From the Tradition: The Blackbird of Loch Laig

From the Tradition is a new regular column in Common Ground. Here, we’ll consider an element drawn from the witness of the Church through time and across the world, be that writing, art, or another artefact.

Living well is challenging; living well as a follower of Jesus can be very challenging. So it is no small encouragement to discover that we’re not the first to have to wrestle with the question of how to live well before God in the midst of change, conflict, and uncertainty. And it is more than a source of encouragement. To draw from tradition is to learn to keep company with those who in Christ are brothers and sisters. As Luke Fenwick observed recently in Common Ground, “We moderns tend to negotiate the world from within the cramped space of our individual sovereignty, where we assiduously figure our desires and reconfigure them in moments of frustration. Faithful memory expands us. When we remember, we come to see ourselves truly as those who live from Christ’s own life, and we find ourselves stretched not only over our loved ones but many others besides, past and present.”

This is not to say learning to keep company with the tradition is easy. Sonya Lewthwaite points out: “To listen to the past is difficult. The tradition is not without its problems or dead ends. And, if we listen for any length of time, we inevitably hear things we would rather not. But such attention is also nourishing and revitalising because there is something about the habit of listening beyond the point of unfamiliarity or offence that makes for growth.” This, then, is our invitation—to attend with us to depth and riches of the Christian tradition, that you might be freed from the present moment and called into strange, generous, and life-changing company. We hope you’ll join us – Ed.

It’s been some time now I’ve found myself looking out the window. I come each morning to the task of prayer, kneeling before a window that looks onto the back garden. Most often, I pray aloud a psalm, read the day’s gospel reading, recite the Lord’s prayer. Then I settle further in prayer. I’ve learned to expect to be called to intercession or to spend time in praise. But sometimes, stilled in prayer, I simply look out the window, lingering with the world in its faithful ways before God.

A pair of blackbirds are nesting in the camellia I pruned last winter. The small tree has sent out a proliferation of closely worked shoots, now decked out in double blooms of bright pink. And in the midst of these, the female is building a snug nest. She fossicks across the stream for another strand of grass, then flies awkwardly up to the camellia, as if she were a gardener in overalls and gumboots, dragging prunings to the bonfire. The male bird cocks and chirrups on a nearby fence batten, all watchfulness and bluster; one morning, he has a go at a trespassing tui.

Far from merely being a distraction from ‘more spiritual’ matters, the blackbirds compose a simple, deep reminder. As a poem of mine puts it, in a conversation with myself, such birds, in their birdy ways, are faithful:

not knowing
they do what they do and so in their way
are better servants than you, who was bought with a price
and, knowing this, still put on airs.

From the book of nature, then, to God’s fuller revelation: having pondered the blackbirds, I return consciously to prayer and to Scripture.

As I do, I’m reminded of another man whose thoughts turned to creation and to blackbirds, even as in an Irish scriptorium nearly 1200 years ago, he sat bowed over parchment, copying Scripture and other Christian writings. He was a brother at the Abbey of Bangor, one of the foremost early Irish monasteries. Founded in the mid-6th century, it was a centre of learning for the Western Christian world, with active connections to houses in Europe. The scriptorium and its scribes would have been busy.

But not too busy it seems. Preserved in the margins of various sacred texts are various addenda by the brothers. Some are very mundane: complaints of cold or a rude epithet for a novice master. But more nourishing moments have also been preserved: wee poems perched at the verge of the page, like blackbirds hopping into my morning prayer.

The poem I’m most familiar with takes the blackbird as its subject. Known by its tight opening line, Int én bec, this brief meditation lifts its head from Scripture to look out the window. The bird sings in a gorse bush by the inlet known as Loch Laig or Belfast Lough. It’s a scene as likely today as 1200 years ago.

To preserve something of the poem’s strangeness, here is the original. Whether you read Irish or not, the rhyme conveys something of the author’s delight:

Int én bec 
ro léic feit 
do rinn guip 
fo-ceird faíd 
ós Loch Laíg, 
lon do chraíb 

A literal crib might run: the little bird has whistled from the end of a yellow bill; it sings above Loch Laig, a blackbird singing from a gorse bush. There’s nothing—on the face of it—that makes this poem Christian. Indeed, some commentators make the lazy mistake of associating any such nature poetry with paganism. The bored monk, worn out by copying Scripture, returns to the ways of ancient Ireland, finding solace in nature’s purity, the story might run. But this fails to comprehend just how natural is the move from Scripture to “the book of nature”; indeed, the poem is written in the margins of a work being made in a monastery book room. To the ancient Irish Christian mind, to doodle a poem about a blackbird is not to escape from the world of Scripture but part and parcel of that world (regardless of what the master of the scriptorium may have felt about marginalia in new manuscripts).

I’ve written my own version of the poem. To bed it down in Aotearoa, New Zealand, I’ve lifted some of the original locators and opted for “inlet” rather than “lough”. At the same time, my use of the New Zealand English “wee” (meaning little) creates a link, via Scots English, to the vernaculars of Belfast. But more significant than these navigations of culture and place is my real and proper link with the poem’s author. Like me, he was a follower of Jesus and therefore prone to looking out windows at birds, doubtless also with thanksgiving and praise.

after the Irish, ninth century

This wee bird
whistling from
a gorse-gold

lets fly over
the inlet
from a heap
of yellow.

(Image: “Irish Monk Writing,” Unknown author, public domain)