I spent much of this week at the Ngatiawa River Monastery, a contemporary monastery of 20 or so people, adults and children, seeking to follow Jesus in a pattern of prayer, hospitality, community, justice, and self-giving love. I got to stay in their ‘prayer hut’, a basic cabin overlooking the monastery and join in with some of their rhythms. They welcomed me with great meals, thoughtful and fascinating conversation, Spirit-breathed prayer and fun bantz. Here’s something of what I came across there.
After a morning sermonising in my hut, on Thursday afternoon I took a walk. I headed upwards from the monastery, along Connolly Way, through a gate, and onto a tarmac track fighting a losing battle with the grass, greedy for territory. The grass had back-up – endless hills alive with choppy green waves – and, undaunted by the sheep steadily tucking in, it had this land covered from the get-go.
I stopped frequently, to take breath, but more often, just to take it in. How on earth, I asked, did God create so many shades of green? And what riotous mood was He in when he decided to crowd them all into this one section of His good earth? For contrast, foxgloves litter the fields and verges. When they cluster around streams chuckling down the hill, the overall effect is ludicrously picturesque.
The soundtrack is no less ridiculous in its variety. The monastery is a liturgical place and so perhaps my ears were open to the liturgies on my walk. The trees whisper biddings. The streams offer burbling absolution to confessions. There are birds singing in psalms of steady, rhythmic arpeggios and others trilling, shrieking or chattering – the varied voice of praise.
There’s one bird I’ve heard a lot which is unlike any I’ve come across in the UK. Its song is a weird mix of rather guttural croaks and mechanical sounding whirrs, alongside ecstatic melodies, flute-like and free. Sometimes the two types of call come together in what can only be described as a sort of bird’s yodel.
I’ve described the call to a few new NZ friends and they nod knowingly – this is the call of a Tui, otherwise known as a parson bird. It’s named after its outfit – almost completely oily black but with a clerical puff of white under its neck. They’re described with a certain amount of affection – they’re characterful, as every good parson should be, rather bold, and very territorial, as every good parson probably shouldn’t be.
I’ve also been told, intriguingly, that they have two voice boxes – hence their two modes of song. One friend told me that this is further evidence of their parson’s vocation – they are to speak both to earth, and to heaven.
To my ears, the earthly song of the tui sounds jarring and, frankly, sometimes rather ugly. The heavenly notes though – they catch up your heart and soul and lift them from whatever else you were doing to thy kingdom come. And these notes carry. They are the calls that you’ll hear across the valleys.
It makes me think about the relative weight I place on these two parts of my call – talking to earth, and talking to heaven. Those heavenly calls – these are the one that carry.
It’s so good to be on sabbatical with glorious, spacious time to pray. I have a hunch that what I’m doing here, calling out to heaven, will actually ‘carry’ quite a long way further than whatever I might otherwise be getting up to, croaking back in Peckham.
Advent begins. Expectantly we listen out: a Word will come, and in Him the two languages of earth and heaven come together perfectly. Tune in. Can you hear?
PS. In case you’re wondering, despite all this bird talk, St Francis I ain’t becoming. My prayer hut at Ngatiawa is essentially a shepherd’s hut in a field I’m sharing with three sheep. They are decidedly unimpressed by my presence. When I walked up on my first evening here, I was greeted by the three of them standing in my path and eye-balling me. As is only polite, I said hello and paused, hoping they might step aside. They did not. I stepped forward and one of them looked me straight in the eye and peed, pointedly, just at my door. Praise Him all creatures here below, indeed.