A flicker, like a momentary drop in the day’s signal. And looking up, you catch the scimitar silhouette of a red kite or a buzzard against the blue.
There are kestrels too now, recently introduced, hovering and stooping over the young wheat. John, the farmer here, has sited nesting boxes in the hawthorn spinneys that run up to the tops.
I often sit and watch the hawks soaring high on the thermals or in mid air scuffles with rooks and ragged jackdaws, swooping low over fields and churchyards. Or I catch sight of them precarious in the dead men’s fingers of dying ash trees as I drive along the lanes.
When they drift, low, overheard I feel noticed. Ignored, but noticed. There’s an awareness passes over the land with their shadow.
What’s it like to see like that? To see like a hawk?
Standing at the railings of a cross channel ferry, my father taught me how to see small objects on a far horizon, a ship or a particular faint star in the night sky. It’s always best, he said, not to look directly at the object, but slightly to the side, askance. It was a trick taught him by his father who served in the navy during World War II. I believe it’s to do with how the optic nerve attaches to the back of the retina. There’s a blind spot, too slight to notice in the rush of data that constitutes a normal rate of perceptual input but just enough to be noticeable when the visual field is reduced to sea, sky.
On the ocean, the horizon is only ever three miles away. Everything’s closer than you think.
At three miles, an enemy ship is in range even if invisible. From the hundred foot elevation of a kid in the crow’s nest, the horizon stretches away to over twelve miles, a massive strategic advantage, like a hawk’s.
This week saw the feast of the apostle Saint Matthias in the Church of England calendar. Matthias is unique amongst the apostles for not having a single mention in the gospels. Nor is Matthias’ apostleship conferred upon him by Jesus, as is the case with the original twelve, but is decided by prayer and the casting of lots after Jesus’ Ascension. Matthias is a substitute apostle, chosen to replace Judas Iscariot. And although we’re told (Acts 1:21) he’d been a disciple since Jesus’ baptism, we’ve not heard of him until now. In other words, he’s overlookable, below the horizon, invisible.
And yet the appointment of Matthias as apostle offers us an important lesson, I think. We want to know: who is this Matthias? We want to be able to pick him out of the crowd, as we can with Peter, James and John. Layers and layers of time, tradition, interpretation, and legend, like miles and miles of sea, separate us from the object we’re searching for. Accounts of Matthias’ life, ministry and martyrdom are all unreliable.
The eyes of a hawk are tuned for hunting; they’re like telescopes, plucking objects off the horizon, and out of their context. The wider landscape is of no interest. Instead there’s a needle sharp focus on the next meal. Raptors are the ultimate analysts, ignoring an irrelevant bigger picture to get at constituent and potentially nutritious facts. Biblical scholarship can be like that. Should it be?
Returning to the railing of that ferry, I think we should try to look and live and read scripture, not like hawks, but using our blind spots, sidelong to the world and text. Not hunting but praying:
I lift up my eyes to the hills –Psalm 121:1
from where is my help to come?
It’s just a line of hills, an horizon. But it’s where we look; hawks are focussed on tiny patches of ground, we on the hills, whole.
The story of Matthias, brief and apparently inconsequential, offers us an example of how we take in that horizon.
“So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.Acts 1:21-26
Matthias emerges from the text, briefly, emerges from the wider world of Jesus’ ministry where he’s always been, unseen, camouflaged by context. He is part of the landscape; we just haven’t recognised him. Until now. Like the psalmist lifting their eyes to the hills, the apostles build their blind spot into their praying; properly, all prayer is sidelong. Think of Jesus’ own:
Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.Luke 22:42
‘If you are willing’ and ‘not my will but yours’ are both ways of looking just to the side, and offering all to God, to the context of our lives. Praying like this is to acknowledge our blind spots, and to feel blessed by them. Prayer is actually a way of throwing ourselves onto the horizon. Not plucking items off it, but letting ourselves be embraced by it.
Everything’s closer than you think. God is our one horizon.
Meredith Monk is an American composer, performer, filmmaker. This piece – Earth seen from the Air is from the third act of her opera Atlas which premiered in New York in 1992. It has a liturgical, chant-like quality, but the pulsing wordlessness of the piece also suggests the ineffable, an uncrossable horizon.
God our horizon,
the beginning and the end,
always beyond us, always embracing us,
our help comes only from you.
Teach us to see the world not dead on,
not piecemeal, but wholly,
not according to our strengths
but acknowledging our blind spots;
not in order to lay claim,
but to be claimed;
not for our purposes
through your Son,
our Saviour, Jesus Christ,