Bird of Paradise

Bird of Paradise

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

George Herbert

I haven’t been to church lately. Social distancing, of course. It makes me a little anxious about the life of my soul1. Will it receive enough spiritual food? Will it survive on its own, or will it wither and die? 

Now I remember a little vision I saw two years ago. At the time, I went to morning prayer, but found the church closed. Disappointed, I drove to my work, sad about the missed opportunity to find rest with God. But then he showed me a little vision : a small bird in a garden. I thought to myself: “Of course, if a bird is disturbed, it would just fly up into the sky. God reminds me that he isn’t limited to a place.” Even so, I said to God : “But I don’t want to fly endlessly, I want to sit and rest!” Still, it was nice of him to take notice, and comfort me with the beautiful bird, and my sadness left. The next day, an even greater surprise startled me, when a friend mentioned the poem ‘Prayer’ by George Herbert, and I looked it up and found prayer compared to a bird of paradise, which, according to legend2, needs no rest, for it is always in heaven! Given the conversation I had had with God just the day before, this seemed such a direct answer! Did he really say that my soul, through prayer, is always in heaven? 

More recently I read an interesting essay by Tomáš Halík, on how things in church have changed due to the Coronavirus, and he says, among other things: The turnaround towards that “virtual piety”, “remote communion” and kneeling in front of a screen has something strange. Perhaps instead we should test the truth of Jesus’ words: “Where two or three are together in my name, I am among them.” 3This essay brought back to me my memories about the bird of paradise. Could it really be the case that God wants to lead us to a more personal connection, individual prayer, alone and independent of places and communities we are used to? 

I suppose God does bring us to more personal prayer, but I doubt he means to sever the bonds with the church completely. Personally, I feel very blessed by the online services that I attend. And some of those help me quite a bit to grow in that more personal relation. Like the evening prayer, which I now usually pray along on my balcony, lifting up my neighborhood to God in the process. Or the communion service, with the prayer for ‘spiritual communion’ where we invite Jesus in our hearts and trust in his presence. I’ve never experienced Jesus as close as that. 

But the bonds of time and place are loosened, and this idea of celebrating communion on YouTube or Facebook does irk me a bit. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t immediately ask myself all sorts of absurd technical questions, for example how much it mattered if I didn’t pray that prayer at exactly the same time, but perhaps while watching the video some hours later, or, even a few days? What if I watched the service in bits and pieces, interrupted by other things? 

Seeking answers from the infinite supply of information on the internet, I found that a certain famous priest (St. Jean-Marie Vianney 1786-1859), once said “when we feel the love of God growing cold, let us instantly make a spiritual Communion. When we cannot go to the church, let us turn towards the tabernacle; no wall can shut us out from the good God.” (highlight mine) 4

Aha! So timing is not important at all. I feel a bit silly never to have realized that before. Or perhaps I did, but never felt it so deeply. What a great privilege, so disregarded. Yes, we can always go to God. Like the bird of paradise, always in heaven. But, as the poem of George Herbert started with a line on “the church’s banquet”, I feel deeply that this prayer, this communion with God, is also always a shared experience. It connects us with God, each other, the whole universe.


  1. It also makes me feel lonely at times, as described in Just being around , and worried about everything, but let’s tackle one thing at a time.
  3. This paragraph appears to be missing in the English version of the text, I translated it from the Dutch version here:
  4. From the website Not that I am a regular reader of this site, it’s just the kind of thing that turns up when you google for ‘spiritual communion’ and I found it interesting