What We Learn from the Osprey

Listen to Kurt read his essay.

Unless you are in Antarctica, you can find the osprey on your continent keeping watch over waterways from his roost in high places. Since our Lord commands us to consider the birds of the air (Mt 6:26), what can we learn from the osprey?

He watches.

He turns.

He dives.

What does this mean for us? Let’s explore it.

He watches. He does not watch for mere information but to catch the prize of a fish who is surfacing. Likewise we keep watch not for knowledge alone but to discern the Incarnation at work among men and the warfare against this contagion of grace. 

Ancient believers called this nepsis. It means your first instinct is not to check your phone but to check your surroundings. You are looking for your Lord at work. Also, you are the sentry at the gate of your heart, the gate of the Kingdom, and the gate of Hades. You are watching who is attempting to pass. You forbid like Gandalf or permit like Elrond. It is up to you. 

He turns. Once an osprey sees the desired prize, he course-corrects.

Ancient believers called this metanoia. We translate this accurately when we say: repentance, but it is a specific kind. We are getting near to what it means when we call it a change of mindset leading to a change of behavior. We are getting even closer when we say metanoia is the part of you too deep for words commanding the rest of you to turn around, and you do.

He dives. Once an osprey turns to apprehend the fish, he plunges without reservation. His wings are a broad ‘M’ shape when he glides but become a steep ‘W’ when he dives. He is at one and the same time completely focussed and absolutely surrendered. It is the only way to catch the prize before it disappears into the deep again.

Ancient believers called this hesychasm. Some call this “the prayer of the heart,”1 which prioritizes a surrendered disposition over wordiness. Another way to describe hesychastic prayer is the proverb of St. Macarius: “The chief task of the athlete is to enter into his heart.”2 Any athlete knows what he means: complete focus, a casting away of all distractions, and total devotion to what matters in the present moment. 

St. Theophan the Recluse writes: “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of our Lord, ever-present, all-seeing, within you.”3 This one way to pray without ceasing. (I Thess 5:17)

If you do these things, then what our Lord has formed in the osprey will be yours as well, you who are much more dear to Him than the birds. 

© Kurt Mähler

Recommended: For videos of birds of osprey and other birds of prey fishing, see Mark Smith Photography . He recently published a coffee table book of photos called Osprey: The Glorious Pursuit of Unbridled Determination

Source of two photos — osprey with catfish fin and osprey in full dive: Allen, @allen_0316

Long jump photo from Los Angeles Summer Olympics, 1984


Bibliography

  1. See The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry by Henri J.M. Nouwen. HarperCollins 1991. ↩︎
  2.  See The Name of Jesus by Ireneé Hauser, translated by Charles Cummings. p. 314. Cistercian Publications 1978. ↩︎
  3.  See The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, edited by Timothy Ware. p. 110. Faber & Faber 1966. ↩︎
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus)

A Simple Three-verse Bible Study on Watching and Praying

Gather as a group of two or more. Read all the verses silently. Then choose one verse and read it aloud slowly several times with each person reading a portion.

Psalm 119:148 (NLT) I stay awake through the night, thinking about your promise.

Matthew 26:41 (NLT) [Our Lord said] “Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!”

Mark 7:35-37 (NLT) [Our Lord said] “The coming of the Son of Man can be illustrated by the story of a man going on a long trip. When he left home, he gave each of his slaves instructions about the work they were to do, and he told the gatekeeper to watch for his return. You, too, must keep watch! For you don’t know when the master of the household will return—in the evening, at midnight, before dawn, or at daybreak. Don’t let him find you sleeping when he arrives without warning. I say to you what I say to everyone: Watch for him!”

  1. After the scripture is in your memory, verbally paraphrase it to one another without referring to a book or phone. Complete what is lacking in one another’s paraphrase until you have recalled all.
  2. Ask each other: What is one thing we learn about watching and praying?
  3. Ask each other: “What is one thing we each can do within the next 48 hours as an act of humble faith that we take these words seriously?” Consider small steps and mustard-seed actions that others could reproduce in their own lives. Decisions on new habits and long-term goals will require more structure than given here.
  4. Once each person has done what they have said they would do, gather again and debrief.
  5. Now choose another verse. Conduct the same conversation again. If you desire, once you have completed these three verses, choose three more on the watching and praying.

© Kurt Mähler

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