Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Frigate birds

By FATHER JAMES S. BEHRENS, OCSO, Commentary | Published March 17, 2016

I was traveling from Jakarta, Indonesia, to Hong Kong by ship. The journey took us across the China Sea, and it was a difficult four days at sea. We had to make our way through gale force winds, heaving seas and a lot of rolling and swaying of the ship. I somehow managed to avoid getting seasick. I had enough Dramamine and ate modest portions of food that did not give me any trouble.

2016 03 17 GB birdThe rough seas did not keep me back from heading to the upper deck of the ship to watch the rolling waves and to feel the strong winds. And I also enjoyed watching some amazing birds from the deck of the ship. They are called frigate birds, possibly because they like to fly near ships on the high seas.

I was mesmerized by them. They seemed to fly so effortlessly, riding the winds. The birds soared high, then dived low, skimmed across the tops of the waves and then rose again, rose higher than the ship. They glided in long arcs, back and forth, their wings hardly moving. They were masters of air travel, of maneuvering their bodies with grace along the highways of the sky. And from where I watched, it all looked to be done with a minimum of effort. The frigate bird has been fashioned by nature, by God, to make optimum use of air currents. All it seems to do is trust the currents to provide all that it needs to soar, fly and glide with majesty.

My eyes moved from the frigates to the violent seas beneath them and to the winds that could easily bring doom to many other species of birds—not to mention creatures without wings.

The ocean invites one to ponder the vastness of this mystery of life—this long journey across so many seas of life. People feel a resonance with, a kinship with the ocean. The ocean is immense. It holds secrets. It has its storms and its calm waters. It cleanses and yet destroys. In many ways, it mirrors in its depths the grace and fury of the many seasons of the human heart.

I watched the frigates. As creatures of God, they soar by and through grace. God endowed them with the power to navigate strong winds and to do so with awe-inspiring finesse. I looked at them and wondered what I could learn from them.

I know I tend to falter when life’s winds are too strong for me to stand upright. I can be easily knocked off my feet when gales of conflicting ideas or temperaments drive me to seek facile, shallow solutions to life’s problems. Where it might be normal to seek shelter from a raging storm, there are times when the only choice left is to enter them head-on and hope you emerge on the other side in one piece. I know that I have tried many other routes than the one that would bring me into the storms of conflict and turmoil.

The frigate bird is endowed with the instinct to trust the movement and even the stillness of its wings. It is through trust that it stays afloat. It does not fight the winds. It does not evade them. It does not beseech them to cease. It rides them, soars on them, glides with them.

Hopefully it is not too late for me in life to ask God to give me something of what he has given the frigate. To take each day as one of many winds—some of which may knock me down, but there will be others that will take me with them to higher and maybe better places. It is all a matter of trust and perhaps, gradually learning the ways of life by trusting stormy weather and calm days. They are both part of life. And trust can get us all through whatever blows our way.

Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery web store at