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The Convinced Magpie Introduces Himself

Posted on Wednesday, September 6, 2006 at 09:31PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments5 Comments

autumn magpie cameo.jpgI must begin by accounting for myself; for I am surely a lusus naturae.

Few creatures are less well-suited to a Quaker existence than a magpie. We are flashy: not a respectable grey, but eye-catching black and white, with blue and green highlights. We are irrepressibly noisy. For all that we are officially songbirds, our song sounds like anything but prayer (even though sometimes that’s just what it is).

We lack all dignity, playing games together at the slightest excuse — steal-the-morsel, taunt-the-eagle, torment-the-cat. We cut capers in the air. And we have eating habits most Quakers find disgusting, with a special fondness for road kill and garbage dumpsters.

The peace witness is beyond us. We actively harass those larger birds and cats that would otherwise prey on us, and we see nothing wrong with doing so: hey, it discourages them from going after us, and improves our chances of survival. We also steal and eat the eggs and nestlings of birds that are smaller than ourselves, just as you human-types do (although we generally do it only when there’s nothing easier to eat). And, again just like you humans, if we see something laying around that we covet, and it’s light enough to qualify as carry-on baggage, we help ourselves, whether or not it technically belongs to us.

Like the early Friends, we are persecuted, and the charges leveled against us are quite similar. Candace Savage, one of our rather limited number of human admirers, writes in her book Bird Brains that, “in 1989, members of the British House of Lords rose in outrage against the suggestion that [we] be protected by law. ‘Capital punishment for the thieving and murderous magpie,’ one of them trumpeted.” Unfortunately, in our case, the charges hold some truth.

I will confess that I began my life as undeserving of salvation as any member of homo sapiens.

All the same, I knew I was called to be a Quaker from a very early age. I believe I was something like ten years old when my elementary teacher, in the course of a lesson on American History, mentioned Quakers in passing. “What are Quakers?” I asked; for I had never met any, never heard of any. (Like so many other magpies, I was raised a Presbyterian.) I don’t exactly remember what my teacher said in reply: I think the Quaker peace testimony was probably a part of it, and possibly something about Quaker earnestness regarding the Christ of the Bible.

What I clearly remember is my reaction: Oh. That’s who I am. True, it wasn’t how I was behaving; but it was what I was called to be.

It was just a brief glimpse of truth, and in the busyness of childhood I lost touch with it, drifting by my late teens into a despiritualized skepticism and worldliness. Honestly, alienation and wild living made more sense to me than obedience and conformity to a ruling establishment that was visibly in moral bankruptcy. It was easiest to say, the hell with all that, and be just a natural magpie cavorting in the air.

A Quaker magpie, however, cannot be just a natural magpie for long. Wild living (in the playful sense) was delightful; I loved shocking the respectable with my chatter and my diet. But outright dissolution troubled something in me that I was not yet ready to face head-on; without facing that something inside me, I still held back from the truly dissolute life. I absorbed and believed in the alienation and anti-establishmentarianism of the time — but the net result of my doing so was that I lost my bearings in life and fell into a malaise.

I took to wandering alone (hop hop hop!), away from the influence of the other corvids I’d been hanging out with — crying out in my heart, for hours and even whole days at a stretch, I knew not what or to whom — until one day when I was twenty, at the very bottom of dejection, something broke inside and all around me, the universe melted into visible light,all the accumulated burden of my living fell off my back, and I knew I’d just been given the freedom to make a totally fresh start. I flapped my wings for hours, for sheer joy.

I began seeking, then, for a right way to live, one that was well grounded and would satisfy. And when a friend said he was attending Quaker meeting that next Sunday, I went with him. (We found an open window.)

There among Friends, that sense of belonging that I’d felt once before returned to me.

Of course, simply finding where I belonged was not enough. I needed to change my whole way of life, not merely what I did on Sundays; and I needed help recognizing the fact, and learning how.

And yet I was not at the point the young George Fox had gotten to, of clearly discerning the Guide in my own heart who could show me the way forward; and there was no outward George Fox at the meeting to take me in hand and make me face the full extent of the task before me. It was, alas, a liberal Friends meeting, which means that instead of instructing people like me in the art of right living, it struggled to accept me just as I already was — precisely the wrong sort of medicine.

So I muddled along, changing the superficials like my wild living first, and only gradually recognizing that there were other things I needed to change as well.

Far too soon, I applied for membership at my local Quaker meeting. Because my understanding was so poor, I could tell them little more than, “Squawk! This is where I know I belong!” Because their understanding was likewise poor, they simply accepted me. “Welcome, little magpie!” they said.

Oh, that was a mistake! I went right on squawking and chattering in the meeting as magpies do, and flaunting my plumage, and showing off my ærial tumbles, and I got admiration for the wrong reasons, and it kept me confused, unaware of the magnitude of the deeper changes I needed to make in myself. And because I hadn’t seen the changes I needed to make, I blundered into sins of various and hurtful kinds.

The thing is, I had a caricature of the path of righteousness in my head, a caricature which made it look dour, and joyless, and altogether unnatural for magpies. I knew it would forbid my stealing other birds’ eggs; I imagined it would forbid me all joy in eating. I knew it would forbid me egoistic showing off; I imagined it would forbid me ærial tumbles.

It took me longer than you would believe to realize that the sense of right that says, stealing other bird’s eggs is wrong, but enjoying what you eat is part of the gift of life you were meant to have, is in fact the Guide that I am called to trust.

And it took me longer still to understand that this Guide can say, Go ahead, enjoy your dumpster meal, and also say, Now take up the Cross and follow me.

Being a magpie, I find that I am simultaneously called to carry the Cross and allowed to chatter and do my airborne acrobatics. Did Paul know about this? Did George Fox? I don’t know.  I’m not sure how closely they studied birds.

I am trying to behave and not drop white stuff on the meetinghouse benches. It is still hard. Perhaps it will always be. We birds were not made with very good sphincter control.


Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second cardinal virtue was christened “Temperance”, it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance … meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. …

Of course, it may be the duty of a particular Christian … to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he wants to give the money to the poor, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining … for a good reason….

One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons — marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. edn. [1943, 1952])

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Reader Comments (5)

This is an illuminating little piece, Friend Marshall. And quite heartwarming, actually.

I identify strongly with crows, at times, and that's enough "of a feather" to explain how we get to unity, eventually if not immediately, most of the time.
Sep 11, 2006 at 07:46AM | Unregistered CommenterTimothy Travis

Hmmm..... I've no idea what bird I might be.

Your telling of your convincement intrigues me though, as it's somewhat similar to mine. I grew up in an ex-Catholic household, with little direct religious instruction except a tiny bit in a missionary school I went to for kindergarten and first grade in Seoul. That part's different, but...

When I heard about Quakers, they always seemed somehow right to me, and I had instant idenfication. I remember reading about them in books on the Underground Railroad, and later in a similar context in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. When I was looking for colleges the Quaker ones seemed naturally attractive. The one I attended was long since unaffiliated, but still had a Meeting on campus and a sense that Quakerism was important.

I went to Meeting a fair amount, not always in the best of shape Sunday morning, but finding something there I didn't find elsewhere. It wasn't until a lot of years later that I sorted out what that was, that it wasn't available anywhere else, and started attending meeting again.

Lately I'm finding that the early Quakers did a better job of explaining that 'something' than I ever could, and enjoying the resonance, which feels incredibly natural. I'm just starting down what sounds like a similar path to the one you've been taking.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Sep 11, 2006 at 11:07AM | Unregistered CommenterSimon St.Laurent
As a bat, I simply ask that the Quaker meeting house might consider adding a belfry.
Sep 11, 2006 at 01:38PM | Unregistered CommenterRachel
Many thanks, Timothy and Simon, for your kind words! I always figured there must be more like me out there. Now I know who they are!

Rachel, your words must have touched a nerve, because the very next day, whem a Friends Church on the West Coast announced that they had a new building, one of their members felt compelled to confess right off the bat that, no, they didn't have a belfry. (The evidence is at http://aliviabiko.blogspot.com/2006/09/new-home.html .) I do think they could, and should, install a bat house on an appropriate outside wall. But they may need some help in understanding why.
Sep 13, 2006 at 02:10PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Boy, I have my head too far into the tech world. My first reaction was "why would he name himself after an RSS aggregator." Ahem. Time to get out of the office and smell the fresh air!

It's nice to see this new blog/sub-blog, I'm very glad for your thoughtful presence on the Quakosphere!

Your Friend, Martin

Sep 13, 2006 at 04:04PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Kelley

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