Birds of Pray

This is a guest post by Jordan Denari.

birdSitting on a cliff overlooking the Potomac River, I noticed a bird, gliding high over the water, never once flapping his wings. As I watched him, I noticed an uneasy feeling growing in my stomach, a feeling much like the one I’d get when worried about my future plans or long to-do list. I thought to myself, “Why aren’t you flapping, bird? Don’t you want to control where you’re going? You don’t know where the wind will take you!” But he continued to fly, holding his wings out in quiet strength, trusting that the wind would hold him.

As he floated out of sight, I realized that the bird was my prayer, that God was trying to tell me that this bird approached life in a way completely opposite from the way I lived it.

Like many people, I had spent most of my life trying to guide the course without letting God in to help. I found myself flapping incessantly, trying to keep myself from falling, while ignoring the wind. Like the bird, I needed to learn to hold out my wings steadily, to trust the wind, to trust God.

Since this retreat experience, I’ve rarely felt the anxiety and stress I used to feel. And even when those feelings creep up, I’m able to let them go more easily. I remember the wind that exists under my wings, and I stop flapping as hard.

When have you found “birds of pray” in your life—God’s signs in nature that sparked a crucial moment of prayer and reflection?

Jordan Denari is a senior at Georgetown University and a graduate of Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Her writing on Muslim-Christian relations has been featured in The Washington Post and America.


  1. Emma says

    For me, not in flight, but on the calm surf of Monterrey Bay while kayaking. As I paddled strenuously amongst the sea otters I couldn’t help but be aware of how effortlessly they lay floating on their backs while their tiny paws were folded over their crustacean “lunch “. Peacefully bobbing on the swells in the surf, paws clasped together as if in prayer.
    And what did they do in between moments of rest? Why, of course, they took time out to play! It was one of those moments frequently revisited. A reminder to “not fight the Hands that hold us”.

  2. Lynda says

    I believe that our pets are especially sensitive where we are concerned and many years ago I was walking a difficult path for a while. My little dog would be so aware whenever I needed an extra bit of loving that she would be right in my face literally, showing me her love. I knew that Lizzie was God’s messenger of love and I would be comforted not only by her presence but by knowing that God was right there as well bringing me comfort and peace.

  3. Simon says

    Well, I haven’t had the “birds of pray” but there have been a couple of periods of extreme stress in my life when some people have emerged to help me through. I’m not saying I “let go” exactly, but in retrospect I realise they have been God’s gift to me at those times of trouble. I’m pretty certain that there will be other periods of trouble too, no matter how much I may try to manage everything to avoid such turmoil. I can’t honestly say I will meet those periods with joyful thanks and knowledge that God will be there for me, but I do know that whatever comes is His will and that is for me to deal with it, with His help.

  4. annette says

    I find this in much of nature too. But more recently, I have found it in my compost pile. The way God works in our refuse and brings about new life that bears fruit that somehow is able to nourish others. I blogged a little about it, but there is more there and I just haven’t had time to really sit in it, (the idea, not the compost…:D). Really enjoyed this Jordan, thank you.

  5. Denise J says

    I arrived at a retreat once angry and offended by some recent events in my life, and went for a long walk in the pine forest surrounding the house before joining the group. I noticed a pine cone that had fallen on the ground early — it was completely sealed, folded in on itself. Nothing could get in or out. It was exactly how I felt. I picked it up, and held it in my pocket for the rest of the day, and left it on my dresser when I went to bed.

    Every night, I noticed it was a little more open, a little more relaxed, a little more ready to release what was inside. Me, too.

    At the end of the week, I dropped it back in the woods, grateful that a week surrounded by warmth and love caused me to open up as well, and hoped the seeds would sprout.

  6. Jim says

    Last night, I was listening to an “On Being” podcast where Krista Tippet interviews Brene Brown, a researcher who studies connectedness, shame, and vulnerability. Brown observed that people can be divided into two groups: “whole-hearted” people, and others (I didn’t catch any label the second category. We could call them “half-hearted” people, I guess).

    Whole-hearted people have the courage to be who they are instead of who they think others want them to be and to risk failure and rejection. They have the compassion to accept and forgive themselves for their, and then to do the same for others. Because they are their authentic selves, they have genuine connections to other people. Finally, they see vulnerability as necessary.

    Half-hearted people try very hard to live up to other people’s expectations. They tend toward perfectionism, try to keep their weaknesses and failings to themselves, and try to control as much about their lives as possible. They beat themselves up for every flaw. They avoid putting their whole heart into things because, to them, doing your best and failing means you are a failure. They see vulnerability as something to be avoided. They are plagued by the two statements of shame: “You’re not good enough,” and, “Who do you think you are?” Does any of this sound familiar?

    Half-hearted people try to avoid difficult feelings by numbing them with food, drugs and alcohol, shopping, and certainty. (Based on the rising tides of obesity, addiction, debt, and fundamentalism/polarization in this country, we have an epidemic of fear and shame to deal with.) The problem is that you can’t selectively numb only the pain and fear. By avoiding vulnerability, we avoid love, happiness, and pretty much all the stuff we try to live for.

    She recommends letting others see our true selves; loving with our whole hearts, even when there are no guarantees; practicing gratitude and joy, especially when we’re inclined to obsess about all that can go wrong; and believing that we’re enough. We’re not perfect, but we’re enough. This should also sound familiar.

    I think most of us here are half-hearted people trying to learn to live whole-heartedly.

      • Jim says

        Me, too, Simon. The description of half-hearted people fits me perfectly. Actually, Dr. Brown realized the same thing about herself, once she’d finished characterizing her two groups five years ago, and she promptly had a breakdown. Had to get therapy and everything.

        Personally, I’m trying to put flesh on the bones of Dr. Brown’s recommendations for a whole-hearted life. For example, I don’t let others see my true self in that I don’t put forth my best effort for fear it will fall short, and I don’t say what I’m thinking when I’m worried it will sound stupid. I don’t love with my whole heart in that I’m not willing to commit my passion to anything for fear I’ll run into a dead end, especially where my career is concerned (“we know you love this work, but you’re really very bad at it”). I do try to practice gratitude and joy, but that’s a new practice for me, and I think I need to set aside a certain time each day to make sure I engage in this practice at least that one time. As for believing I’m enough, I don’t know how to do that. How do you consciously decide to believe something you instinctively don’t believe? I hope it follows from the rest, and from consciously rejecting my belief that I’m not enough.

    • says


      I’ve always enjoyed “On Being” so I’m looking forward to hearing that program.

      I love how you ended that: “We’re not perfect, but we’re enough.” Jesus constantly said a variation of that to us, but we so often forget it or tune it out.

  7. says

    Well, I am a birder — albeit a lackadaisical one these days — so I’ve had many spiritual bird moments. For a long time, my blogging pseudonym was Gannet Girl and the related name of my blog was Search the Sea, both of which had to do with the years-long process of sorting out my adult life. There were many years when kingfishers — which I saw or heard on my walks almost every day — were my symbol of choice for just about anything for which I needed a symbol. Oystercatchers were associated with St. Brigid, so I sort of adopted them as well, as a sign of someone whom I wish I could emulate. When one of my children got into serious trouble, I assigned the great blue heron to him as representative of the phoenix rising from the ashes. And willets, who have shown up on every Atlantic coast where I’ve been, from Maine to FL and across to Scotland – when I see a willet, I think to myself: the earth is still on its axis. I don’t know that I would go as far as Julian and say that all is well, but at least when a willet materializes, I can say that all is.

  8. Tom says

    Great insights. I had a similar experience while on a wilderness hike up North of Duluth, MN on the Superior Hiking Trail. Having had an arduous day of climbing my hiking partner and I made it to a rocky ridge high above the forest floor. We put down our packs and took a much-needed breather. I got a sense of presence above me and looked up to see a hawk holding steady in the fierce breeze a dozen feet above my head. I’m not sure how long he had been hovering there but seemingly without any movement he held steady in the wind. The hawk held there for what seemed a long time and my initial wariness gave way to wonder. After a while I took his presence for a lesson, an invitation to stillness and resting in my Higher Power. I smiled at the hawk and offered a blessing. The hawk made a slow turn overhead and in a flash descended into the tops of the trees below. My heart eased. An anxiety I’d been carrying with me on the trail faded. I entered into the miraculous now. What a gift. What a lesson.

  9. Emma says

    All this talk of birds reminds me of a story that my husband told me that was told him by his father about how the birds got their wings. The story goes that initially they were made without them. Then God made the wings, set them down before the wingless birds and said, “Carry them. ”

    The birds had sweet voices for singing and lovely feathers ‘that glistened in the sunshine, but they could not soar in the air.When asked to pick up the burdens that lay at their feet they hesitated at first. Yet soon they obeyed, picked up the wings with their beaks, and set them on their shoulders to carry them.

    For a short time the load seemed heavy and difficult to bear, but soon, as they continued to carry the burden and to fold the wings over their hearts, the wings grew attached to their little bodies. They quickly discovered how to use them and were lifted high into the air. The weights had become wings!

    Moral of the story : We are wingless birds, and our duties and tasks are the wings God uses to lift us up and carry us heavenward :)

  10. Tim says

    The Cosmic Dance – By Thomas Merton

    When we are alone on a starlit night, when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children, when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet, Basho, we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash–at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the ‘newness,’ the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, all these provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.

    from – New Seeds of Contemplation

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