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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1017: The great blue heron knows what it means to travel long and far to be somewhere safe

Day 1017: Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The great blue heron knows what it means to travel long and far to be somewhere safe, for their own sake and that of their offspring

A few months ago, I traveled to the Yucatan Peninsula to learn about Melipona honey bees, but the birds of the Celstrum Biosphere Reserve taught me a different lesson. A beekeeper from Chicago, I was enchanted by the symphony of biodiversity around me and the protection this ecosystem offered to migratory species seeking refuge far from their now dangerous homes.

When I visited the reserve for the first time, a slate-blue wingspan sailed into the water hole in front me, then stood on one, bony leg like a poised marionette. I knew this bird. This wasn't the roseate spoonbill or the yellow-lored parrot I had hoped to witness, but a great blue heron, a bird I often admired while hunched silently by the edges of Lake Michigan, miles from these jungles of southern Mexico.

My guide told me that the great blue heron, at least east of the American Rockies, is migratory — with some journeying to the Caribbean, Central America or northern South America, by day or night, alone or in flocks. I was surprised and happy to see something familiar in an unfamiliar setting.

The heron's cobalt plumage and wingspan powered through many miles to be in this ecological sanctuary.

I now marvel with this memory alongside the feast of the Holy Innocents on Dec. 28.

If this is how we are to grieve extinction — of an entire generation of children or of another species — then we must grieve freely.

I wonder about the Holy Family's flight into Egypt after the angel warned Joseph of Herod's plan to slaughter children. I imagine Mary awakening in the middle of the night on the desert journey to the cries of her newborn, and these two parents wading across the Nile, retracing the steps of Exodus in reverse, evading border patrol for a better life — a refuge — yet haunted by families ambushed by Herod's massacre in the neighborhoods of Bethlehem.

I dislike that the angel didn't warn the other families. I dislike that innocence is the only thing these children had to offer in the "good news" of the Gospel. This is a hard story to pray with.

There are no great blue herons in Egypt. But like so many migrants both human and non-human, the great blue heron knows what it means to travel long and far to be somewhere safe, for their own sake and that of their offspring.

The National Audubon Society field guide notes that spring heat waves endanger young birds in their nests, and wildfires in the north incinerate their habitat. I see a kinship in the heron's migrations and that of the Holy Family — one that I want to push beyond metaphor as I mourn the heron eggs that will never hatch and the children left behind to be massacred in Bethlehem. This is an interspecies grief.

And I don't grieve alone. I find a companion in the story of the Holy Innocents, in the following words of scripture: "Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more" (Matthew 2:17-18).

I love that Rachel refuses to be comforted in the face of an extinction. To refuse comfort in the face of grief isn't a denial of tenderness, but a determination that one must feel what one is feeling in acknowledgment of intense loss. If this is how we are to grieve extinction — of an entire generation of children or of another species — then we must grieve freely. We must carry on with the hard stories we inherit. Hard stories that accompany us during hard realities.

The Celstrum Biosphere Reserve is quite different from the Egyptian desert to where Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled. But because of its diversity of coastal dunes, shallow continental marine platform, mangroves, lagoons, marshes and low rainforests, 1,150 species seek it out as a habitat, including 304 resident and migratory birds, according to UNESCO. Among them are the threatened plumbeous kite and brent goose, the endangered muscovy duck and the piping plover.

The great blue heron, once often shot as an easy target according to the Audubon field guide, is not among those birds under threat of extinction. In part that is thanks to reserves like this one where the bird flies to safety. Here the great blue heron and I share the sky and the water. We share peace born of discomfort, while acknowledging the privilege it is to be able to take flight.

Announcement from John Dear

Dear Friends, Christmas blessings of peace and hope to you, and happy new year!

Our first zoom program of the new year will feature one of the world’s most widely read and respected spiritual writers, teachers and priests, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, on Saturday, January 14th (2 pm EST/11 am Pacific) on “Quiet Prophecy: Another Kind of Protest for Social and Religious Transformation.”

Fr. Ronald Rolheiser is the President Emeritus of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas, and a Professor of Spirituality. He is the author of 14 books, including the best-sellers, “The Holy Longing” and “Sacred Fire,” and writes a weekly column that is carried in more than 70 newspapers worldwide. Recently, Orbis Books published “Ron Rolheiser: Essential Spiritual Writings,” as part of its Modern Spiritual Masters Series, which I highly recommend. (See

I’ve known and respected Fr. Ron for years. He’s hosted me at the great theology school in San Antonio, and we spoke together in Toronto a few years ago at a program honoring Henri Nouwen. He offered several topics to speak on, and I chose the topic of prophecy because I think it is so important, so neglected, and so needed in this crazy time.

A prophet, in my opinion, is someone who listens to the God of peace night and day, and then goes and tells the culture of war what the God of peace is saying—which always comes down to saying publicly, “Stop your wars, disarm, live in peace, love, and nonviolence.” One might expect such a message to be widely welcomed, even redundant, but prophets are not usually honored or respected. Yet for the nonviolent Jesus, they are the ones who fulfill the Beatitudes. He calls us to be peacemakers, to hunger and thirst for justice, and even to be persecuted for the sake of justice, that we might be like the prophets of old, like Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Fr. Ronald Rolheiser

Each year in January, we hear in church about John the Baptist who calls us to repent from violence and to prepare for the coming of God’s reign. Fr. Ron will speak about John the Baptist and our common calling to be a prophetic people, how we too might speak out publicly for justice, disarmament and creation in this time of war, injustice, and environmental destruction.

“What are your prophetic gifts? How can your quiet gifts challenge the world and the church to be more just, more loving, and more faith-filled?” he will ask us. I’m excited to welcome him and hear his encouragement to pursue our calling to be prophetic Beatitude people who speak out like John the Baptist, Mary, and Jesus for a new world of justice, nonviolence, and peace.

To register, visit

Note, registration closes on Jan. 9th. You will receive the zoom link a few days beforehand, so be on the lookout!, and a recording link a few days afterward. If you have any questions, email Kassandra at

May the God of peace bless us all! Happy new year! -- Fr. John

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