Of the ostrich There is an animal called assida which the Greeks call stratocamelon, but Latin-speakers strucio, the ostrich. It has wings but does not fly, and its feet are like those of the camel. When the time comes for it to lay eggs, it raises its eyes to the sky and looks to see if the star called Vergiliae, the Pleiades, has appeared, for it will not lay its eggs until that star has risen. When the ostrich sees the star, around the month of June, it digs in the ground, deposits its eggs in the hole it has made and covers them with sand. When it gets up from the hole, it immediately forgets the eggs and never returns to them. The effect of the calm, mild air seems to be that the sand in the summer heat hatches the eggs, bringing forth the chicks.
If, therefore, the ostrich knows its time and forgets its young, and pursues heavenly things to the exclusion of earthly ones, how much more, O man, should you strive for the prize of the summons from on high, you for whom God was made man, to deliver you from the power of darkness and set you together with the princes of his people in his kingdom of glory.
Again of the ostrich The wing of the ostrich resembles those of the gyrfalcon and the hawk. Who does not know how the speed of the gyrfalcon and hawk in flight exceeds that of other birds? The ostrich certainly has wings like theirs but not their speed of flight. Truly, it has not the capacity to be lifted from the ground and gives only the impression of spreading its wings as if to fly; however, it never supports itself above the earth in flight. It is exactly the same with all those hypocrites who pretend to live a life of piety, giving the impression of holiness without the reality of holy behaviour. They certainly have wings, as far as appearance goes, but in terms of action, they creep along the ground, because they spread their wings only to give an illusion of holiness, but they cannot possibly raise themselves from earth, weighed down as they are by the weight of worldly preoccupations. For the Lord rebuked the pretensions of the Pharisees as if he exposed the wing of the ostrich, which does one thing in deed and another in show, saying: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!’ (Matthew, 23:14). It is as if he were saying: ‘Your wings look as they they had the power to raise you up, but the weight of your life forces you down into the depths.’ Of this weight, the prophet says: ‘Sons of men, how long will you have a heavy heart?’ (see BSV, NEB, Psalms, 4:2). The Lord promises that he will convert the hypocritical ostrich, saying through the prophet: ‘The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the ostriches’ (see BSV, NEB, Isaiah: 43:20).
For what is meant by the word ‘dragons’, if not, clearly, malicious minds, which creep across the earth forever, revealing themselves in the basest thoughts? Who are signified by the word ‘ostrich’ if not those who pretend to be worthy? Those who lead a life of holiness, in appearance, like the wing that seems to have the power of flight, but do not put it into practice by their deeds. Thus the Lord declares that he will be glorified by the dragon or the ostrich, when he converts to his side, deep in their hearts, both those who are openly evil and those who pretend to be worthy. In considering the ostrich, we should look more carefully at the hawk and the gyrfalcon. Their bodies are small but their feathers are more densely packed; as a result, they fly at great speed, because they have little to weigh them down, much to uplift them. In contrast the ostrich has few feathers and is weighed down with a huge body, so that even if it were to try to fly, its sparse feathers would not support the mass of such a large a body in the air.
The gyrfalcon and the hawk, therefore, well represent the elect who, in this life, are not without the contamination of sin, no matter how trivial. But when the very small amount of sin that is within them causes them to sink, the large amount of virtue amassed from their good works is at hand to lift them back up to the heights. In contrast, the hypocrite, even if he does a few good things to raise him up, does many bad things to weigh him down. He does not fail entirely to do good but commits many perverse deeds by which he cancels out what good he has done. The few feathers of the ostrich, therefore, do not lift up its body, in the sense that the large number of the hypocrite’s bad deeds, compared to his too few good deeds, weigh him down.
The wing of the ostrich is similar in colour to those of the gyrfalcon and the hawk, but does not resemble them in strength. For theirs are compressed and stronger and, in flight, can press down on the air because of their density. In contrast, the wings of the ostrich are loose, to the extent that they cannot sustain flight because the air, on which they are meant to press, passes over them. What do we see in this, if not that the solid virtues of the elect fly up, pressing down on the currents of human favour? But the deeds of the hypocrites, although they seem correct, cannot support flight, because clearly the breath of human praise flows through the wing of slack virtue. But when we discern the same outward aspect among the good and the bad, when we see the very same appearance of religious observance among the elect and the sinful, we perceive what should inform our understanding, that it may distinguish the elect from the sinful, as it separates true men from false. We will recognise the distinction more quickly, however, if we fix indelibly in our memory the words of our teacher, who said: ‘Ye shall know them by their fruits’ (Matthew, 7:16). For you should not judge them by the image they present of themselves but by the principles they observe in their actions. As a result, the author of the book of Job, after introducing the image of the ostrich, thereupon adds examples of its behaviour, saying: ‘It abandons its eggs in the ground’ (BSV; see NEB, Job, 39:14).
What is meant by its eggs if not the child, still of tender years, who has to be cherished over a long period in order that it might be turned into a living bird? Indeed, the eggs have in themselves no capacity for feeling; they are nevertheless transformed, when kept warm, into living birds. Thus it is undoubtedly a fact that children and young people will remain cold and indifferent unless they are warmed by the careful encouragement of their teacher. Lest they grow inactive and insensitive through neglect, therefore, they must be cherished by the diligent instruction of teachers, until they are able to live by their own capacity for understanding and take flight on the wings of contemplation.
Even though hypocrites are forever doing wrong, they never cease to utter pious speeches and by their eloquence produce offspring in the faith or as they go about among men; yet they cannot bring them up properly, by example. It is therefore rightly said of the ostrich that it ‘abandons its eggs in the ground’. The hypocrite neglects to take care of his offspring, when he substitutes for intimate love a preoccupation with external things; the more he is absorbed in these, the less he suffers from the absence of his offspring. To abandon eggs in the ground is the same as failing to keep the young, born through association with men, away from earthly things in a protective nest of spiritual encouragement. To abandon eggs in the ground is the same as failing to furnish the young with the example of heavenly life. Because hypocrites are not fired deep down with love, they are untroubled by the inactivity of their offspring, in the same way as the ostrich is untroubled by the coldness of its eggs. The more willingly hypocrites involve themselves in earthly affairs, the more negligent they are in allowing their offspring to lead an earthbound life. But God’s care does not desert the neglected offspring of the hypocrites; he warms some of them, foreknown and secretly chosen, with his bountiful grace. It is, therefore, rightly added in the text: ‘Can you perhaps warm them in the dust?’ (BSV and see NEB, Job, 39:14). As if God were to say: ‘As I warm them in the dust, because I kindle with the fire of my love the souls of the young set amidst sinners.’ The Lord warms the neglected eggs in the dust, therefore, in the sense that he kindles with the fire of his love the souls of the very young, who have been deprived of the care of his preachers and are, in addition, surrounded by sinners.
From this we see that there are many living among the masses who do not share their sluggish way of life. From this we see that there are many do not avoid the commotion caused by the wicked, yet are still fired with zeal for heavenly things. From this we see that many, as we said, are warm, though they live in the cold; for some, surrounded by the sluggish ways of the earthbound, glow with desire of heavenly hope. How is it that those surrounded by the cold-hearted are warmed, if not because Almighty God knows to warm the neglected eggs even when they are left in the dust, and having dispelled the numbness originally caused by the cold, animates them with the spirit of life, so that far from lying motionless here below, they are turned into living beings capable of flight, raising themselves up towards heavenly things by contemplation, that is, by flying? Note that these words condemn not only the evil of hypocrites but are also intended to check the pride of righteous teachers, if it should creep out. For when the Lord says that it is he who warms the neglected eggs in the dust, he shows plainly that he acts inwardly through the words of the teacher, even though he can, without any man’s words, warm those whom he wishes, as they lie in the cold of the dust. It is as if he says plainly to the teachers: ‘So that you should be in no doubt that I am he who works through you when you speak – behold, if I wish, I can also speak to the hearts of men without you.’
The teachers, humbled in their thoughts, focus their words on the hypocrite, showing how the folly of his sluggishness can be very fully shown by the behaviour of the ostrich. For the text continues: ‘The ostrich forgets that a foot may crush its eggs or a beast of the field trample on them’ (see NEB, Job, 39:15). What is to be understood by the foot, if not the passage of everyday life? What is signified by the field, if not the world? On this subject, the Lord says in the Gospel: ‘The field is the world’ (Matthew, 13:38). What is represented in the beasts if not the ancient enemy, who plots the plunder of the world and gluts himself daily on human death? On this, the prophet promises: ‘Nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon’ (Isaiah, 35:9). Thus, as the ostrich, deserting its eggs, forgets that they may be trampled underfoot, it is evident that hypocrites abandon the young they have produced as they associate with men and care nothing for them, lest they should fail to undo the examples of evil either by dutifully encouraging or vigilantly teaching the young they have abandoned. If they loved the eggs they bear, there is no doubt that they would fear lest anyone should by the example of bad works trample on them. The ostrich also forgets that the beast of the field will destroy its eggs, just as the hypocrite does not care at all if the Devil, raging in this world, snatches the young who are the product of edifying association.
True teachers, therefore, by virtue of the love with which they are endowed, have the deepest fears for their pupils; hypocrites are as unconcerned for their charges as they are unable to grasp for themselves what indeed there is to be feared. Because hypocrites are hard of heart, they do not recognise their children in a dutiful fashion with love. Again, this is illustrated by the image of the ostrich: ‘She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers’ (Job, 39:16). For the man who is not imbued with the grace of charity, sees his neighbour, even though he is born of God, as a stranger, exactly as all hypocrites do. As hypocrites continually seek external things, their minds inwardly lose all capacity for feeling, and in everything they do, as they strive on their own behalf, their hearts are unmoved by any loving compassion towards their neighbour. Because they do not know love at its deepest level, their mind is hardened by their self-love on the inside to the same extent that it is opened up, through their worldly longing, on the outside. Their mind grows cold and insensitive on the inside, because it grows soft with the love that brings condemnation on the outside. The mind of the hypocrite lacks the capacity to examine itself, because it has not the least desire to do so. It cannot reflect upon itself because it is not in full control of itself; nor indeed has it the power so to be, because it is fragmented by as many imaginings as the desires which seize it. The hypocrite’s mind lies scattered in the depths; yet it could, if it were it whole and if it so wished, rise to the heights. That is why the mind of the righteous, because it is restrained by the observance of discipline from desiring transient, visible things, is renewed and kept inwardly whole. It sees clearly what its attitude should be towards God or a neighbour, because it leaves nothing of itself outwith its control. The more it is restrained from external things, the more its capacity is increased to burn with a deep fire. The more it burns, the more it illuminates the vices that are to be detected. The result is that holy men, when they are whole within, with marvellously keen sight seize on the sins of others even when they are hidden.
The text continues: ‘When the time comes, the ostrich spreads its wings.’ What are we to understand by the wings of the ostrich, if not the thoughts of the hypocrite, confined by considerations of the present, like wings tightly folded together? When the time comes, the ostrich raises its wings high, because it has found an opportunity to display them with pride. To spread the wings on high is to reveal your thoughts through unbridled pride. Now, because the hypocrite represents himself as holy, he keeps his thoughts to himself, as if folding his wings against his body in humility. Let the hypocrite go, therefore, now to seek praise, then to criticize the life of his neighbours, let him at any time occupy himself in deriding his creator, and he will be plunged into torments whose severity will match his own vainglorious thoughts. It follows then that ‘the ostrich forgets that a foot may crush its eggs or a beast of the field trample on them’. The foot crushes the eggs and the beast of the field tramples on them when they are left in the earth as, clearly, the hearts of men, when they devote themselves constantly to thoughts of earthly things and the basest deeds, fling themselves down to be crushed by the hooves of the beast of the field, that is, the Devil, so that, when they have long been degraded by base thoughts, they may at some time be destroyed by committing serious crimes. The text continues: ‘The ostrich treats its young harshly as if they were not its own’. The hypocrite regards his young as if they were not his own, when he finds them living otherwise than he had taught them. And, with increasing fury, he threatens them with terror and sets himself to torment them; fired by the burning brands of hatred, the hypocrite, who made no effort to ensure that his young should live, makes every effort to ensure that they die. The hypocrite, therefore, whom we take to be represented by the ostrich, is characterised as follows: he cares for no-one but himself, but glorifies himself in all he does and attributes to himself alone, beyond all others, the good that he does.