Outside my window this morning there’s the tiniest bird I’ve ever seen. Size of a ping pong ball, its precisely articulated legs are filament thin; its head and beak able to twist, curious, through all angles. Its movements are just flicks, digital – on/off; there’s no flow. And yet it’s pure grace, this little bird. How can so much life be packed into so small a space?
If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have noticed the bird under normal circumstances. What’s been under our noses, present to us all along, but missed, is now disclosed as the direction of our gaze bends under the weight of anxiety and isolation. Time on our hands. It’s heavy.
When my brother and I were young, our father used to travel a lot for work. And when he returned, he’d always bring us a little present, a memento of where he’d been. One time I remember he had a pocketful of small, sea-polished pebbles he’d picked up from a beach in Donegal. He came to fetch us from school that day; it was the first time we’d seen him for weeks. And as he poured these beautiful stones into our hands, we were thrilled: the gloss and weight of them, and daddy home.
Once I asked my niece what it was she loved about her collection of tiny dolls, and she told me ‘It’s because they’re little, so little.’ I knew what she meant. There’s something wonderful about small things. A bird on my windowsill. Little pebbles clinking in the palms of our hands.
One of Julian of Norwich’s most profound and moving revelations of divine love is of the whole of God’s creation as a ‘little thing, the size of a hazelnut’ lying in the palm of her hand.
I wondered how it could last, for it seemed to me so small that it might have disintegrated suddenly into nothingness. And I was answered in my understanding, ‘It lasts, and always will, because God loves it.’Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
As we walked to the car outside the school, my brother burst into tears. He’d already lost his favourite stone. We retraced our steps, searched everywhere, scoured the ground where it might have fallen. Nothing glinting in the gravel. And being a vivid green, the stone would never be found if it had fallen in the grass. We searched and searched. But eventually gave up. My brother was inconsolable.
There are lots of small things in the bible. Mustard seeds, grains of sand, grains of wheat, pearls all spring immediately to mind. They’re planted, counted, paid for, sown and so on. But one little thing gets lost.
Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.Luke 15:8-10
Clearly, in this parable the lost coin stands for us, for me. The sinner is lost and then found. Cue angelic rejoicing. But it’s too easy, I think, to overstand Jesus’ parables in this way: to say it’s about me; it’s telling us we should [insert moral lesson here]. Parables as pretty instructions, little lessons. We tend to read ourselves into the parables, but I think we’re actually called to read ourselves out of them.
Understanding is the opposite of overstanding. Understanding, as Mother Julian suggests, requires a totally different stance. The parable of the lost coin would be meaningless if we didn’t recognise, perhaps subconsciously, that the small thing – the coin – is nested in the story in a series of crucial relations and significances. The coin belongs. It belongs to the woman, it belongs as one of ten, it belongs in the house, it belongs to a system of monetary exchange, it belongs in the spread of emotions: from despair to joy in the story; it belongs in Jesus’ intentions for his parable. It even belongs in the way we’re reflecting on Jesus’ intentions for his parable. And so on. An infinity of belonging.
To start to read the parable like this is to understand it in a different way. ‘I was answered in my understanding,’ says Julian. Understanding amounts to prayer. It’s like listening. Rather than reading the surface of the story, prayer nests us, like the coin, like Mother Julian’s hazelnut, in all the significances that comprise God’s creation. In prayer, we belong.
Francis Spufford writes beautifully about this in his book, Unapologetic. Here he’s describing stopping to pray in a church:
I become intensely aware of small things happening in the space around me that I can’t see…. I expand. Not seeing, I feel the close grain of the hardwood I’m sitting on, the gritty solidity of the stone pillar my arm touches. I feel their real weight, I sense the labour that made them, I know their separateness from me.Francis Spufford, Unapologetic
Through prayer, we expand, understand and are understood. We belong. ‘Every flowing particle of the whole gleams in its separate grains; gleams as if it were treasured.’ (Spufford, Unapologetic)
Walking back to the car from school, my brother starts smiling through his tears. And opens his hand. The stone had been safe in his little palm all along.
Perhaps because I’ve been thinking about my little brother, I want to share this beautiful piece. It’s called Boy about 10 by the great contemporary minimalist composer, Harold Budd. My brother was probably about ten, or a bit younger, when he lost and found the stone. (He turns 50 next week!)
Loving God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,
teach us, as you taught Mother Julian, to understand:
to recognise your love in all things,
to see our true being as belonging to your Son,
to know that even when we think we’re lost, we are found,
held safe in the redeeming love of our Saviour Jesus Christ.