Archive for April 21st, 2009

The Cardinal’s Virtue

One of the first things I noticed when I started my new postal route late last summer was the almost total lack of songbirds, especially cardinals. There were crows and blue jays and hawks and sparrows, but few songbirds. This was quite a contrast to my previous route, where I could hear cardinals and other songbirds singing all day. The new route is higher ground, with more wooded areas near it, and I went several weeks before I saw a cardinal, and he was flitting quickly into the woods. Don’t get me wrong; I like hawks and jays, and consider crows to have among the best senses of humor in the animal kingdom. I mean they are not nature’s comedians or anything- those would be the ducks- but they are pretty funny.

But I missed the cardinals. The male cardinal is a singularly beautiful creature, and I have long loved both its vivid red and its beautiful song. The female has a reputation of being drab, but this is not really true. Granted, at any distance they have barely more color than a sparrow, but through the lens of binoculars or a telephoto lens one can see the splendid and subtle interplay of green and gold and rose in her plumage.

But even from a distance the male is striking, a rare flash of crimson against a green or brown or white world. Once in Virginia there was a snowstorm and it was on my day off. I prepared my morning coffee, opened the shades and sat in my rocking chair, grateful that I was not going to be out on such a day. There in the bush outside my window was a male cardinal, singing his heart out, vivid against the whiteout. I know it is not very scientific to ascribe human motives to birds, but for all that he sure looked like he was singing for the pure joy of it.

As the seasons turned and spring approached, however distantly, songbirds began appearing on my route, and slowly their numbers increased. Now it is rare that I am out of earshot of a singing cardinal. Crows and jays and hawks have grown fewer. I don’t know if this reflects a sort of local migration or if they have taken back their territory after being run off by the more aggressive breeds; next fall I should know for sure. But I am very grateful to have them around.

It is my theological opinion that if they were native to the Middle East the Holy Spirit would have appeared as a cardinal rather than as a dove, and cardinals would have become a common symbol of the divine presence in Christian art. First, there is the color, so rare in nature in temperate climates. Red, of course, is the color of the Holy Spirit in Western Christianity. In Orthodox iconography red is the color of divinity. Hence, Christ appears with a red tunic, the inner garment, and wrapped in a blue cloak, blue being the color of humanity. Thus it is symbolized that the Diving Person has wrapped Himself in humanity. The Mother of God, on the other hand, wears a blue inner garment and is wrapped in a red cloak: she is a human person enveloped in divinity. And in Russia, the word for “red” is also the word for “beautiful”. The icon corner in the home, center of the family’s prayer life, is “the red corner”, the beautiful corner.

And then there is the song. Or more accurately, songs. The cardinal sings a variety of tunes, from the simple ones that sound like “peep peep peep” or “tweet tweet tweet” or “birdy birdy birdy” to more complex ones that are harder to transcribe. But they are all distinctively cardinalish. The great thing about this time of year, before the leaves are on the trees, is that when I hear the cardinal’s song I can nearly always skim the treetops, for barring snowstorms they love high places, and there they are, red like living flame, the natural symbol of the Holy Spirit, a tongue of fire, singing forth beauty from on high.

Daniel Nichols

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