I have long been drawn to the patterns of morning and evening prayer common in convents and monasteries. Of course, this does not mean I actually DO this habitually. I am usually muttering prayers sporadically throughout my day—desperate prayers after listening to the news, prayers as technology malfunctions and deadlines approach. I’d love to say I kneel at my bedside just before sleep, but my knees are shot, and I’m also too tired to think of anything to say to God.
I have attended some vespers services over the years, which made my discovery of a lovely New York Times essay about “vesper flights” even more delightful. It seems that swifts fly in the evening straight up, out of sight and above the clouds. They gather and hover together, half-sleeping (most birds can do this, sleep while in the air). Scientists have discovered that they are doing more than snoozing. They are orienting themselves, ascertaining the weather and exactly where they are in relation to the earth and sky. They can see the stars. They can see down as well. And they make decisions about future activity based on the collective understanding of all the birds in the group.
The author, Helen Macdonald, suggests that we might do well to imitate the swifts: traveling lightly, periodically taking a long view of our lives and our world, and referring to collective wisdom when making our choices. It is so easy to get bogged down in the trenches of living, so easy to lose track of where we are and where we are heading. Especially nowadays, our minute-by-minute adjustments to the pandemic make it so difficult to have perspective on our place in the universe. It can feel impossible to rise above our worries and fears.
But there’s magic in the vesper flights, when suddenly the bird’s calls can no longer be heard, and they utterly disappear. I think of the disciples witnessing Jesus’ ascension: all at once, He disappeared into the heavens. Where was He? Was He gone for good? But Christ had promised that His spirit would remain with them. Just as the swifts vanish, but remain, during their vesper flights, we have faith that the Lord still is, even though we no longer see Him.
And maybe, when we gather in prayer, we are flying too. We are winging our way up, past all the world’s troubles, to a place of safety and peace. And if we believe that we will live with God after death, it makes sense that we can experience little ascensions before that. So let’s learn from our mysterious friends the swifts. May we drop our burdens and move lightly through life, regularly reorienting ourselves to where we are and where we are going. May we lean on one another, and make choices that help one another. May we make those vesper flights, together, until the time comes when at last we shed our physical selves, and our immortal souls soar forever into eternity.