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The Hawk In Heaven

Sunday Night Journal — June 26, 2011

On my way to work Friday morning, crossing Mobile Bay, I saw something I’d only seen once before, though I’ve made that crossing twice every workday since 1992: a hawk of some kind with a fish in its claws, flying away toward its nest, or wherever they go to eat what they’ve caught. Since it’s early summer and a lot of young birds have hatched and are growing, perhaps it was on its way to feed its family. (It may have been an osprey, although I thought it was a little smaller than that—I sometimes see one sitting in a dead tree by the bay near my house.)

At any rate, it was very beautiful, flying away from me so that I had a clear silhouette of its slow graceful wings, and I had to force myself not to keep watching it out of sight, but to pay attention to my driving. It wasn’t only the immediate beauty of its flight that caught me, though; it was the whole picture: the hunting, the dive, the catch, the instinct that would, if my conjecture about the babies was correct, cause the bird to give its catch to its young.

The experience was not so beautiful for the fish, of course: to make this picture complete, to make it intelligible, the fish had to be abruptly pierced and seized by stout claws, and lifted out of the water to gasp futilely for breath until it died, or perhaps be eaten alive. I hate to be the sort of absurd sentimentalist who muses about the agonies of a fish while millions upon millions of human beings live in miserable conditions and suffer far more horribly, and for longer, and are conscious of their suffering in a way that I’m pretty sure a fish is not. But a sight like the hawk with its prey always sets me to thinking about the fallenness of the world, about the irreducible amount of death and pain which seem to be built into the fabric of it, and about what an unfallen world would be like.

The Fall brought death into the world, we’re told. It also made sacrifice necessary: we see it all around us, every time one insect eats another, a bird eats an insect, a cat eats a bird, even when a cow eats grass: something dies so that something else can live. Usually the one thing does not give its life willingly, or without struggle and pain. It remained to man to introduce the worst horror: suffering consciously and willingly inflicted, with pleasure. And that in turn was answered by God in the one Sacrifice: suffering consciously and willingly accepted, with love.

We’re left a few reminders of the way things might have been, in those situations where one creature creates what another needs to survive, as in the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange between plants and animals, or the relationship between bees and flowers. But we can’t extend that to hawks and fish, or lions and antelope. To imagine the hawk or the tiger as something other than a predator is to imagine its essential nature changed altogether, and to diminish its magnificence. Does that mean that such creatures will have no place in the redeemed world?

Or can it perhaps be that the world we now know as fallen will be still somehow itself and still somehow present when all has been redeemed? James Dickey, though not as far as I know a Christian, paints one part of that vision in his poem “The Heaven of Animals:”

For some of these,
It could not be the place
It is, without blood.

They are magnificently powerful, beyond anything in this world, couched in trees and waiting, and as for the prey:

Fulfilling themselves without pain
At the cycle's center,
They tremble, they walk
Under the tree,
They fall, they are torn,
They rise, they walk again.

But a cycle of bloodshed that never ends and never goes beyond itself would seem in the end to be more hell than heaven. If it is to be heaven, it must be part of a consciousness in which pain is subsumed into something that transcends it. We can perhaps imagine this with relatively mild pains, as when we recognize the discomfort of thirst as part of the pleasure of drinking. But it is difficult to do it with really serious suffering. I venture into this speculation with hesitation; I can’t even think it without misgiving. I don’t want to spin an airy theory that seems to make little of the agony that is such an inescapable and dreadful part of this world.

As it happened, later on the same day I saw the hawk, I read a story about a gruesome murder, an act that could have been a scene from a truly hideous horror film, and was so shaken that I found it difficult to work for the rest of the day. And I still haven’t shaken it: it disturbs my sleep, and pops into my mind without warning now and then through the day, usually, perversely, when I am thinking of or doing something pleasant. I really cannot imagine that such a thing can ever be caught up into joy, and it seems offensive even to make the attempt. If one who has suffered in this way can do it, well and good, but how can I, who have not, even suggest the possibility?

And in truth I would not choose first, if I could, for such things to be redeemed: I want rather that they not have happened at all, or to be somehow erased from the fabric of time and space and memory. But I don’t want to lose the beauty of the hawk’s wings in flight, either.

Earlier Christians pictured martyrs in heaven as displaying the gruesome trophies of their suffering. And I have always disliked these portrayals, so much that I don’t even want to illustrate this paragraph with examples. But I remind myself that Christ’s wounds were visible in his resurrected body. These, I suppose, are the only hints I can expect about how it will all be reconciled, but they suggest that the hawk may not be lost.


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While I was reading this, I kept thinking about childbirth. Pain in childbirth is the one specific type of bodily pain that is mentioned in the Curse and maybe it's because from that time on, suffering would become the door to joy. These are just preliminary musings, but they seem to make sense.


The day before I left England, we went to Walsingham, and my stepmother was telling me there about a bird of prey which seized a dove outside our house. The dove put up some struggle, so it took a while before the stronger bird won.

Some theologians speculate about an eternal sacrifice within God. But I had never thought of connecting that with the problem of who or what animals hunt when they go to The Happy Hunting Ground.

The people I know who are most obsessed with this are my brother John and me. John has always been extremely interested, to put it mildly, in animals, especially wild ones, and not from a distance--he's usually got a baby possum or something around that he's raising. He hunts and fishes and is not a sentimentalist. I'm not as interested as he is, but we both have this gut feeling that all this pain and bloodshed is not the way it was meant to be, and struggle to reconcile it with our faith (he's an evangelical-pentecostal Protestant).

Childbirth is easier to deal with because we get to see the answer to the question, so to speak. We can see the good result from the hawk's point of view of the hawk catching a fish, but there's no happy ending for the fish in terms we're equipped to understand. We can take childbirth as speaking very broadly to the question, but not very specifically (if that makes sense).

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