Last Monday on my way to the hospital, against the soft blue and gold of the morning sky, I saw two different murmurations. Seemed like a miracle—or a message. So beautiful! And mysterious. In case you don’t remember what a murmuration is, it is a big, flowing flock of birds—starlings, scientists say, in groups sometimes as large as 750,000. The birds all fly together in unison, but this is not practical flight—simply moving from one place to another—but something that looks more like dance, or a bird version of what moves the whirling dervish, an awe-inspirating manifestation of the pure joy of living. Together, the birds form a living shape that broadens and then flattens, turns and spirals, in a beautiful, even lyrical, formation that simply stuns you into silence.
The murmurations I saw were small ones by comparison—and I’m not so sure they were starlings. The first one had perhaps 100 to 200 birds and the second, just a couple of miles away, had fewer still, maybe 30 to 40. But the telltale characteristic was the amazing way they all flew together, evenly spaced, in this continuously evolving shape and swirl. No one bird flew into another. Nobody was left behind. The edges of the shape stayed smooth. Somehow, they instinctively knew how to fly so close to one another, even though their direction was constantly changing. I wondered whether they were communicating in some way or whether some unseen force—life itself, God Himself—was inspiring and upholding them in flight. However it was happening, whatever was inspiring it, the joy was obvious: Joy in simply being able to fly, perhaps; joy felt in community with their kin; joy in being alive.
Scientists studying murmurations have created computer simulations to try to understand how the birds orchestrate their movements while flying at such fast speeds. The modeling suggests that each individual bird—no matter how large the flock may be—keeps track of its closest seven neighbors and matches its actions to theirs. When the whole flock does this, whether they are 100 or 100,000 birds in total, the whole group automatically synchronizes, even as the patterns change fluidly in flight.
And birds aren’t the only species that demonstrate this kind of ecstatic movement when they gather in groups—some types of fish do it too, as do honeybees and other swarming insects. Doesn’t it make you wonder: What is this innate, instinctive ability living creatures have to harmonize—to an absolutely beautiful effect? Maybe it’s a tiny glimpse of the kingdom of God, already present among us. A little, living snapshot of what life can be when individual interests move to the background and the joy of the group, the joy of living, the joy of God comes first.
We too have experienced that kind of joy here at Noblesville Friends recently. Many of you mentioned to me how special you thought Easter was this year. In each part of the day, from the moment people started arriving for breakfast to the time of music afterward, and then through meeting for worship, we all seemed to feel a sense of uplifting, hopeful joy. It was so good to be together, after two long, difficult years of illness and separation. But as good as it was to be together, that day seemed to have a special joy that went beyond our happiness in being reunited, something hard to explain. Perhaps—and I think this is likely–Spirit was celebrating with us.
In fact, we Quakers might be said to have quiet murmurations of our own when we worship in silence together. In the stillness, we share a sense of harmony as we bring our thoughts and our active minds to the waiting quiet. We sit together in the stillness and listen for, rest in, and simply love God. This way of worshipping has been central to Friends tradition all along and many meetings across the country and around the world still spend their entire worship time in expectant, quiet waiting on Spirit. Early Friends writings include descriptions of meetings in which “the power of the Lord was over all,” meaning that God’s Presence could be felt by everyone there. As a result, peoples’ hearts were filled with love and peace and joy. They knew God’s Presence—God’s holiness and love—was with them. Their souls were refreshed; their hope restored; and they found what they needed for the week ahead.
Today the phrase Friends use to describe the powerful experience of experiencing together God’s presence—which still happens, by the way–as “the gathered meeting.” In his Pendle Hill pamphlet, Quaker Steven Davison explores what it means to be in a Quaker meeting that is gathered by the Holy Spirit.
Most of you are probably familiar with painting The Presence in the Midst, by Quaker artist J. Doyle Penrose. It provides a beautiful picture of a gathered meeting. Christ is present with them as Friends sit in silent worship. Most Friends have bowed their heads and closed their eyes, but one young woman seems to be sitting at attention, her eyes open, looking forward expectantly. Perhaps she is sensing the presence of Christ in a real and powerful way as Christ comes to teach each of them himself.
There is a subtle but unmistakable difference we can feel—individually and collectively—when Spirit is present and guiding us. I think we experienced Spirit leading us together as we considered what to do about the parsonage. Julia and Gary brought the opportunity forward; everyone listened to the information that was shared; we weighed the possibilities, and we discussed our thoughts about what was best. Over the next week or so, the trustees got the answers to questions we had as a meeting, and then the sale was easily approved and all hearts were clear about it. We were flying smoothly in formation with each other, and Spirit was over all. We were being led in the way that we should go.
You can hear the peace and ease, respect and joy in Davison’s description of what happens when Spirit’s presence is felt by the group:
“Each of these aspects of the gathered meeting—energy, presence, unity, and knowledge—inspires joy. The psychic and physical thrills are joyous. The sense of presence—of each other’s presence and of that deeper Presence—gladdens the heart. It awakens a unique kind of love for each other and for God. And the knowledge, too, is deeply satisfying—to know that you have found something holy, that is, wholemaking, however ineffable, or that, in doing God’s business, you share in the community’s communion of unity, “for He has broken down the middle wall of partition between our separate personalities and has flooded us with a sense of fellowship,” as [Thomas] Kelly describes it.”
The wants and expectations of the individual step back for a time as we welcome and recognize the possibility of divine unity—Togetherness in God—being offered us. And all feel it and are blessed by it. And having had a taste of the experience of being gathered together in God’s love, we will want more of it. That’s how healthy and loving communities grow. That’s one reason I hope you’ll consider joining our upcoming book study on Rex Ambler’s small book, Light to Live By. By learning and preparing ourselves for this kind of ongoing, loving encounter with God, we nourish our souls as well as the heart of our meeting. And we equip ourselves to share more of God’s light—in our homes, our community, and our world.
I love the way our passage from Proverbs talks about how as a group we naturally contribute to the lives of each other:
“Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another. Anyone who tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, and anyone who takes care of a master will be honored. Just as water reflects the face, so one human heart reflects another.”
In these simple verses, we hear that we inspire one another—mentally and spiritually—through the thoughts we share and the intentions we hold. We also learn that our gestures of care matter, whoever and whatever we’re caring for. There is blessing and benefit for all as we share our love with another. And the last verse—so lovely—reminds us that our hearts mirror each other, showing the compassion, the care, the fellowship that lives within and among us. Think of how those qualities can fill up the spaces between us, making us an ever-more-loving meeting, a continual in-flow of God’s grace and love that then spills over into the world around us.
In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he shares a list of five qualities that they will see arising in their community as they live more and more in touch with Spirit. It’s how we, too, can know that God is leading us: Our hearts become more open and we are compassionate, kind, humble, gentle, and patient in all that we do. Paul says, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.”
Those sound like instructions on how to soar in Spirit, don’t they? You can picture it: Love binding everything together in perfect harmony—thousands of birds, swirling and swooping and turning in flight together. We are truly one body. A gathered meeting, full of Light, children of God everywhere, with Spirit over all. All examples of joyful murmurations, the natural expression of souls when God is near.
And remember how some murmurations can be as large as 750,000 birds? Here’s a simple idea that we might try to expand our awareness of connection and the blessing of joy we receive. How do you wake up in the morning? Many people today use the alarms on their phones as an alarm clock, and because the time on our phone is synchronized according to Universal Time (meaning it is more accurate than an old-fashioned clock, which could be slow or fast), whenever our alarm goes off, chances are that there are thousands of other people, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands (depending on what time we get up) who are waking at that very moment with us. What if as we reached for our phones to turn off the alarm, we thought of all those people and said a quick prayer of blessing for them all? Maybe something simple like, “May every person waking now have a good day.” Or, “God please be close to every person waking now.” Or yet again, “May every person waking now have all they need to feel safe and happy today.”
We could do something similar when we sit down to watch a favorite show. We can think about all the people who are doing the same thing in that moment and send them a smile and a prayer for their well-being. We can think of them—who knows how many, a great and gathered people—and let compassion, kindness, gentleness, and peace rest in our hearts. We can ask God to bless them, even as God is blessing us.
With simple ideas like these, we can help ourselves become aware of the much, much larger murmuration of Spirit that loves and guides us all. As we intentionally extend the blessings we have, we will feel increasingly connected to the ocean of Light George Fox wrote about in his Journal back in 1647. I’ll end with his words:
“I was under great temptations sometimes, and my inward sufferings were heavy; but I could find none to open my condition to but the Lord alone, unto whom I cried night and day. And I went back into Nottinghamshire, and there the Lord shewed me that the natures of those things which were hurtful without, were within in the hearts and minds of wicked men… And I cried to the Lord, saying, ‘Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?’ And the Lord answered that it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions; and in this I saw the infinite love of God. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death, but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. And in that also I saw the infinite love of God; and I had great openings.”
- OT Proverbs 27: 17-19
- NT Colossians 3: 12-17
- Davison, Steven. The Gathered Meeting. https://pendlehill.org/product/gathered-meeting/
- Starling Murmuration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uV54oa0SyMc
- A Biologist Explains the Science of Murmurations.