Soaring and not Grasping:  The Case of the Rose-coloured Starling and the Rose Window

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Posted Feb 1, 2010      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Soaring and not Grasping:  The Case of the Rose-coloured Starling and the Rose Window

by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas

Several years ago, I wrote to a dear friend to suggest that, as a lover of birds, he would share my sadness at the story I had heard on the BBC that morning. A rose-coloured starling (a rare visitor from India) had been seen in a garden somewhere in England the day before. Within a short time of the sighting, forty “twitchers” (bird watchers) had descended on the area and chased it manically from garden to garden. The next day, it was found dead, presumably from exhaustion. It had been hounded to death.
I was reminded of this by an article in The Daily Telegraph I had read on Boxing Day last December. The connection may not be immediately obvious but I hope it will become so as I write this essay. The title looked promising enough: “Boxing Day stroll will help mind and body” but as I read it something began to bother me. It reported that researchers from the University of Michigan had discovered that “interacting with nature, even in winter, boosts memory and concentration levels.” Their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that just an hour strolling through the countryside along a secluded tree-lined route increases the brain’s performance by a fifth, whereas a walk through a busy street, perhaps shopping for sale bargains, had no improving effect.

You may well ask why I should be bothered by these findings. After all, did not my last essay for this magazine (“Reclaiming an authentic life”, emel January 2009) approve of the statement by Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director-General of the National Trust, that the growing shift towards authentic experiences, such as a walk in the woods, was part of a wider positive reaction against the rampant materialism which had led to economic meltdown?

And it does not take very great observational powers simply to notice the different expressions on the faces of children on a country walk or in a shopping mall to perceive directly which experience contributes best to happiness and well-being.  So much meticulous research simply confirms what we can observe, if only we use our God-given faculties. And God has brought you forth from your mothers’ wombs knowing nothing – but He has endowed you with hearing, and sight, and knowing hearts, so that you might have cause to be grateful. [Qur’an 16:78]

It comes as no surprise to see the New Economics Foundation (NeF) report, publicized today as I sat down to write this article (BBC Today programme, 24 January 2009), which found that Britons were amongst the most tired and most bored citizens in Europe. Data from more than 40,000 interviews from the 2006/07 European Social Survey was used to draw up the table. The Nef comes to the blindingly obvious conclusion that the UK government policies have focused too much on economic growth at the expense of overall well-being.

So, shouldn’t I be pleased that the Michigan University research also highlights the positive benefits of a countryside stroll? Well, yes and no. I love country walking myself and have extolled it in this magazine (“Walking in nature: A call to the heart”, emel November 2006). And God has made the earth a wide expanse for you, so that you might walk thereon on spacious paths. [Qur’an 71:19-20] But in all the years I have been walking amidst the beauty and majesty of our landscape I have never once considered it as an activity designed (in the words of the article reporting the research) to “boost” the “performance” of my brain,  “just in time for a family round of Trivial Pursuit on Boxing Day night”. As a musician who loves playing the piano, neither do I sit down to play with the avowed intention of increasing my intelligence through the proven transferable cognitive benefits bestowed by playing a musical instrument.

When I set off to walk up Scafell Pike in the Lake District or take a less strenuous path through Regents Park, I do not say to myself, “Hey, when I’ve done this I will have improved my short-term memory span by 20 per cent.” And as I sit down to play a prelude and fugue by Bach, neither do I say:  “Wow, after doing this I can return to work with enhanced cognitive functioning and ratchet up my performance in time for my appraisal next week.”

No. I walk in nature and play the piano because these are inspiring and restorative recreational activities which uplift my soul. Above all, they take me out of myself and my paltry objectives in this world and connect me to the one thing which is needful, the contemplation of the divine:

O MANKIND! Worship your Sustainer, who has created you and those who lived before you, so that you might remain conscious of Him who has made the earth a resting-place for you and the sky a canopy, and has sent down water from the sky and thereby brought forth fruits for your sustenance: do not, then, claim that there is any power that could rival God, when you know that He is One. [Qur’an 2:21-22]

Let me relate a personal story which encapsulates what I want to express here.

Three years ago, on our way to the Vosges mountains in France, my wife and I spent a day in Reims, mostly at the Cathedral, to immerse ourselves in this marvel of Gothic architecture. Sadly, it was virtually impossible to contemplate the transcendent beauty of the Rose Windows because of the ranks of tourists flashing digital cameras at them. None of them were “seeing” the windows, and none seemed to have any idea of what they represented. Their sole purpose was to check them off in their cameras as another “sight” duly consumed. Here they were, facing a marvel of natural light, filtered through a profound artwork of spiritual symbols, assaulting it (and the eyes of other people) with the artificial light from their intrusive cameras.

I became more and more agitated, and tried to find a cathedral official to complain. I could find none. As a last resort, I went to the souvenir/book counter in the nave of the cathedral (yes, it is right there in the nave, the main body of the cathedral; what next? Money-lenders?). I spoke to the assistants there. They said that they too were fed up, because the tourists continually photographed them too as they stood behind their counter of souvenirs!  But they said there was nothing that could be done. Cathedral officials throughout the world had given up. They had prohibited eating in the cathedral, but they had lost the battle against cameras. I said I would write to the Bishop of Reims to ask him when people who revered the sanctity of the place could come to contemplate it undisturbed. And I would not hesitate to point out that it was ironic that a Muslim felt compelled to complain about the desecration of a Christian shrine.  They replied that he would likely tell me that the only time to come would be during a mass, but they admitted that even then tourists would be there standing about and taking snaps of the congregation of worshippers as they sang and prayed as if they were exotic animals in a zoo. 

My mind had momentarily tracked back to one of the oddest manifestations of this type of consumerism I had ever observed. We were in Rome several years ago, having attended the first exhibition by a Muslim artist within the precincts of the Vatican and I had been privileged to write an introductory essay on Islamic art to accompany this event at the Pontifical Gregorian University.  One day, we went to St. Peters basilica where there is a prominent statue of St. Peter. This is a place of pilgrimage, and it is the custom of pilgrims arriving there to touch the feet of the statue. I observed various pilgrims doing this, but then a most incongruous thing occurred. A Japanese tourist, having observed the pilgrims’ act of veneration, went up to the statue, and in what struck me as an unintentionally insolent parody of this act of devotion, placed his hand on St. Peter’s foot, beamed broadly, and faced his companion, who proceeded to take a series of photographs of this bizarre tableau.

As such thoughts, ranging from irritation to outrage, were racing through my mind, I was taught a profound lesson by my wife. While I was getting hot under the collar, looking fiercely at dead-eyed camera-flashers, and marching about looking for a guardian of the cathedral, she had been standing still looking enraptured at the Rose Window high on the North Wall. Her attention to it, quietly ignoring the desecration of camera flashes, brought a moment of soaring, transcendent illumination to her. Gothic architecture is all about light and lightness, and nowhere more so than at Reims. As she gazed at the window, she felt herself becoming so light that it was as if she were almost floating. Every distraction disappeared in a timeless moment of rapt contemplation. She realised that despite the mounting desecration which is everywhere apparent, the objective meaning, beauty and majesty of such places, their forms, symbols and messages (their ayat in all its senses), are imperishable, and are still conveyed as an act of Grace to all those who surrender themselves with all their being to the Divine Reality which underlies them. And she realised too that it is precisely in these times, when we have to struggle to break through to that Reality, that such Grace and Mercy is most abundantly available.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth.
The parable of His light is,
as it were, that of a niche containing a lamp;
the lamp is enclosed in glass, the glass like a radiant star;
lit from a blessed tree—an olive-tree
that is neither of the east nor of the west—
the oil of which would almost give light
even though fire had not touched it: light upon light!
God guides to His light the one who wills to be guided;
and God offers parables to human beings,
since God has full knowledge of all things.

[Qur’an 24:35]

I was humbled by the contrast between my own behaviour and hers.  Do we men not march about quite a lot in our struggle to reform the world? Are we not prone to mounting our white chargers at a moment’s notice? Are we not sometimes like headless chickens, or, if not quite so manic, at least a bit like the exasperated Victor Mildrew in the One Foot in the Grave TV series, perpetually engaged in his last-ditch, grim-faced stand against those who would destroy civilisation as he knows it?  Do we not find it difficult sometimes to find the right balance between receptivity and action, even though we may know that the best action always flows not from our own commanding impulses and hasty judgements but from the deep well of the contemplative heart, and ultimately from a merciful outlook?

But then she herself said a remarkably merciful thing.  She pointed out the complementarity of the male and female principles and virtues, and affirmed her respect for the distinctive male virtues of courage, heroism and decisive action.  She knows that an integral aspect of the male principle is that knightly impulse to mount our fiery steeds in the quest for right and justice, even if, like Don Quixote, we may tilt at windmills, and more than often forget that the greater jihad is to fight our own lower selves (nafs) and reform our own souls, for without that, as the Qur’an, reminds us, we cannot truly change the condition of mankind.

In my quest at Reims Cathedral, no matter how deeply it had been motivated by my love of what is sacred, I had missed the opportunity to transcend my own negative emotions and centre myself in taqwa, that consciousness and loving awe of God which takes precedence over all things for all people of faith, wherever they worship. It may be in mosques, churches, synagogues or temples, or in the privacy of their own homes, or within their hearts, or, indeed, they may (in the words of William Wordsworth) sense the dwelling of the sublime “in the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things.” For all these things, as the Qur’an repeatedly tells us, are “signs for people of insight”.

So how does this personal lesson shed light on the sad story of the rare starling hounded to death by bird watchers, with which I began this essay, or the research which shows how we can increase our brain’s “performance” by taking that stroll in the countryside? 

It is this. We cannot surrender to God (and by so doing become authentic Muslims) until we cease grasping. Overcome by the insatiable need to notch up the rare starling in their tally of sightings, the “twitchers” harry it to death.  Awe and wonder and the serene observation of a rare gift are drowned out by the obsessional drive to own, record and quantify, as if to hold up a scalp in triumph. The American poet Walt Whitman expresses well his distaste for the way in which quantitative science can be an arid activity which displaces the quality of contemplative wonder: 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

In the same way, when we interact with nature, we should do so not to grasp selfishly at the benefits this may bring to the “performance” of our brain, but to open ourselves to the infinite possibilities that arise from spiritual contemplation. What truly rational person would grasp at a twenty-per-cent improvement in short term memory when the sky is the limit, or, even better, when there is the promise of what is limitless? How is it conceivable that we could have such a miserable level of ambition?

In the same way, the tourists with their cameras, grasping to record an experience, to make it their own, and in effect to steal what is not theirs, become blind to its presence at that moment.

And I too, grasping to register my complaint about those very tourists, failed to see what was staring me in the face, if only I had looked up. Whenever we grasp, our hearts become harder and we fail to see. In these excessively grasping and materialistic times, the nadir, according to the Hundus, of the kali yuga, the age of iron, we need more than ever the Grace of God to help us let go of our need to grasp, own and control. If we can do so, the rose-coloured starling of our own soul, that rare and precious visitor from another world, can be free to take flight and return to its imperishable homeland.

First published in emel Magazine, March 2009