Free as a Bird
Jul 7, 2017
Enough seriousness. Birds fly south for the winter, north for the summer. Me too. I’ve been going to Haiti in the winter and to upstate New York and Canada during the summer. I am a bird person.
Before I came to the monastery, I had 25 parrots. I had a house with lots of rooms and no wife and children. You can keep parrots in a cage, not so with a spouse and children. Two parrots came with me to the monastery, but birds of a feather flock together. Now I have six. Often, people who think a parrot would be a perfect pet and acquire one learn that they are not bird people and that the parrot they bought did not choose them and doesn’t like them. Then they look for a bird person like me to relieve them of their delinquent bird.
My first parrot chose me. Birds, you see, have a lot of instinct. That is something people do not have a lot of. In fact, we have almost none. Parrots live to be 70 to 80 years old. A newly hatched parrot will be ready to leave the nest for good and go out on his own after 3 months or so. How long does it take us, with the same lifespan, to become independent? Twenty years, perhaps. We have a lot to learn before we set out to make our fortune. To parrots and other birds, it all comes naturally.
Geese too are smart and have a lot of instinct. Some are smart enough to know that around here food is plentiful in the winter, so there is no need to fly south. Those that do fly south know how to position themselves in that V formation so as to make best use of air flow, for the tired ones to be in the rear and carried along like a car behind a large truck on a superhighway. They rotate positions as needed.
Like animals, birds protect their young. Canada geese are particularly good at this. And so are mockingbirds, who have no problem dive-bombing human beings to drive them away from their nests. They know what is important.
In Scripture, birds are not thought of very highly in the Old Testament. I’m not sure what birds lived around the chosen people, but birds mostly show up as partners of death. There must have been a lot of vultures around. Even the high-soaring eagle is enigmatic, admired but feared. The raven gets a good name from helping out Ezekiel by bringing him food, and of course the dove lets Noah know when to come out of the arc. The ostrich makes a brief appearance, but not in a positive way.
Birds come into their own in the New Testament. Perhaps more and friendlier species appeared in the Holy Land by then. Jesus praises their beauty along with the lilies of the field.
Psalm 148 directs all creatures that have breath to praise the Lord. Given that birds and other animals do not have free will or the capability to disobey the Lord’s commands, they do in fact praise the Lord in their life and existence. They are able to read the signs of the times and the signs of nature.
But one bird other than the dove gets high praise in Christian symbolism… the pelican. There was a pre-Christian legend about the pelican, which was adopted by Christians in the second century in Alexandria, Egypt. Being on the sea, it would have lots of pelicans, which Jerusalem definitely would not. The legend was that in times when there was not enough food, the pelican would cut its breast to feed its young on its blood. In this way, the pelican became a Christian icon of Jesus Christ shedding His blood to save us and also to feed us in the Eucharist.
In the Eucharistic hymn “Adoro te devote” written by Saint Thomas Aquinas, the following verse appears:
Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine, me immundum munda tuo sanguine; cuius una stilla salvum facere totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.
Lord Jesus, Good Pelican, wash my filthiness and clean me with your blood, one drop of which can free the entire world of all its sins.
Not Thomas Aquinas, but Civilla Martin wrote a song in 1905:
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Believe it; live it and be free as a bird.