Of the raven The raven gets its name, corvus or corax, from the sound it makes in its throat, because it utters a croak. It is said that when its young have been hatched, this bird does not feed them fully until it sees that they have black feathers similar to its own. But after it has seen that they are of dark plumage, and has recognised them as of its own species, it feeds them more generously. When this bird feeds off corpses, it goes for the eyes first. In the Scriptures, the raven is perceived in a variety of ways; it is sometimes taken to mean a preacher, sometimes a sinner, sometimes the Devil.
In his book of Etymologies, Isidore says that the raven picks out the eyes in corpses first, as the Devil destroys the capacity for judgement in carnal men, and proceeds to extract the brain through the eye. The raven extracts the brain through the eye, as the Devil, when it has destroyed our capacity for judgement, destroys our mental faculties.
Again, the raven can be taken to mean a sinner, since it is clad, so to speak, with the dark plumage of sin. There are some sinners who despair of God’s mercy. Others pray that they may be helped to find it by the prayers of the pious. Of the second sort, it is said: ‘The ravens fed Elijah’ (see 1 Kings, 17:6). By ‘ravens’ we are meant to understand the sinners who support the religious from their own resources. Elijah signifies those who live hidden in the habit and house of a religious order. The former sinners who despair, long for worldly things and look outwards when they should look inwards. Of these the scripture says: ‘The raven did not return to the ark’ (see Genesis, 8:7); perhaps because it was caught up and perished in the flood, or perhaps because it found corpses and settled on them. In the same way, the sinner who gratifies himself outwardly with carnal desires, like the raven that did not return to the ark, is held back by external preoccupations.
But the raven can also be interpreted in a good sense, as a learned preacher. On this subject, it says in the book of the blessed Job: ‘Who provideth for the raven his food? when his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat’ (38:41). The raven, as the blessed Gregory says, is the learned teacher who cries out in a loud voice, carrying the memory of his sins like blackness around him. He produces disciples in the faith, but perhaps they cannot yet address their own weakness, perhaps they shun the memory of their former sins. As a result they do not show the blackness of humility, which they ought to adopt against worldly glory. They open their mouth as if for food when they seek instruction in the mysteries of religion. But their teacher imparts the nourishment of sublime preaching only to the extent that he sees they have repented fittingly of their past sins. Indeed he expects and admonishes them first to change from the gaudiness of their present life into a sombre hue, through the sorrow of repentance, and only then to receive the nourishment they need, in the form of sermons on the the most complex subjects.
Although the raven sees that the mouths of its young are open, waiting to be fed, it first checks to see if their bodies are covered with black feathers. Equally, the discerning teacher will not dispense the inner mysteries to the minds of those of his disciples whom he considers have still not rejected this world. For as long as they do not rid themselves of temporal glory, they are starved of spiritual nourishment. The raven brings back food in its beak to its open-mouthed offspring, as the teacher, drawing on the understanding which he has acquired, dispenses in words the food of life to his hungry pupils. The more sincerely, in his eyes, they abandon the glitter of the world to grow dark with the sorrow of repentance, the keener he is to give them refreshment in the form of instruction on higher matters. When the raven’s young clothe themselves in black feathers, they also give promise of flying, as the more the teacher’s pupils despise themselves, the more their conscience is troubled because of their worthlessness, the greater is their promise of rising to a higher realm. For this reason the teacher is careful to feed more quickly those who, as he can already tell from certain signs, have the ability to be of use to others. If he carefully preserves this judgement in his preaching, he will receive, by God’s will, a greater opportunity for preaching. For when he knows how to share, out of love, the troubles of his disciples, when he can discern that the time is right for teaching, he will receive greater gifts of understanding not only for himself but also for those to whom he devotes his attention and his efforts. On which subject it is said, plainly: ‘Who provideth for the raven his food? When his young ones cry unto God, they wander for lack of meat’ (Job 38:41). For when the young cry out to be fed, food is prepared for them by the raven, in the same way that righteous listeners, hungering for the word of God, receive as food from their teachers the greater gifts of understanding. The raven’s young, that is, the Next generation of preachers whom the preacher himself has raised up by his instruction, do not trust in themselves but in the strength of their Redeemer.
In this respect, it is well said: ‘When his young ones cry unto God …’ (Job, 38:41). For they know that they can do nothing through their own virtue alone, and however much they hunger with pious voices for the riches of their souls, they hunger with pious voices, they long for these things to be brought about by him, however, who brings about all things inwardly. For they understand with true faith that ‘neither is he that planteth any thing, neither he that watereth but God that giveth it increase’ (1 Corinthians, 3:7-8). It is said: ‘They wander for lack of meat’ (Job, 38:41). ‘Wandering’ here signifies nothing else but the vows of preachers moved by passion. While they travel about to receive their young into the bosom of the Church, inflamed with great ardour, they apply their yearning zeal to gather in now some, now others. In fact, the very heat of their intention is itself a kind of wandering. It also represents the way in which they travel to a variety of places where life is different, when they hurry here and there, eager of mind, to help souls in innumerable ways in different places. This statement in Job can be explained in another way: that the raven signifies certain prelates, or dignitaries of the Church, black from the soot of their sins. They not only get food for themselves but also get it dressed, with the result that they live more luxuriously than others. The raven’s young, in this interpretation, represent the prelates’ disciples. ‘The young’, it is said, ‘cry unto God’. The disciples, however, grumble that their masters eat too well. They leave the cloister and wander off in search of an abundance of food. There are other, bigger ravens; these are the prelates eminent in power and rank who, gathering their congregation in Church, urge it in their sermons to fast, while they themselves eat flesh on fast-days, thus scandalising and offending ordinary people. This puts doubts in the people’s mind and they wonder if the prelates who advocated fasting really believe that it is worthwhile. This is enough about the raven for the moment, until someone else says something more significant about it.