The beginning of the account of the turtle dove and the sparrow. After the mournful note of the dove and the plaintive call of the hawk, lest I linger too long, I shall write more speedily of the lament of the turtle-dove and the cry of the sparrow – and not only write of them, but also portray them. My purpose is to show how the turtle-dove cherishes the solitude of the wilderness, and the sparrow cries ceaselessly, alone on the roof; so that, following the example of the turtle dove, you may cleave to the purity that comes of chastity, and following that of the sparrow, you may take pleasure in acting shrewdly and prudently; living chastely and going your way with caution. Of the turtle dove The turtle dove, so called from the sound it makes, turtur, is a shy bird, and stays all the time on mountain summits and in deserted, lonely places. It shuns the houses and society of men and keeps to the woods.
Even in the winter time, when it has lost its plumage, it is said to to live in the hollow trunks of trees. The turtle dove also overlays its nest with squill leaves, in case a wolf should attack its young. [There’s more interesting history on Squill here.] For it knows that wolves usually run from leaves of this kind. It is said that when the she-bird is widowed by the loss of her mate, she holds the name and rite of marriage in such esteem, that because her first experience of love has deceived her, cheating her with the death of her beloved, since he has become permanently unfaithful and a bitter memory, causing her more grief by his death than he gave her pleasure from his affection, for this reason she refuses to marry again, and will not relax the oaths of propriety or the contract made with the man who pleased her. She reserves her love for her dead mate alone and keeps the name of wife for him. Learn, you women, how great is the grace of widowhood, when it is proclaimed even among the birds. Who, therefore, gave these laws to the turtle dove? If I look for a man as law-giver, I cannot find him. For there is no man who would dare – not even Paul dared – to prescribe laws for observing widowhood. He said only:’I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully'(1 Timothy, 5:14). And elsewhere: ‘It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn’ (1 Corinthians, 7:8,9). Paul desires in women what in turtle doves is an enduring characteristic. And elsewhere he urges the young to marry, because it is only with difficulty that our women achieve the virtue of turtle doves. Therefore it was God who infused the turtle doves with this grace or capacity for affection, giving them the virtue of continence; God, who alone can set forth the law which all should follow. The turtle dove is not inflamed by the flower of youth and is not affected by chance temptation. It cannot go back on its first pledge of love because it knows how to preserve the chastity which it plighted as the first duty of marriage.
Of the palm-tree and the turtle dove ‘I shall multiply my days as the palm’ (see Job 29:18). The palm-tree ‘multiplies its days’, because it grows slowly before it reaches its full height. In the same way, a righteous man proceeds slowly before he attains what he strives for. For he longs to attain the kingdom of heaven. But worldly desire prevents him from attaining his chosen goal other than at a slow pace. The palm-tree multiplies its days. Neither the cold of winter nor the extreme heat of summer, however, prevent it from flourishing at all times. In the same way, a righteous man grows ever stronger and nothing hinders him in his pursuit of virtuous conduct. The cold of winter represents the sluggishness or heedlessness of a mind that lacks religious zeal. The extreme heat of summer represents the ardour of lust, or the flame of wrath or the smouldering fire of covetouness. As the palm-tree, therefore, does not wither in the cold nor burn in the great heat of summer, so a righteous man does not feel the pressure of any sort of temptation. The palm-tree multiplies its days in another sense, as when a righteous man recalls to his memory the days past and contemplates in his mind the years of eternity. He tells himself how few his past days have been and, looking at it from the other side, trusts in a long line of days to come. If you take this teaching to heart, you will grow to a great height, multiplying your days and triumphing over adversity, like the palm-tree. Again of the palm-tree ‘Thy stature is like to a palm-tree’ (Song of Solomon, 7:7).
The stature of the Church or of the soul of one of the faithful can be compared to that of a palm-tree. In the stature of a man one notes the smallness or largeness of the limbs by the outline of the body. But the righteous man has the stature of a palm-tree; if he appears of only modest size to himself, to God he is tall; humble in himself, before God he is exalted. This palm-tree is Christ, to whom the righteous man can be compared. For when he suffers the tribulations which Christ endured, the righteous man takes on the stature of the palm-tree. Thus the Apostle says: ‘Those who will partake of suffering will also partake in glory’ (see 2 Corinthians, 1:7). If you are a limb of the body, you must experience what goes on in the head. The palm-tree has already grown to its full height; its tip has already pierced the sky; there is already hair on its head, which is the foliage of the palm bud, that is, the elect among souls. The trunk, with its rough bark – the Church wrapped around with the roughness of sorrow – is set firmly in the ground, and its branches – the saints – glory in eternal happiness. Again of the palm-tree ‘The righteous shall flourish like the palm-tree.’ (Psalms, 92:12). The righteous man is planted, he flourishes and bears fruit; he is planted in the house of the Lord, in the courts of the house of our God. The house of our God is the house of conversion. In front of the house is the forecourt. Since it is in front of the house of conversion, it must be the forecourt of renunciation. For those who renounce the world plant in the forecourt of the house of the Lord the palm of the victory by which they overcame the world. The rightous man is planted, therefore, in the house of conversion; he flourishes through his renown; he bears the fruit of virtuous conduct. But to what end does he set down roots? How does he grow? How does he become strong? He takes root through faith, he grows through hope, he becomes strong through charity. What is said in the psalm about the righteous is, however, strange: ‘Those that he planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God’ (Psalms, 92:13) It is strange that they are planted in the house and flower in the forecourt. Perhaps they are planted inside by reason of their faith; through the example of their good works they flower externally, and thus through their renown the scent of their flower spreads outside. Alternatively, the righteous are planted in the house but flower in the forecourt, because they are planted in the Church of today and will flourish, without their flower fading, in eternal life. There also they will receive, with the flower, the fruit; that is, with their pureness of body and soul, the prize of recompense to come.
Again of the palm-tree ‘I will go up to the palm-tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof’ (Song of Solomon, 7:8). The palm, near the ground, is slender and rough; towards the sky, it is thicker and beautiful. It is, therefore, difficult to climb, but the fruit is sweet. The effort of climbing is lessened when you can smell the scent of the fruit. The difficulty of climbing is removed by sweetness of its taste. The palm-tree is Christ; the fruit, his salvation: ‘I am the salvation of the people’ (see Psalms, 35:3), and ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalms, 34:8). The hope of salvation is in the wood of the cross. Climb the palm, therefore, that is, strive for the victory of the cross. By climbing the ladder of the cross, you will attain the victor’s throne. You. too, can carry your cross and follow Christ. Anyone who mortifies his flesh, carries the cross. The palm adorns the victor’s hand, and the righteous man carries the palm of victory in the hand of victory, won by his virtuous conduct. There are said to be three things over which the righteous man must win victory. The world, the flesh and the Devil. He triumphs over the world when he scorns it with its delights. He overcomes the flesh when he subdues it by his abstinence. He conquers the Devil and forces him to submit when he banishes him from his life. He who triumphs over these three things by virtuous conduct, therefore, bears the palm of victory in his hand.