Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Youth of Eagles





Psalm 103 comprises the psalter for today's (Wednesday, week IV) Office of Readings.In verse 5, after listing some of God's blessings--forgives guilt, heals your ills, redeems you, crowns you with love and compassion, fills your life with good things--the psalmist adds, renewing your youth like an eagle's.


Fear not--my comments will not make mention of a certain contemporary hymn that would set off Fr. Erik Richsteig 's Orthometer alarm.


Every time I read this line, I first give the little happy sigh with which I respond to beautiful  biblical nature imagery, a mini Hallmark poster of the image flashing in my brain.

Then I stop and say, Wait!...  what?

 Because I can't figure out what's so special about an eagle's youth.
Not his strength, power, beauty, far sight, but his youth.

My first guess--could it be there was a phoenix-type myth going on about eagles that the psalmist had picked up on?

I did a search and found that many people share my question. An interesting "biblical birdwatching" site gave a lengthy description of how many times a bald eagle molts until he acheives the mature, white-head-and-tail plumage at 5 years of age. The evangelical writer considered this molting a kind of renewal. Not bad, but 1. this would teach a lesson about the desirability of Maturity, the wisdom of old age, not about youth. and 2. the bald eagle is a North American bird.

Luckily, I remembered that the Fathers of the Church have commented at length on just about every verse of scripture. Good old New Advent has St. Augustine's comments. Augustine claims that an eagle's beak tip never stops growing, and that after many years have gone by, it curves down and around the lower mandible such that the eagle would be unable to eat.  He grows weak from hunger, and then, in desperation, bashes the end of his beak off against a rock. Once again able to eat, his strength, vigor, and plummage are renewed, and he is once more like a young eagle. Augustine concludes:

 ...the eagle is not restored unto immortality, but we are unto eternal life; but the similitude is derived from hence, that the rock takes away from us what hinders us. Presume not therefore on your strength: the firmness of the rock rubs off your old age: for that Rock was Christ. 1 Corinthians 10:4 In Christ our youth shall be restored like that of the eagle....

My own knowledge of birds tell me that eagles don't really need to break off their beaks. I have seen crows and pet parrots rub their beaks against hard material.  And I've known pet parakeets to need a beak trim when they haven't had something hard to chew on. Probably eagles wear their beaks down by tearing at the bones of their prey.   But as St. Thomas points out, an analogy does not have to be true to be a good analogy.

So it looks like Christ, our rock, rubs off or breaks off our weary, aged sinfulness, and restores to us the youth of our baptismal purity. Enabling us to soar to heaven. On eagles wings  the wings of eagles.










3 comments:

  1. What a fascinating analogy. I never even noticed that "youth like an eagle's"

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  2. You can always count on Augustine to come up with stuff like that. You know that verse that was removed from the Vatican II breviary from psalm 137 ("by the streams of Babylon we say and wept."?) It's at the very end of the psalm where it commends anyone who grabs a Babylonian baby and batters it to death upon the ground. We no longer have to deal with this grisly image in our psalter. But Augustine had an explanation. He said it means that we should seize and kill our small sins before they grow into mortal sins.

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  3. That's similar to what C.S. Lewis says about violence in the psalms-- it can always be read so that the enemy is sin. I guess he probably got it from Augustine. Maybe I should read Augustine on the psalms sometime. It was just a couple of days ago that Dom and I discovered the New Advent page with all the stuff from the Church Fathers. So good to know that Augustine's commentaries on the psalms are there.

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