Keeping the Faith When All the Birds Have Flown Away

Birds are regular visitors to our front garden. This morning, there were six Red-rumped Parrots on our lawn. They are not regulars. Sometimes, I see them at the end of the day, drinking from the bird bath. I have also noticed the Blue-faced Honeyeater. They are an attractive bird. The blue facial skin is two-toned, with the lower half a brilliant cobalt blue.

There are some birds, like the Common Blackbird and the Spotted Dove, who consider our house and garden their home. They take liberties. The blackbirds attack the garden beds with enthusiasm in their quest for worms and grubs, spreading the mulch in all directions. The doves act like custodians. They are often perched on our garage roof, overseeing the property. They are particularly grateful for the excess porridge I throw out in the morning.

Historically, birds have had an important role to play. We read in the Bible that Noah needed a dove to tell him when the flood had receded, and a raven brought bread to the prophet Elijah when he was tired and emotionally exhausted.

Carrier pigeons, or homing pigeons were used as military messengers during World War II. They were considered among the most secure and reliable forms of communication and were rarely intercepted.

Until the 1980’s, coal miners in the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States used canaries as an early warning system for gases like carbon monoxide and methane.

Birds are a source of fascination to many people. Bird twitchers travel the world in search of hard-to-find species.

During the COVID 19 lockdowns in Melbourne, many people explored new interests to help them cope with the restrictions. Researchers found that there was a tenfold increase in the number of birdwatchers, people who were uploading their backyard bird surveys to reputable birdwatching sites, such as, BirdLife Australia.

In the Christian tradition, birds have been regarded as God’s messengers, revealing the mysteries of God. St Francis of Assisi had a special relationship with birds. A famous painting by Giotto portrays Francis humbly admiring birds on the ground, his hand raised in blessing, reminding them of their calling, to praise their Creator and love Him always. 

The Sermon on the Mount features the teachings of Jesus. Wide ranging in its scope, it has something for everyone. In addressing the multitudes, Jesus assures them that if they identify with His kingdom, God will provide for them. He says,

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns. And yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Birds provide inspiration for a life of faith, a life dedicated to God’s purposes.

But even a life of faith is not without its troubles. There are moments in all our journeys when we feel lost, abandoned, and devoid of hope. During times of tragedy and trauma it can feel like ‘all the birds have flown away.’

When my son took his life, I felt desolate. My world had been upended. I could not come to grips with the chaos. Nothing seemed to make sense.  

‘The Saboteur of Auschwitz’ by Colin Rushton is the true story of a young British soldier, Arthur Dodd, who was taken prisoner by the German Army in 1942 and transported to Oswiecim, a small town 30 miles west of Krakow. The Germans gave it another name, now synonymous with mankind’s darkest hours. They called it Auschwitz.

Even in the early stages of his imprisonment, Arthur was convinced he and his friends would not survive the hard labour, the paucity of food, and the random beatings. Life in Auschwitz was like no other, inflicting great physical and mental abuse.

It seemed to Arthur that even nature was voicing her disapproval. He noted the absence of bees and butterflies, and all the birds had flown away. Was it possible the great architect of life had turned his back entirely on the whole place?

Arthur was a man of faith. He acknowledged the presence of God in his life. When he was encamped at Genifa in Egypt he was a regular visitor to the temporary place of worship erected there in the form of a marquee.

But ‘keeping the faith’ in Auschwitz, a place of absolute evil, was the greatest test Arthur would ever face. He did this by

(1) Reading the Word

Having survived the first battle of Tobruk, when British forces came under intense fire from the German artillery, Arthur escaped. In his haste, he grabbed a valise from his van, and ran for cover, diving into a slit trench before scrambling away.

Arthur and his friend eventually came across the town of Bardiyah, on the border of Egypt but it was crawling with Germans. They were arrested and joined the thousands of other British POWs already there.

Arthur opened the valise to check on the contents and realised it was not his. There was a King James Version of the Bible which Arthur saw as a timely provision. Although the print was small, Arthur made a commitment to read it every day. The words of the Bible grounded him, strengthening his faith, and nurturing his spirit. He was assured of God’s love in all circumstances.

Arthur was frequently abused for sticking so determinedly to his faith. Some of the POWs would taunt him, saying, “Where is your God, now?” But for Arthur, God was present in all the chaos, helping him to endure.

(2) Resisting Evil

Arthur described Auschwitz as a place of constant horror, deprivation, misery, and despair. Life was lived in a state of high tension. There were the screams, the smell of burning flesh, and the deathly smoke belching from the chimneys of the crematoria. Arthur found it impossible to relax, tormented by his own thoughts and the menacing presence of sadistic guards.

However badly they fared, the British POWs knew they were much better off than their fellow prisoners in the Jewish sector. At least they were able to advocate for their rights. For example, they would reference the Geneva Convention which strictly forbids forcing POWs to help the enemy’s war effort. But making a stand against the wishes of the German authorities had little effect on anything but the men’s morale.

Many British soldiers were not intimidated by the prospect of death and freely participated in sabotage activities. Arthur looked for ways to upset the Nazi war machine. His work entailed bending pipes and making gaskets. When the guards looked away, he forced stones into pipes and fitted blank flanges.  

Arthur knew of other POWs who deliberately miscounted when mixing concrete ensuring the mix was too heavy with concrete causing cracks in the structures that were built.

Arthur joined a team of Polish partisans who worked under the cover of darkness, laying charges, and blowing up German installations. Their activities were risky. Everyone understood the cost of being found out. They enjoyed some success, disrupting the production of items destined for use in the war effort.

(3) Showing Mercy

Arthur recalls the first day he spent in I. G. Farben, or ‘the factory’ as it was known. He was appalled at the state of the Jews or ‘stripees’ as the British called them – ‘collections of skin and bone in filthy striped garb, many in exceedingly advanced stages of malnutrition.’

Arthur risked his life in showing dignity and respect to the Jewish prisoners. He did all he could to alleviate their suffering, knowing their chances of survival were unlikely.

Arthur saw a single Jew crossing a nearby railway line. He looked a forlorn figure. The Jew tripped and fell. With no one in the immediate vicinity, Arthur went over to see if he could help. The man was dead. Notwithstanding the risk, Arthur picked up the corpse, a small mound of cloth-covered skin and bone and laid the body down carefully on the floor of a nearby hut.

On another occasion, Arthur and some of his fellow POWs were working alongside a group of Jews, building an internal wall for the new BAU 38 plant. The weather was bitterly cold. Arthur noticed a Jew in poor condition, staggering under the weight of a load of bricks. He was wearing a flimsy pair of shoes with the soles dangling off and no socks. Arthur decided to find a pair of socks for the man as soon as possible. Arthur had recently received a parcel from his stepbrother and knew he could trade the cigarettes for a new pair of woolen socks. The next day Arthur waited and waited for a suitable opportunity to hand over the socks. On receiving the unexpected gift, the man smiled warmly.

The following morning, Arthur noticed the man was not wearing the socks. When he enquired, the man, although unable to speak English, demonstrated with his hands, indicating he had sold them for food. Two weeks later the man stopped coming to work. Arthur did not need to ask what had happened.

After the war, many British POWs struggled to adapt to civilian life. The government underestimated the support they would require, giving them a cheap demob suit, a woefully inadequate war pension, and no counselling.

Arthur made his way home. It is said that the last mile is the longest. When he knocked on the door, he was greeted by his father’s second wife. She made it abundantly clear that he was not wanted here and slammed the door.

Arthur had four months leave to sort himself out, but he found it difficult to talk to anyone. He spent hours thinking about the good friends he had lost. The depression deepened and he contemplated ending his life. He was sitting on the banks of the Weaver, throwing stones into the water, when two swans approached him, looking for food. Arthur was mesmerised by their beauty, He said,

Both elegant creatures were pristine white, their grace and beauty made me question my thoughts of suicide.” 

One of them came out of the water and laid his head on Arthur’s shoulder for a full minute or so. It was as though the swan appreciated Arthur’s frame of mind and the former Auschwitz resident was moved to tears. This extraordinary incident helped Arthur come to terms with the challenges of living the rest of his life.

Author: Bruce Rickard

Reflections on Suicide and Staying Alive: My son's suicide changed everything. I felt an obligation to understand why anyone would want to end their life. My regular blog posts explore the causes and prevalence of suicide and what is needed to sustain a healthy mind and a hope-filled future.

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