The Bird of Paradise
by: Michael Wilcock
The bird of paradise would have been a relative newcomer in Herbert’s England, brought to Europe by some intrepid traveller returning from what were then called the East Indies. Few in his time and place would ever have seen such an exotic creature, more spectacularly beautiful than any of his own country’s native birds.
In the words of Psalm 27, it’s “the beauty of the Lord” that Herbert is likening to that of this fabulous fowl. It may cross your mind to ask how the writer of the psalm could describe as “beautiful” someone that nobody had ever seen, namely, the invisible God of Israel! But there is such a thing as beauty of character, of course, and we may well know of blind people who will readily bear witness to this kind of beauty in some of those who care for them, a quality they are well aware of though they don’t have the eyes to see it with. So in respect of God, it was not what he might look like, but the kind of person he was, that Bible people described as beautiful.
And it is in prayer that we come (as it were) “face to face” with this beautiful God. We shall be bringing to him prayers of appreciation, admiration, adoration, arising from our experience of such a person; and prayers for those around us, that his beauty may become equally real to them.
Here is the poem in its entirety:
BY GEORGE HERBERT
Prayer the Church’s banquet, Angels’ age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth;
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days-world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood.
The land of spices; something understood.