Beauty, Fragility, and the Icon of Tenderness by Michael Ford

I

It was close to lunchtime as I drove back from the supermarket along a dangerous road which connects two small towns. It was an ordinary Wednesday with mild weather for the time of year. As I listened to Debussy on the classical music station of my car radio, I was in a peaceful mood, getting in gear for an afternoon of writing.

But as I turned a sharp bend and made my descent down a short hill, my car came to an abrupt halt. To the right, I spied a duck and her raft of seven grey ducklings waiting patiently to cross the highway directly in front of me. There wasn’t any oncoming traffic so, with immense equanimity and composure, the family made their excursion across the pavement, the last member trailing a little. As they reached the curb, they mounted, turned left, and with military precision marched in formation alongside the car, and presumably through a hedge and back to a nearby farm.

For me, it was a moment of utter beauty, an experience of the extraordinary in an otherwise ordinary day. Mystical in intensity, the memory wouldn’t leave me as I quietly praised God for this joyful encounter with the natural world. My immediate instinct was to wonder whether the group returned home safely. I even became anxious that the adventurous mother might decide to take her babes on regular morning strolls along that busy route. But I also knew I had to leave nature to take care of herself. However, the sight of these gentle creatures exploring the lands beyond the farm is one that will not easily fade. It was a glimpse of the eternal in a pedestrian setting at an uninspiring time of the week.

II

All my life, I have been moved by the vulnerability of creatures with whom we share our planet, not because I am a sentimentalist, but because I believe that God’s love is revealed to us through the beauty and fragility of his creation. Like many people, I can’t bear to see an animal suffering. St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of the compassionate heart as one which burns with love for every creature, including birds and animals. The thought and sight of them make tears flow, he says. Such intense compassion, streaming from the heart, makes us unable to bear the sight of the most insignificant wound in any creature. So pray ceaselessly, he advises, with tears for animals.

The Romanian Orthodox theologian Father Dumitru Staniloae explains that people striving for holiness discern in every creature a gift of God’s love, and would never wish to wound that love by treating God’s gifts with negligence or indifference. They have respect for each person “and for each thing.” They show towards the suffering of anyone, “or even of an animal, a profound compassion.” Tenderness and holiness become one act of self-giving love.

In the southwest of England, there’s a mare and foal sanctuary with the words “kindness, care and knowledge” as its motto. Last year the sanctuary took part in a major rescue case which arose because of an indiscriminate breeder. Ice was 27 years old when she gave birth to Icon in appalling surroundings. Ice’s neglect was extensive. A condition affecting her hind limb was so severe there was little anyone could do except keep her as pain-free as possible and make her feel loved during her final days. It was in Ice’s best interest that staff eventually decided to put her to sleep. But in the meantime they still had to prioritize Icon’s weaning, which had to be done slowly. The grooms began training Icon to become more independent. He was moved to a neighbouring stable for an hour at a time where he could see his mom as well as other horses and ponies.

Then a care plan was put in place. The grooms brought a bucket of the animals’ favorite treats and stroked their soft manes, keeping them calm and relaxed while Ice slipped away. It was vital for the foal’s grieving process that he was with his mother as she died. The team slowly stepped back, allowing Icon the space he needed to be with her. When he walked away, they knew he had accepted she was no longer alive.

In the next field, the team had deliberately put two other colt foals, hoping Icon would take an interest in them. And he certainly did. Soon they were galloping around the field, chasing each other playfully. While still an orphan, he has settled in well, surrounded by love and companionship.

III

At his inaugural Mass in Vatican City in 2013, Pope Francis spoke of the human vocation to be a protector in the world. This includes protecting all creation, especially the beauty of the created world. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and the environment in which we live together. Everything has been entrusted to our protection and everyone of us is responsible for it. “Be protectors of God’s gifts!” the pontiff urged. “We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness.”

The pope’s words reminded me of the stories my grandfather used to tell me beside a log fire. When he was working as a gardener on a large country estate, he got to know a pair of robins which nested in a crevice. They did everything together. One morning he discovered that the hen had been killed by the estate’s vole trap, even though it had been tunneled off to keep the birds out. After that, the cock didn’t appear for several weeks. But one day he suddenly turned up again—minus an eye and a set of toes. He had obviously been hit by the trap as well but had managed to escape. For the next six years the disabled robin became my grandfather’s close companion. Every time my grandad made a distinct sound with his lips, the robin would appear, perch on his hand, and nibble cheese, breadcrumbs, and cake. He seemed to be frightened of anyone else.

If my grandfather walked to the greenhouses, his red-breasted pal would come too, waiting patiently outside until the jobs had been completed. He would always follow my grandad around, even flying beside his bicycle. Despite his disabilities, the robin managed to rear several families and was always protective. He would take food from my grandfather’s hand and fly back to the rock plane crevices where the nests had been built. Every night for years, my grandfather would shut the robin in the orangery to roost on the trees and would then let him out again in the morning. But one evening, he forgot to put the robin inside and they never met again.

Although my grandad related the tale in the context of the wild, the story held a spiritual significance for me: it symbolized the relationship between a gentle God and his beloved creation, no matter our disadvantages, inadequacy, or fragility. Living a contemplative life helps us appreciate these connections.

I remember visiting a community of Hindu monks in Britain. In a characteristic act of kindness, one of the brothers gave me two packets of coconut biscuits for the journey home. An hour or so later, I was waiting for a train at a busy railway station and decided to have a biscuit. As I opened the packet, I noticed a bird with a stump foot, hopping along the platform. I bent down to feed it with crumbs and he stayed close to me as the next carriages pulled in. I don’t think any of the passengers even noticed what was going on, but in the middle of a chaotic travelling situation, with cases and trolleys moving all around us, the bird and I struck up a relationship. It was as if the surrounding world suddenly went out of focus. The spotlight was on an incidental encounter which exemplified the way a contemplative approach to life can lead to greater awareness. I texted the monk to tell him how his hospitality had fed both a peckish journalist and a wounded bird. He sent a message back reminding me of the interconnectedness of all of creation and how I was seeing with the heart.

Monk-in-the-world Wayne Teasdale believed that nature constantly taught him that a larger picture existed beyond his eyes. The inner gaze of attentiveness enabled him to see, experience, and know the outer world in a deeper way. “The contemplative attitude is cultivated through deep attention to what is before us,” he once wrote. “It requires an intention to seek and be receptive to the Divine wherever we may be, wherever we may look. It is a passion for the subtle reality of the Presence, the Divine Presence that awakens this capacity in us.

“A spider weaving its web, the perfect symmetry of a snowflake, the beauty and harmony of the lily, the cosmic quality of trees, the mysterious presence of the wind, the attraction of stillness, the radiance of light, the transparency of fragrances, the flow of water, the movement of leaves, the timeless feeling of some days and nights, the poetry of birds in flight, the transfiguring moments of dawn and sunset, the hypnotic rhythm of the tides—all speak to us of something beyond ourselves, something that transcends our understanding.”

Michael Ford is an author and theologian in England, where he worked in BBC news and religious broadcasting for many years. His articles for TAC reflect spiritually on his life as a journalist and writer.

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