St. Porphyrios, a Nightingale, and Me

My heart has been very moved by a passage from Wounded by Love, the Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios. It speaks to so much of my own life and the world around me that for this post I would like to invite you in to hear his wonderful story of one lone nightingale. Please let it sink deep into your heart, I know that I am trying to do the same. Holy Father Porphyrios, pray to God for us!

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes – the same tears of grace that flowed so effortlessly and that I had acquired from Old Dimas. It was the second time I had experienced them.

I cannot convey to you the things I felt, the things I experienced. I have, however, revealed to you the mystery. And I thought, ‘Why does this tiny nightingale produce these songs? Why does it trill like that? Why is it singing that exquisite thought? Why, why, why…why is it bursting its throat? Why, why, for what reason? Is it waiting for someone to praise it? Certainly not. No one there will do that.’ So I philosophized to myself. This sensitivity I acquired after the experience with Old Dimas. Previously I didn’t have it. What did that nightingale not tell me! And how much did I say to it in silence: ‘Little nightingale, who told you that I would pass by here? No one comes here. It’s such an out-of-the-way place. How marvelously you unceasingly carry on your duty, your prayer to God! How much you tell me, and how much you teach me, little nightingale! My God, how I am moved. With your warbling, dear nightingale, you show me how to hymn God, you teach me a thousand things beyond number…’

My poor health does not allow me to narrate all this to you as I feel it. A whole book could be written about it. I loved that nightingale very much. I loved it and it inspired me. I thought, ‘Why it and not me? Why does it hide from the world and not me?’ And the thought entered into my mind that I must leave, I must lose myself, I must cease to exist. I said to myself, ‘Why? Did it have an audience? Did it know I was there and could hear it? Who heard it as it was bursting its throat in song? Why did it go to such a hidden location? But what about of all these little nightingales in the middle of the thick forest, in the ravines, night and day, at sunset and sunrise? Who heard their throat-bursting song? Why did they go to such secret places? Why did they puff out their throats to bursting?’ The purpose was worship, to sing to their Creator, to worship God. That’s how I explained it.

I regarded all of them as angels of God, little birds that glorified God the Creator of all and no one heard them. Yes, believe me, they hid themselves so that no one would hear them. They weren’t interested in being heard; but there in solitude, in peace, in the wilderness, in silence, they longed to be heard, but by whom? None other than by the Maker of everything, the Creator of all, by Him who gave them life and breath and voice. You will ask, ‘Did they have consciousness? What am I to say?’ I don’t know if they did it consciously or not. I don’t know. These, after all, are birds. It may be, as Holy Scripture says, that today they live and tomorrow exist no more. We mustn’t think differently from what Holy Scripture says. God may present to us that all these were angels of God. We don’t know about these things. At all events they hid themselves that no one would hear their doxology.

So it is also for the monks there on the Holy Mountain; their life is unknown. You live with your elder and you love him. Prostrations and ascetic struggles are all part of daily life, but you don’t remember them, nor does anyone ask about you, ‘Who is he?’ You live in Christ; you belong to Christ. You live with everything and you live God, in whom all things live and move – in whom and through whom…you enter into the uncreated Church and live there unknown. And although you devote yourself in prayer to your fellow men, you remain unknown to all men, and perhaps they will never know you.

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