval ruins can be rebuilt and become a refuge for Catholics, other Christians and people of other faiths or none at all.

I’ll also bring back an appreciation of the Divine Office, the challenge and delight of praying the Psalms and the words of the Prior when he paraphrased St John of the Cross and said that our mission as Christians is to ‘have faith where there is no faith, hope where there is no hope and love where there is no love.’

Ecumenical

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Recently I visited the baile mor (big city). Okay, Inverness is big to us. As I was walking along the river bank, I passed St. Andrews Cathedral and decided to go in for a few moments of prayer.

St Andrews is Episcopalian (Anglican in Scotland). Since becoming Catholic, I’ve tended to avoid going into non-Catholic churches. Part of this has been worry about feeling awkward, but mostly I’ve been afraid of sitting in a cold, empty building and feeling as if God wasn’t there.

However, on this particular day, I was feeling open and curious. What would be different, what would be the same? A splendidly-dressed man in full Highland regalia stood just inside the door beside a table with information. Okay, that was certainly different. Maybe he was just there for the tourists.

Different rituals

The rituals which I found so difficult when I first went to Catholic churches, have almost become automatic responses. I looked around for a holy water font. Not seeing one there, I looked towards the front. Yes, there was an altar, but where was the tabernacle. Did they have them in Episcopalian churches? I was in a quandary. Should I curtsey towards where I thought the tabernacle might be?

Stop making a stupid fuss, I told myself. Do what you always did in Protestant churches. Walk down the aisle and take a seat in a pew.

Further up the church, I spotted something familiar: a stand for candles. They were tall, thin ones rather than squat tea lights, but so what. A candle is a candle. I lit one and read the prayer beside it, which was exactly the same as one I’d read in many Catholic churches.

I chose a pew near the candles and faced the next decision. Should I kneel or sit? I would normally kneel if I went into a Catholic church to say a prayer. There was a cushioned kneeler on the floor. However, the other people in the church were all sitting, and I decided to do the same.

Trying to pray

Next, I tried to pray. I’ve been reading a book on contemplative prayer by Ignacio Larrañaga which recommends starting with an exercise to calm yourself and clear your mind, such as concentrating on breathing or pulse. Sometimes thoughts intrude. On other days I manage a verbal prayer, a thank you or a please help. Often, I nod off, even sitting up, but wake up feeling more peaceful.

Fr. Larrañaga says that contemplative prayer should have no other aim beyond just being in God’s presence, being open to God and just letting ourselves be seen by God. Contemplative prayer, he says, should go beyond words.

Unfortunately, I’ve seldom managed to get into this state of praying or being which goes beyond words and mental processes. Fr Larrañaga says that it takes patience, perseverance and above all, grace. Sometimes you can do a lot of work for little apparent result or at other times a little work can yield a huge result.

Reaching a state of peace

In St Andrews Cathedral in Inverness, I had one of these rare moments when I entered God’s presence and just was. Without doing more than the most basic exercises to calm my mind and place my worries in God’s hands, I reached a state of peace and well-being.

I looked around the Cathedral, watching the flickering candles and smoke trailing from one which had guttered out, listening to an organist practice hymns, observing a woman priest – yes, a woman! – prepare the altar for Communion. A mother came in with a pushchair, sat at the front for a few moments, and then left.

I saw all this without letting my thoughts snag on any of it. At the same time, I experienced an incredible calmness and peace and sense that God was there.

Can you take something back from contemplation?

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The organist finished practicing with a loud chord which jolted me out of the state of prayer and into simply sitting on a wooden pew in a dim church.

The fruits of contemplation are not something which you can take away, exploit or trade with. I can’t even describe to myself what happened. All I remember is that I felt as if I have been falling over the past year, further and further as false securities have been stripped away. Only faith gave me hope that somehow, despite all appearances, God is there.

However, in this brief period of contemplation, I felt that instead of falling, I was being held. I had finally reached the bottom, touched the ground of my soul, and discovered that God is there.

I left the cathedral and went shopping on the Longman Road in a state of bliss. Now, anyone who knows the Longman Road will acknowledge that this alone is proof that something supernatural happened. It is a busy, polluted road going through an industrial estate: the kind of place you only go if you really need something, like a car part or a D.I.Y. tool and not normally associated with states of peace and joy.

If course, I bobbed back up to the surface very soon like a cork in a bottle. Over the next few days, I felt irritable and neglected prayer. If that’s the standard, how on earth am I ever going to reach it again? Perhaps there’s no point even trying. A strong experience of God is a gift. However, if I don’t set time aside for calmness and prayer, I’m not making myself available to receive the gifts that God might want to give.

The fact that God chose to make His presence felt in a non-Catholic church, is a reminder that no-one has a monopoly on Christ. It also strengthens my conviction that God doesn’t call people across religious divisions to dig deeper ditches. Rather He wants us to bear witness to the fact that God is present on both sides of the divide and in the no-man’s land in between.