Self isolation and birdsong

As there is less traffic, and so less noise and pollution, bird song seems stronger, more insistent and very appealing. It is as if the birds are reminding us that they too share the planet.

Thomas Merton had a number of spiritual awakenings linked to birdsong. One of the most beautifully written is on June 5 1960, the feast of Pentecost. Merton has been praying in the abandoned tool shed he calls St Ann’s where he delights in his solitude but also writes about his joyful experience of discovering what he calls the ‘full meaning of Lauds’ – this is during the pre-dawn moments of the previous Thursday.

‘At 2.30 – no sounds except sometimes a bullfrog. Some mornings he says Om – some days he is silent. The sounds are not every day the same. The whippoorwill who begins his mysterious whoop about 3 o’clock is not always near…

The first chirp of the waking birds – “le point vierge” [the virgin point]” of the dawn, a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence, when the Father in silence opens their eyes and they speak to Him, wondering if it is time to “be”? And He tells them “Yes.” Then they one by one wake and begin to sing. First the catbirds and cardinals and some others I do not recognize. Later, song sparrows, wrens, etc. Last of all doves, crows, …

With my hair almost on end and the eyes of the soul wide open I am present, without knowing it at all, in this unspeakable Paradise, and I behold this secret, this wide open secret which is there for everyone, free, and no one pays any attention …Not even monks, shut up under fluorescent lights and face to face with the big books and the black notes and with one another, perhaps no longer seeing or hearing anything in the course of the festive Lauds.’

Monica Weis spoke about this at an Oakham conference in 2006 noting how Merton articulates the genesis of the day, the moment of creation repeated daily all over our planet, ‘indeed, at every moment as the Creator lovingly keeps each of us in being’. Merton has sketched for us the first glimmer of morning and allowed that physical light to pierce the darkness of his soul. This dawn – and every dawn for Merton – becomes a true experience of contemplation.