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Consider the Blackbird

Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language
by Harvey Gillman
London: Quaker Books, 2007
132 pages
Reviewed by Linda Douty

Harvey Gillman is a scholarly Quaker who delights in wisdom and words. Gillman’s deep insights about the spiritual journey are fruits of the contemplative life and the steady practice of silent reflection. Consider the Blackbird is a collection of essays written around the theme of the language used to convey our deepest spiritual yearnings. As a blackbird continues to visit outside the writer’s window, Gillman incorporates the blackbird’s song as a clever literary device. Gillman introduces his feathery friend in the early pages:

This book is a sort of consider the blackbird in the same way as in the Christian scriptures Jesus told his disciples to consider the lilies of the field.  (They) just are; they do not need justification for their existence. The blackbird came, and sang, and left … I hope that something is conveyed to the … reader, some echo of the blackbird’s song…. (P. 10)

Gillman shares his own spiritual journey, beginning in his birthplace of Manchester, England, as part of a Jewish family. His affinity for language and theology took him through a tour of religious traditions, and he became well acquainted with the Christian gospels, Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist thought, before finally finding his soul’s home with the Quaker Society of Friends. Hillman’s own penchant for words was balanced by the Quaker emphasis on silence. He remains open to a variety of insights, which is evident in these thoughts: “The more I meet seekers, the more I am convinced that there is a vast seeking which goes far beyond the materialism and consumerism which seem to dominate public life, and beyond the rigid distinctions of differing faith communities” (p. 15).

Additionally, the text is sprinkled with sentences from the Bible and from other religious writings, broadening the reader’s view of the language of faith: “The division for me in the religious life is not between members of one religion and another, or even between skeptics, atheists and followers of religions. It is between those who include the stories of their fellow humans and those who exclude them” (p. 45).

The Jewish community of his youth gave Gillman a strong appreciation for the strength of community. Yet he feels that today’s seekers are more likely to make intentional choices about community, based primarily on “The Three B’s”, which he discusses in a chapter as Belief, Belonging, and Behavior.

Perhaps most helpful to me was his comprehensive treatment of the often misunderstood term, postmodernism. After reading chapter five, I have a much clearer view of this complex label, which he summarizes with these phrases:

FROM organic community based on family ties
TO communities based on work or friendship…
FROM a sense that there is a universal Truth…
TO a multiplicity of truths.
FROM doctrine
TO experience;
FROM deference in the face of authority
TO listening to the inner voice;
FROM reverence for particular sacred texts
TO the idea that the whole of reality is a text to be explored;
FROM the norm of the white upper class male
TO respect for the multiplicity and diversity of human experience. (P. 56)

Consider the Blackbird: Reflections on Spirituality and Language should be especially helpful to those of us who seek to be with others as they deepen their spiritual journeys, because it broadens our sense of how language affects the whole sacred experience. In addition it gives us a wonderful window through which to understand Quaker belief and expression.

Not a book to hurry through, Consider the Blackbird’s academic density requires that the reader chew slowly, relishing every bite of the beautiful words. Its pages are permeated by sharp intellect but enlivened by humor and above all, a reverence that searches for meaning in the mystery. Reading it was like sipping a glass of vintage wine.

Linda Douty is a spiritual director and retreat leader living in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. She is the author of How Can I Let Go If I Don’t Know I’m Holding On?: Setting Our Souls Free and the forthcoming How Can I See the Light When It’s So Dark?: Journey to a Thankful Heart.

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