Of the eagle. The eagle is so called because of the sharpness of its eyes, for it is said to be of such keen vision that it glides above the sea on unmoving wings, out of human sight, yet from such a height sees small fish swimmming below and, swooping down like a missile thrown from a siege engine, it seizes its prey on the wing and carries it to land. When the eagle grows old, however, its wings grow heavy, and its eyes grow dim. Then it seeks out a spring and, turning away from it, flies up into the atmosphere of the sun; there it sets its wings alight and, likewise, burns off the dimness in its eyes in the sun’s rays. Descending at length, it immerses itself in the spring three times; immediately it is restored to the full strength of its wings, the former brightness of its eyes.
In the same way, you, O man, with your old clothes and dim eyes, should seek the spiritual spring of the Lord and raise the eyes of your mind to God, the fount of righteousness, and your youth will be renewed like that of the eagle. It is also said of the eagle that that it exposes its young to the sun’s rays, holding them in its claws in mid-air. If any of them, struck by the light beating down from the sun, maintains a fearless gaze without damaging its sight, this is taken as proof that it has shown itself true to its nature. But if the young bird turns its eyes away from the rays it is rejected as unworthy of its kind and of such a father and, being unworthy of being begotten, it is considered unworthy of being reared. The eagle condemns it not in a harsh manner but with the honesty of a judge.
He does it, not as a father denying his own child, but as one rejecting another’s. seems to some, however, that the kindness of the common variety of the bird excuses the unkindness of its regal counterpart. The ordinary bird is called fulica, coot; in Greek, fene. Taking up the eaglet, abandoned or unacknowledged, the coot adds it to its brood, making it one of the family, with the same maternal devotion as it shows to its own chicks, and feeds and nourishes the eaglet and its own brood with equal attention. The coot, therefore, feeds another’s young, while we cast off our own with the cruelty of an enemy. For the eagle, even if it rejects its young, does not cast them off as if they were its own, but will not even acknowledge them, as if they were unworthy of its kind.
We, which is worse, abandon those we have already acknowledged as our own. Again of the eagle The word ‘eagle’ in the Holy Scriptures signifies sometimes evil spirits, ravishers of souls; sometimes the rulers of this world. Sometimes, in contrast, it signifies either the acute understanding of the saints, or the Lord incarnate flying swiftly over the depths then seeking once more the heights. The word ‘eagle’ represents those who lie in ambush for the spirit. This is confirmed by Jeremiah, who says: ‘Our persecutors are swifter than the eagles of the heaven’ (Lamentations, 4:19). For our persecutors are swifter than the eagles of heaven when wicked men do such things against us that they seem to exceed the very rulers of the air in their evil machinations.
The word ‘eagle’ also symbolises earthly power. Ezekiel says with reference to this: ‘A great eagle with broad wings and long limbs, in full plumage, richly patterned, came to Lebanon. It took away the marrow of a cedar-tree, it plucked the highest foliage’ (see Ezekiel, 17:3-4). This eagle – whom else does it signify but Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon? By the vastness of the eagle’s great wings is represented the vastness of Nebuchadnezzar’s army; by the length of its limbs, the length of his days; by its full plumage, his great wealth; by its rich patterning, his immeasurable earthly glory. ‘The eagle came to Lebanon and took away the marrow of a cedar tree, it plucked the highest foliage’, as Nebuchadnezzar, seeking dominion over Judea, carried off the nobility of that kingdom as if they were the marrow of the cedar. And when he carried the weakest offspring of the kings from the throne of the kingdom by taking him captive, it was as if he had plucked the highest foliage of the cedar.
The word ‘eagle’ represents the acute understanding of the saints. The same prophet, Ezekiel, when he described how he had seen the four evangelists in the form of animals, saw the fourth among them, that is, the one signifying John, as an eagle, which left the earth in flight; as John, on earth, penetrated the mysteries with his acute understanding by reflecting on the word. Likewise, those who still leave behind their earthly mind, seek heavenly things, as the eagle with John, through contemplation. Again, the blessed Gregory on the subject of the eagle: ‘Like the eagle that hasteth to the prey’ (Job, 9:26).
It is the custom of the eagle to look at the sun’s rays with unwavering gaze. But when it is driven by lack of food, it turns the gaze, formerly fixed on the sun’s rays, to a search for a corpse. And although it flies high in the sky, it heads towards the earth for meat to seize. Clearly, the ancient fathers acted in the same way, contemplating the light of the Creator with an upward-reaching mind, insofar as their human frailty allowed. But when, foreseeing that he would become flesh at the end of the world, they turn their eyes as if from the sun’s rays to the earth, and come down from the heights to the depths, they acknowledge God above all things and man amid all things. They see that God will suffer and die for mankind, knowing that by his death they will be restored and refashioned in newness of life, just as, in the manner of the eagle, after staring at the sun’s rays, they seek food in a corpse. There is an another interpretation. ‘Like the eagle that hasteth to the prey’. The eagle flies suspended at a great height and by the swift beating of its wings hangs poised in the air, but because of the longings of its stomach, it seeks the earth, hurling itself suddenly down from the heights. Thus, in the same way, the human race in the person of its first ancestor Adam, fell from the heights to the depths, because without doubt the dignity of his state set him him at the height of reason, as if in the freedom of the air. But because, against God’s order, he took food, he came down to earth, driven by the longing in his stomach, and now feeds on meat, like the eagle after its flight, because he lost those free air-currents of contemplation, and now takes pleasure, on the ground, in carnal desires. Again of the eagle. ‘Thy youth is renewed like the eagle’s’ (Psalms, 103: 5). It is usually said of the eagle that, when it suffers from old age, its beak grows hooked so that it cannot eat food but grows weak from under-nourishment. When it comes upon a rock, it sharpens its beak, and taking food once more, regains its youth. The rock is Christ; the eagle, a righteous man, who sharpens his beak on the rock when he renders himself like Christ through virtuous conduct.