[ by Charles Cameron — from ornithology, via mystical poetry to the sheer joy of language ]
Here’s a murmuration of starlings, beautifully videographed near my home town of Sacramento:
Thousands of starlings can explode from a single tree — an impressive sight — but atill photogrphers tend to capture their images when the murmurations appear to resemble something — in this case, a bird of some sort, but not a starling..
Which brings me to the great Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, whose Conference of the Birds opens with the hoopoe, wisest of birds, taelling the world’s birds in assembly that they must cross seven perilous valleys to find their true sovereign, the Simurgh . These valleys are the valleys of the Quest (Talab), of Love (Ishq), of Knowledge (Ma’refat), of Detachment (Isteghnâ), of Unity (Tawhid), of Wonderment (Hayrat), and of Poverty and Annihilation (Faqr and Fana). You can read something of the meaning of each valley in this page, or here
Some birds die simply hearing what each valley demands, others as they traverse the valleys — but finally, thirty birds survive and arrive at the Simurgh’s throne:
ust 30 birds arrive at the home of the simurgh where they realize a startling truth: they are themselves the simurgh. In fact, the word in Persian means “30 birds.” Finally, the birds understand that the Beloved is like the sun in that it can be reflected in a mirror. In other words, we all reflect God because we are God’s shadow and reverberation: nothing is separated from its creator.
Or otherwise told:
Out of thousands of birds, only thirty reach the end of the journey. When the light of lights is manifested and they are in peace, they become aware that the Simurgh is them. They begin a new life in the Simurgh and contemplate the inner world. Simurgh, it turns out, means thirty birds; but if forty or fifty had arrived, it would be the same. By annihilating themselves gloriously in the Simurgh they find themselves in joy, learn the secrets, and receive immortality. So long as you do not realize your nothingness and do not renounce your self-pride, vanity, and self-love, you will not reach the heights of immortality.
You know, there’s a parallel between the Simurgh, comprised of thirty birds, and the Church as body of Christ, constituted by the disciples with whom he broke bread with the Words of Institution, Matthew 26.26:
And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.
— and not forgetting the Great Prayer of Union of John 17.11:
And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.
Sholeh Wolpé, The Conference of the Birds Penguin Classics, The Conference of the Birds James Lipton, An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game
From that last:
An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”!