She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters
John Bell (1949 - ) and Graham Maule (1958-2019)
© 1988 WGRG c/o Iona Community, 21 Carlton Court, Glasgow, G5 9JP, www.wildgoose.scot.
Tune: THAINAKY, John Lamberton Bell (1949 - )
© WGRG c/o Iona Community, 21 Carlton Court, Glasgow, G5 9JP, www.wildgoose.scot.
She sits like a bird, brooding on the waters,
Hovering on the chaos of the world’s first day;
She sighs and she sings, mothering creation,
Waiting to give birth to all the Word will say.
She wings over earth, resting where she wishes,
Lighting close at hand or soaring through the skies;
She nests in the womb, welcoming each wonder,
Nourishing potential hidden to our eyes.
She dances in fire, startling her spectators,
Waking tongues of ecstasy where dumbness reigned;
She weans and inspires all whose hearts are open,
Nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained.
For she is the Spirit, one with God in essence,
Gifted by the Saviour in eternal love;
She is the key opening the scriptures,
Enemy of apathy and heavenly dove.
Reflection: Janet Wootton
The stately poem which tells the story of creation in Genesis 1 opens with a startling and immensely powerful image. The language is multi-faceted, and the picture changes under our gaze. The same words can be read as a mighty wind blowing over the deep dark ocean, God’s Spirit hovering over the waters, or a bird brooding on the nest.
The translator must choose which words to use, and so what picture to paint, but the hymn-writer and poet can be as inventive as the original and John Bell and Graham Maule make full use of that freedom in this delightful hymn.
Strikingly, the Spirit is characterised throughout as female. Every couplet begins with ‘She’, bearing witness to the fact that the Hebrew word for God’s Spirit, ruach, is feminine in gender. And the language of birth and nurturing, which they take seriously in the Genesis narrative, quietly informs the first three verses.
So we begin with the bird, ‘brooding on the waters’, singing to the chicks still unhatched, or creation still unborn. Spirit and Word work together: God’s command is brought to birth in the brooding of God’s Spirit. But, the verse ends in waiting, caught in the pause at the end of Genesis 1:2, before the creative word is spoken.
From this point, the hymn sets off (appropriately) a pyrotechnic display of the Spirit’s power to startle and transform, as the bird takes to the wings of the wind. There is a reference to John 3:1-8: the wind ‘blows where it will . . . and you do not know where it comes from or where it is going’. So the dove ‘wings over earth, resting where she wishes’. In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born ‘again’, or ‘from above’, and the wind-borne dove ‘nests in the womb’, where birth and rebirth are given value and meaning in ‘potential hidden from our eyes’, but nourished by God.
Then suddenly it is Pentecost (Acts 2), and we are in the upper room, where ‘she dances in fire, startling her spectators’. The spectators are people from every nation, gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast, and amazed by what they see and hear. Those who have been dumb, silenced by the events recalled in Holy Week, are now released into ecstatic utterance that all can understand. And we are invited to recall the power of the Spirit to inspire all waiting hearts, and empower all people kept dumb by oppression of every kind, to pour forth speech.
The final verse handles the complexities of relationships within the Trinity without seeking to give a complete theological explanation. It is important, however, that it makes this point. The hymn may use of unexpected gender language and draw on coruscating poetic imagery, but ‘she’ is the same Spirit that comes down to us in the ancient theological traditions. There is no sleight of hand. The hymn is firmly rooted in the Christian Tradition, and in the Scriptures that are at the heart of our faith, and to which the Spirit of God is the key.
The temptation to write another four or five verses must have been overwhelming. After all, the Bible employs a huge range of imaginative language about the Spirit of God. If so, I commend these writers, who have given so much to the world of Christian words and music, for their restraint. The Spirit may not be ‘captured. silenced or restrained’, but the hymn text gains much from being held within four brilliantly constructed verses, which challenge singers to follow for themselves the dazzling pathways that open up in every line.
It’s a lot of fun to sing. The tune runs and twists, full of joy, and makes it possible to sing quite complex word patterns: like ‘nor can she be captured, silenced or restrained’ or ‘waiting to give birth to what the Word will say’; they are like tongue-twisters, but a delight to sing. And there is plenty of depth for the intellect to engage with, if you’ve a mind to. The reminder for this comes right at the end, with the words that give the song its title. The Spirit, above all is ‘enemy of apathy’, and so is this hymn.
Prayer (based on a hymn of Hildegard of Bingen)
Spirit and Wisdom
riding the circles of air,
you hold all things
in one living embrace.
brush the heavens,
and feather the earth with showers of blessing,
passing like the wind through all creation.
We praise you with the joy that you deserve.
 Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), ‘O virtus Sapientie’,
Performed by musicians from St Chad's Ladybarn:
Rachel Gilmore, Christopher Gilmore, Cemil Egeli