“There is a whole sensible world around me that I should be able to turn to Your praise; but I cannot do it. Yet at some insipid moment when I may possibly be thinking of floor wax or pigeon eggs, the opening of a beautiful prayer may come up from my subconscious and lead me to write something exalted. I am not a philosopher or I could understand these things.” Flannery O’Connor, A Prayer Journal
Spending A LOT of time at home during the pandemic has afforded me time to engage in budding hobbies, one of which is bird watching. And in this season of Lent, I have become fascinated with biblical ornithology (the study of biblical birds.) One thing I learned is that the dove of the Gospels, the bird whose form the Spirit takes at the Jordan River, is none other than a Palestinian rock pigeon.
A pigeon. The kind of bird you’d meet at the park bench or under a concrete bridge. I don’t know what I thought it was before. Something holier, perhaps, a bit more polite—or at least something clean.
The dove that I remember is the champion of all things soapy and delicate. It belongs on bulletins or in stained-glass windows. Just search for clip-art of our ecclesial mascot and you’ll find the image is always the same: safe, pristine, and creamy white. It’s the Holy Spirit of God, after all. Don’t call it a pigeon.
Pigeons are gawky, obnoxious creatures. When they’re not weighing down power lines or snooping around trashcans, they’re flying into pedestrians, carrying disease, and making a general mess of the structures we’ve worked so hard to erect. Occasionally you’ll find the spotless variety, but most are a filthy mix of brown, green, and gray. “Rats with wings.”
I could think of better options … the mighty eagle of Exodus and Isaiah, the resourceful ravens sent to Elijah—why not one of these for the Spirit whose power raised Christ from the dead? I’m still discovering the answer.
But this Lenten season I’m struck by a God who enters the world ash-colored and pigeon-faced. Maybe I need this God. Maybe that’s what Lent was always about. The Holy Spirit, fluttering from trashcan to trashcan, finding her way past the park bench and into a crevice of concrete. Maybe she’s building a nest there, and in the words of C. S. Lewis, “we are like eggs”— flightless, fragile, and profoundly dependent.
Lent, it seems, is the time of year we come clean about our “eggishness.” In this season of repentance, we confess the hard shells that perpetually keep us from others, surroundings, and selves. The walls, when we’re honest, are all that we’ve ever known; yet each day we feel them close in a little tighter. We cannot stay in them forever.
Now and again we feel a peculiar pressure coming from somewhere else, the faintest sensation of warmth. Sometimes we hear what seems to be a song in the night, though it may be mere imaginings. Nevertheless, we lean into it. We thrash toward it. We know not yet if these walls can be broken, but we have no choice if we want to keep living. And so we try.
Meanwhile, a mother pigeon coos over her eggs. Something exalted is being born.
*For more information on the Palestinian rock Pigeon, check out Debbie Blue’s “Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible.”