By Ted Lyddon Hatten
John the Baptist saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove.
Doves/pigeons (they are the same, like canine/dog) hold a central place in our most sacred stories. From Noah’s ark to burnt offerings, these birds are easy to see if you have eyes that see.
Pigeons are easy to see in most major cities and have a reputation for being unclean. But for the poor, the outcast, and women of the ancient world, doves were the only way to be made clean. Pigeons purchased for pocket change were beheaded and burned by the Temple priests.
Noah released a dove from the captivity of the ark and sent it on a reconnaissance mission. Eyes with wings, the dove could see what Noah could not. The dove could fly above the waters of God’s wrath to look for peace in the form suitable shelter and ample food.
Birds, like humans, depend heavily on sight, but they see more than we see. A dove’s eyes are on the side of its head – typical of prey. A hawk’s eyes face forward – typical of predator. Eyes situated on the side of the head allow a dove to keep one eye out for danger, while the other eye looks for safflower seed and an olive tree. A dove’s field of vision is more than twice that of a human – approximately 340º. This means that a dove can see ahead and behind at the same time -future and past merge in the eye of a dove.
Doves are cautious by nature. Preferring to avoid danger whenever possible, a mourning dove will study an area at length before making a landing. The reason is simple; a dove in the middle of a descent is vulnerable. There is no reverse in their flight pattern, so they need to know that the area is safe before they commit to a landing.
If this pericope is any indication, it appears that seeing and watching and looking are important to the Gospel of John.
If you see a bird, it is because the bird does not mind being seen. You are not a threat, and so you are granted a measure of trust. It is not earned. It is a gift.
If a bird descends, landing near you (or on you), it is because the bird does not mind being near you. Deeper trust.
If a bird remains with you, abides with you, communes with you, it is because it trusts you fully.
John saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. And the pigeon of peace remained with the one who came after John.
And, for those with eyes that see, it remains with us: trusting, abiding, communing.
It is a gift.
My name is Ted Lyddon Hatten, and I am an artist living in Iowa, a state whose landscape is more altered by agriculture than any other. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, I serve the campus and community of Drake University in Des Moines. I also consider birds.
Works cited: The Handbook of Bird Biology – Cornell Lab of Ornithology, third edition, 2016
Photos credits: tlh tedlyddonhatten.com
Ukrainian Skycutter Pigeon