Isn’t this photo of a kingfisher one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen? It won an audience award a few years ago. For obvious reasons.
I was mesmerized by it at the time, because it was such an unlikely photo. That perfect shot, with such perfect clarity. Had to be touched up, right? No. Turns out it was just 5,000 attempts at perfection. (There’s a lesson in there somewhere, I think…)
As it happens, there’s more to the kingfisher than meets the eye, especially when you go deeper and consider its symbolic meaning, and how that reflects culture creation in a time of crisis.
But first, a short aside. Recently I did a major redesign of my personal website. Since I’m a storyteller and a lover of symbolism, I needed to find some way of giving the new site an underlying and unifying theme that would tie the entire experience up in a way that would be meaningful and beautiful.
That unifying symbol ended up being the kingfisher. At first it was nothing more than a color scheme based on the kingfisher’s plumage. I loved it, and decided to make it the color scheme for my new site:
But then I started to read about the symbolism of the kingfisher. At that point, I realized I had stumbled upon a moment of synchronicity and providence. Exactly the kind of thing that you need for culture creation.
The award-winning photo of the kingfisher is perfect, because it represents the ambiguity of the symbolism of the kingfisher. Just like the bird and its almost mirror-image in the water, the kingfisher is two opposite things at the same time. Take this incredible poem by Hopkins, for example:
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
-Gerard Manley Hopkins
As with so much of Hopkins’ poetry, the language is beautiful, but the meaning is hard to grasp. In a recent lecture that helped me understand the poem better, Professor Lynn Cohen says the following:
The kingfisher symbol here represents, paradoxically, both mortality and immortality. The iridescent plumage of the spectacular kingfisher begins as a symbol of robust and fiery life: “As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw flame.” It moves to the death tolling warning “Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:”
The kingfisher is a notoriously shy bird, but almost paradoxically it is also one of the most obviously recognizable, because of its plumage and how the sun plays against its orange feathers like fire. So it can simultaneously symbolize such different ideas as serenity, calmness, as well as disturbance and the fire of revelation. In Hopkins, it symbolizes both mortality and immortality. Naturally, such a paradoxical symbol points toward a more ineffable source: Christ Himself. But more on that in a minute.
In another poem, T. S. Eliot famously uses the kingfisher to unite opposites, completing Hopkins’ usage with it own. The line occurs in “Burnt Norton,” the first of his Four Quartets:
After the Kingfisher’s wing
Has answered light to light, and is silent, the light is still
At the stillpoint of the turning world.
To get into the multi-layered meaning of Eliot’s incredibly profound and complex Four Quartets isn’t the point here. The point is to show that poets have traditionally seen the kingfisher as a uniter of opposites. And both Hopkins and Eliot, committed Christians, resolved that apparent contradiction by clearly making the kingfisher a symbol of Christ.
It turns out that connection between kingfishers and Christ goes even deeper. There is a mystical figure in the Arthurian legends called the Fisher King, who for various reasons (depending on the legend) is suffering from a wound that will not heal. He is also, significantly, often a protector of the Holy Grail. That in itself is another image of opposites: the knight who guards the cup which gathered Christ’s blood from the Cross cannot himself be healed by it. At least, not until the promised Messianic figure of Galahad comes to claim what is rightly his.
Again. Mortality and immortality in a single figure who is associated, at least by name, with kingfishers.
Add to that C. S. Lewis’s riff on the Fisher King in his wonderful novel That Hideous Strength. Arthur Ransom, the man who saved two planets from demonic incursion, awaits his final test not as a warrior in armor, but as an invalid with a wound that will not heal. To make the connection that much more obvious, he calls himself, informally, Mr. Fisher-King.
He, also, will not be healed until the resolver of opposites, Christ Himself, releases him from his burdens.
The Kingfisher as a Symbol of Truth in Post-Covid Reality
There is something else, besides the kingfisher, that is so beautiful that it can’t be missed, but so shy you can hardly ever find it. It can also be simultaneously life-taking and life-giving It is a something that has retreated to the shadows since the pandemic hit. Something that it seems hardly anyone is interested in seeking anymore.
I’m talking about truth.
No, not about facts. Not about “the scientifically verifiable course of action that’s going to get us out of this mess.” No. I’m done with all that. It’s become clear to me that it doesn’t matter what facts or what numbers or what findings come out about this virus. People will believe what they want to believe, no matter what evidence they see.
But what about truth?
Truth is not the thing that you use to bludgeon people into submission to your point of view. Truth is not that bit of information that will cause all of what we don’t know about the virus to fall into place. Truth is definitely not a vaccine.
Truth is an experience of transcendent reality that leaves you with no doubt of its presence, but that you can’t find until you experience it directly. Truth is not an idea. Truth, as we Christians know, is a Person. Like the kingfisher, truth is found in the “still, small voice” (1 Kingdoms 19:12) that can only be encountered with humility, patience, and many thousand attempts at perfection.
Christ, like the kingfisher who symbolizes Him, is the only uniter of opposites, especially the opposites of mortality and immortality. As we in the affluent West, for the first time in this generation, are forced to truly face our own mortality, many of us have seemed to forget about our immortality in Christ. I submit that mostly this is a result of our not descending deep enough, not allowing for the stillness and self-discipline required to allow Truth to speak to us. We do not make 5,000 attempts at encountering truth, like the photographer did with the kingfisher.
We have not made the necessary efforts to create truly transcendent Christian culture.
And the consequences are dire, and will continue to be so. I would not be surprised if there were not simply a massive economic depression coming soon, but also a crack in the fabric of the Orthodox Church in America that may lead to major schism. I pray to God that I’m wrong.
But to make doubly sure, I renew my call to all of you, my brothers and sisters, to work on the great and important work of culture creation. There is no more important moment to do this than now.
I will admit that I have been not the best model lately. I have hardly posted anything on this blog in months. But the time is now. I recommit myself today, and every day, to the hard work of the internal transformation that is the only thing that can lead to culture creation. I commit to waiting in the weeds, for months and years if necessary, to catch a glimpse of the kingfisher.
The reward, like the sight of the kingfisher who catches fire in the sunlight, is worth it.
(A version of this post first appeared at nicholaskotar.com)