An ancient Persian tale, “The Conference of the Birds” by Farid Ud-Din Attar, tells of a great gathering of many kinds of birds who set out on a quest seeking a spiritual leader who would guide them. After all, they said, other creatures had their leaders, but birds did not. The journey was inspired by the discovery of a golden feather, so magnificent, so rare, that the birds believe it must have fallen from the breast of the greatest bird in the sky, a bird worthy to be their leader.
One of their number tells the others that the bird to whom the feather belongs dwells at a great distance requiring a hazardous journey over soaring mountains through mist-filled valleys. If they will allow this one to guide them she will take them to the golden bird.
An uncountable number of birds, a gigantic flying carpet of robins and bluebirds, canaries and sparrows, ravens and blackbirds, parrots and pheasants, seagulls and cormorants, nightingales and larks, bluejays and cardinals, goldfinches and mourning doves, herons and owls, chickadees and woodpeckers, begin the journey together.
a gigantic flying carpet
But over the days and nights, many turn back, discouraged, exhausted, or finally no longer believing that there is a great bird is to be found. Sadly, some die on the way, attacked by predators, lashed by storms, wearied to death.
At last there are only thirty birds remaining. At sunset they come to a great lake still as a mirror. They cry out in astonishment, in wonder, for they are gazing down at the most magnificent being they could ever imagine: her bird-body holds feathers that are the blue of the jay, the red of the cardinal, the gold of the finch, the soft white of the dove… Overcome with ecstasy, the birds prepare to dive into the lake.
Then a voice, more pure and melodious than nightingale or lark, calls to them: “Wait!” A great bird is flying towards them. She is the Phoenix, a bird they knew only in ancient tales. In her each birds sees her own bright feathers within a rainbow of translucent Light.
“Do you not understand? The beauty and wisdom you have come so far to find is hidden within each one of you. You are Wisdom, feathered like me, and I am within you.
“Do not regret the price you paid, the labours of your great journey. You had to come that you might know this truth: I am you and you are me and we are all one.
“Rest here, then return to your own nests. Live as birds who know yourselves to be Daughters of the Golden Feather. Rejoice: My wisdom and my love will be within you for all the days, all the flights, all the songs and all the loves of your life.”
In Attar’s original tale, translated in 1889 by Edward Fitzgerald, and published by GlobalGrey 2017 (globalgreybooks.com), the Great Bird’s words to the travellers are these:
…Pilgrim, Pilgrimage, and Road,
Was but Myself towards Myself: and Your
Arrival but Myself at my own Door;
Who in your Fraction of Myself behold
Myself within the Mirror Myself hold
To see Myself in, and each part of Me
That sees himself, though drown’d, shall ever see.
Come you lost Atoms to your Centre draw,
And be the Eternal Mirror that you saw:
Rays that have wander’d into Darkness wide
Return, and back into your Sun subside.
Take time to allow this story to replay within your heart:
How does the quest of the birds resonate with your own journey in search of wisdom and love?
Listen carefully to the words the Phoenix speaks to the questing birds, as though they are being spoken to you. Notice the feelings that arise in your heart as She speaks.
How does this story illuminate these words about the Shekhinah?
Shekhinah is “the light that emanates from the primal light which is Chochmah.” (Wisdom) She is the same below as she is above; that is she permeates the manifest world and the unmanifest Source from which and in which the manifest arises. (Embracing the Divine Feminine by Rabbi Rami Shapiro)