Friday, February 08, 2008

Prayer Lives of Starlings

I am taking a class this semester about the teaching and theology of Dr. Howard Thurman. It is taught by Dr. Dorsey Blake, who in addition to his work at Starr King is the pastor of Dr. Thurman's Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco. In the first class meeting we watched about an hour of an interview with Dr. Thurman. At one point, when Dr. Thurman was discussing his practice of reading as meditation, looking for the occasional passage where the author's authentic voice and presence leaps out through the text, he mentioned a book on elephants he read on an ocean voyage. The book featured an entire chapter on The Prayer Lives of Elephants, which seemed silly to Dr. Thurman. But then he read something similar about monkeys, and then noticed that a certain dog in his own neighborhood would trot to the crest of a small hill every day near sunset, would sit there until the sun had gone down, and then would trot off again. He accompanied that dog a few times, and decided that prayer seemed to be the best word for what the dog was doing.

Each night over the oldest parts of Rome one can see huge flocks of Starlings, thousands and thousands of birds, flying in obscure, constantly morphing patterns; flowing together, splitting apart again, sometimes flying so low that you can hear the rush of their wings and their twittering calls, sometimes flying so high that they seem to be wisps of impossible smoke. They particularly seem to love the sky over the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II

and the trees on the North side of Piazza Venezia (to the right in the image below).

I was spellbound by these birds, gaping and goggling each time Sarah and I happened to be walking through this part of town at sundown--dangerous to take one's attention away from the Roman traffic, not to mention the dog-poop strewn sidewalks. ;) But I couldn't help it. We hypothesized and pondered: were they roosting? Engaged in some kind of territoriality exercise? Just blowing off steam? None of the answers we produced seemed adequate, and I wonder now if we were simply privileged to witness these birds in the act of prayer, offering thanks and praise for another day, for the ability to fly, for each other.




At the end of the following video you can see the tops of the trees that the Starlings were landing and ascending from. On a walk near the end of the class my friend Jeannette and I saw city sanitation workers dressed in full head-to-toe HazMat suits walking under these trees playing tapes of hawk-calls through megaphones in order to scare the Starlings out of the trees.





This video gives a particularly good sense of the magic of these flocks:



My classmate Shams has video of these Starlings that she took on our trip--as soon as I find it on YouTube I will post it here.

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