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Ravens and Saints

I seem to be developing a particular love and admiration for our corvid friends lately, with a pair of clever and beautiful magpies visiting my garden in Norcia quite regularly and huge numbers of crows and ravens in that ancient valley. It struck me a while ago just how frequently they appear in Christian history – all the way back to the Old Testament – as our friends and helpers, and as messengers of God.

Ravens are perhaps among the world’s most successful predator/omnivore/scavenger species, found pretty much all around the top half of the planet, all the way through Europe, Siberia, Asia and North America, with a range from North Africa to the ice fields of Scandinavia, from Mexico to the furthest reaches of the Canadian arctic. We humans have had ravens and crows – corvids – around our camp sites as long as we’ve had dogs helping with the hunt. And they appear in our folk tales almost as often.

Throughout human history we’ve had a chance to observe these creatures in action, and our collective nouns for them indicate our opinion: a “murder” of crows; an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy” of ravens. (The term “building of rooks” might refer to the fact that these small, social corvids are the only species that create large colonies of nests where they live closely together, like a kind of rook city.) Native Americans have raven gods and totemic spirits that are a little more positive, focusing on their extraordinary cleverness but also as devious “trickster” types as ready to deceive and lead astray as to aid an unwary human. Pagan gods and fairies are always turning themselves into ravens to spy on human beings.

I have my own story, in fact. When I was a teenager, my parents kept sled dogs during my family’s brief stay in the Canadian sub-arctic. We had a couple of dogs who lived pretty handsomely on the cull fish that my parents caught in their ice fishing nets. But the ravens loved the leftovers from the lake too, and came up with ingenious methods of getting the food away from the comparatively dumb dogs.

They worked in pairs, with one flapping above and squawking just out of the dogs’ range, while the other one helped himself to the contents of their dish under cover of the commotion. After the first one had eaten they would switch roles, with the poor dogs going mad to try to catch at least one of the interlopers. When they were done, they would flap away and sit in a tree watching to see when the next meal was coming.

While folklorists and cultural anthropologists collect similar stories and fairy tales from around the world, it struck me the other day just what a gulf there is in European cultures between the popular, folktale version of the raven as a preternatural harbinger of doom, and the bird’s frequent appearances in Christian hagiography. Crows and ravens in fairy tales are almost never the “good guy” bird. But every time they appear in Christian “mythology”, it’s almost always to bring food or a message to a human servant of God down on his luck.

The 19th century “Smith’s Bible Dictionary” gives a not very flattering description:

There is something weird and shrewd in the expression of the raven’s countenance, a union of cunning and malignity which may have contributed to give it among widely-revered nations a reputation for preternatural knowledge…The smell of death is so grateful to them that when in passing over sheep a tainted smell is perceptible, they cry and croak vehemently. It may be that in passing over a human habitation, if a sickly or cadaverous smell arises, they should make it known by their cries, and so has arisen the idea that the croaking of a raven is the premonition of death.

But even with their macabre cultural reputation, ravens are nearly always depicted positively in the Bible itself. In Genesis, a raven was one of only two animals named specifically on the ark, and it was a raven that was first sent by Noah to look for dry land.

In 1 Kings, the prophet Elijah is cared for by ravens who are sent by God during a drought that was a punishment to the wicked idolaters in the reign of King Ahab:

And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan. And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. So he went and did according unto the word of Jehovah; for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before the Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook.

One commentator notes that this passage is a lesson not to rely upon our own powers, storing up food and wealth, but to get on with the task sent by God: “If Providence calls us to solitude and retirement, it becomes us to go: when we cannot be useful, we must be patient; and when we cannot work for God, we must sit still quietly for him.

The ravens were appointed to bring him meat, and did so. Let those who have but from hand to mouth, learn to live upon Providence, and trust it for the bread of the day, in the day. God could have sent angels to minister to him; but he chose to show that he can serve his own purposes by the meanest creatures, as effectually as by the mightiest.

Elijah Fed by Ravens – Jan Saenredam; 1604

One good 18th century Protestant divine wrote, “You may be sure that God did not forget his servant; but you would hardly believe, if it was not in the Bible, that he would send the ravens to carry food to him.”

The image of the raven bringing food and assistance to the holy men and women of God continues through the Christian era. When the greatest of all the desert fathers, St. Anthony, was sent by God to meet St. Paul the Hermit of Thebes, the raven that brought Paul his daily half loaf of bread showed up that day with a whole loaf, to accommodate the illustrious guest.

Again in the early eremitical monastic life of St. Benedict, when he had retreated from the world to a cave, he was provided with food by a local monk, but always shared with a friendly crow. Later, in the story that comes to us from the Dialogues of St. Gregory the Great, we learn that Benedict was the intended victim of an envious priest, Florentius. “Possessed with diabolical malice,” Florentius “began to envy the holy man’s virtues, to back-bite his manner of living, and to withdraw as many as he could from going to visit him.”

One day Florentius decided to rid himself of the vexing presence and poison a loaf of bread and send it to the saint as a present.

The man of God received it with great thanks, yet not ignorant of that which was hidden within. At dinner time, a crow daily used to come to him from the next wood, which took bread at his hands; coming that day after his manner, the man of God threw him the loaf which the Priest had sent him, giving him this charge: ‘In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, take up that loaf, and leave it in some such place where no man may find it.’ Then the crow, opening his mouth, and lifting up his wings, began to hop up and down about the loaf, and after his manner to cry out, as though he would have said that he was willing to obey, and yet could not do what he was commanded.

The man of God again and again bide him, saying: ‘Take it up without fear, and throw it where no man may find it.’ At length, with much ado, the crow took it up, and flew away, and after three hours, having dispatched the loaf, he returned again, and received his usual allowance from the man of God.

To this day, St. Benedict is commonly depicted with a raven or a crow somewhere nearby.

According to the Vita S. Meginrati in the 9th century, one of St. Benedict’s saintly monastic sons, the hermit St. Meinrad, was murdered by some would-be thieves:

Now there were some ravens who used to come regularly to the servant of God when he was alive and take what was offered from his hands. And as if wishing to avenge the dead man, the ravens followed the thieves while they were fleeing from the hermitage, and filled the woods with loud cawing. And flying as close to the murderers’ heads as they could, they published the crime that had been committed.

At other times, the ravens have to have their natural tendencies towards mischief curtailed and corrected by a good abbot, like any high-spirited, unruly monk. The Vita Sancti Cuthberti tells the story of the great Northumbrian bishop and abbot Cuthbert’s correction of the two naughty ravens of Lindisfarne who, despite having been warned, disturb the roof of the shelter built for the monastery’s servants. St. Cuthbert banishes them from the island for this misbehaviour. Three days later, having repented, the ravens return seeking pardon. After being forgiven by Cuthbert the ravens bring enough pig fat to grease the boots of the whole monastery for a year.

Of course, Catholics are not credulous biblical literalists, but we have more reason in our own times to believe it possible that these birds could have been used by God so often. We are coming to learn that the corvids, and ravens in particular, are a good deal smarter than we ever imagined. In fact, they are regarded by researchers as among the most intelligent of all animals.

First, did you know they could talk? Not quite on the level of a parrot, but pretty good for a bird.

Even more amazing, did you know crows and ravens make and use tools? And can figure out how to perform complex sets of tasks to get at a bit of food?

And did you know they recognise faces and give each other warnings about particular people?

The documentary, “A Murder of Crows,” made the rounds of the internet a few years ago and remains popular on YouTube.

I suppose there’s not much theological ground to be gained by speculating whether these stories are literally true; this isn’t really one of the questions theologians are asking. But given what we know about these animals, I see no reason not to believe them.

And perhaps it’s worth thinking about it in the context of our interactions with nature in general. I wrote recently that I was disappointed – though not surprised – when Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si turned out to be just another leftist political screed, repeating the dogmas of the anti-population ideologues. What a sadly wasted opportunity.

I’ve had time in the last couple of years to think about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. One of the great joys of my life in Norcia was all the time I was able to spend stomping about the countryside in wellies, with a knapsack of jam jars, binoculars, magnifying glass, identification guides, and a flask of green tea, cataloguing and collecting samples of local plants and watching the birds. There are a great many of the large and beautiful grey and black species, Corvus cornix, or hooded crows, about Norcia, as well as magpies, sparrowhawks, owls, doves and herons, song birds and even the beautiful, flamboyant hoopoes. I saw them every day and always thought of St. Benedict and his sister Scolastica, living in the same valley, seeing every day the same mountains and the same wild things, substantially unchanged from 1600 years ago.

I was raised in an environment very close to nature – spending most of my childhood, instructed by my mother, a biologist, poking around rock pools at the beach, learning to identify plants and bugs, trees and mushrooms. I maintain there were some things the hippies were right about, and their condemnation of the post-protestant, Enlightenment, utilitarian view of nature was among them. I hoped, and still do, that the Church will some day give us more authentic moral guidance on how we are to think of and treat the natural world.

Perhaps when we do, we could take the examples of these saints, and think of ourselves as caretakers, friends, and protectors of the natural world. Maybe it sounds naïve, but could we perhaps consider a different sort of life, more integrated? And perhaps then develop an ethic of careful stewardship instead of exploitation, while avoiding the idolatry and anti-human materialism of the current environmentalist movement? More Tolkien: Tom Bombadil, Ents and elves and gardening Gamgees; more Elijah, St. Paul, St. Benedict and Cuthbert, with their pet crows and ravens — and less Adam Smith?

72 thoughts on “Ravens and Saints”

  1. Wonderful stuff!!

    Somehow I just KNEW you had some sort of upbringing like the one you reference. You’d like my buddy, my hundred pound Lab that retrieves everything I shoot and hauls my pulk with survival gear while I ski next to him in winter. I live on a ranch in the mountains here in Idaho. We shoot and raise much of what we eat and depending on season, I spend all year long hiking, nordic skiing and snowshoeing the mountains “just because”. Our relationship to the critters is close and sometimes intense depending on what sort of trouble they are causing us…like the rascally raven who we caught stealing eggs from the henhouse. An old set of clothes and a shotgun-length stick tied to the arms changed his mind but not before he took us for many an egg!

    But we love it.

    But for many who are urban-bound, the romance of it all is just that. The truth is we are unceasingly under attack by the pro-Agenda 2030 types and other leftist agitators who seek to destroy our way of life. Big Government friends of Bergoglio as it were. Frank and Al Gore and the rest of the fakirs and phoneys whose carbon footprints are the size of Sasquatch’s yet demand from us walking on tiptoes and whose dedication to “The Environment” consists of telling everybody else how to lose money.

    And as you know, potbellied fancifiers of the rural life like his whose byline hangs on that rag Laudato Si don’t hold up too well when somebody else isn’t paying their wage. I admit I’d love to drag a few Red Hats along a ski trek in the blowing snow and dare I say it…leave them to find their own way home when it comes time to turn around….

    Uhg…I guess I too easily slip from the joy of hearing the turkey gobble to the squawk of a cackle of Bergoglians gone rogue….

  2. I wonder if the eventual Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart will involve the conversion of the rooks and crows that infest Moscow. Mournful, doleful things, cawing their way through Winter’s gloom. I cannot say that I like the things.

    • But all you have seen are schismatic crows and rooks, agents of the Moscow Patriarchate of the ROC, (and erstwhile KGB agents). When Russia is formally consecrated in strict accordance with Our Lady’s demands, Moscow and the whole of ‘Mother Russia’ will abound with blissful Catholic crows whose joyful song will ascend to highest heaven, giving praise and glory to God. (Yes, I am exaggerating; slightly!).

        • It was more a case of poetic license rather than exaggeration. The consecration will usher in the Era of Peace, which will dawn gradually upon a world in chaos, but which will eventually bring us, (or our children and grandchildren) into the times foretold by Isaiah when “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” This, of course, is not merely a metaphor for peaceful co-existence among peoples and nations, but the gradual restoration of the original order of creation in readiness for the return of the Heavenly Bridegroom at the conclusion of history; (whenever that will be; God alone knows).

          As for the collegial consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary; I hope I’m wrong, but have long-since come to suspect that it will not be done until the world is plunged into utter chaos and we are brought to our knees to beg for mercy; and the bishops see for themselves the horrendous consequences of their negligence, (and even a definite antipathy on the part of not a few of them). With the Church being thoroughly and necessarily chastened; who knows, it could even be “Poe’s raven” that will finally be moved to summon the bishops to join with him in consecrating Russia.

    • You must be a sanguine or phlegmatic. We melancholics love corvids, precisely because of their doleful cawing against cold grey winter skies.

      • Thank you for this essay, Hilary. You and Anthony Esolen are two of the best Catholic writers on the planet. Your deep and genuine faith, the breadth of your knowledge and your skill as wordsmiths are treasures the world needs desperately at this time. May God continue to bless you.

          • Hillsdale College in Michigan.
            The school is a gem.
            I have another son who shall be starting there this fall.
            The Catholic community is very strong as well……very, very strong.

          • He is a professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. His essays are published in Crisis Magazine online, in Magnificat, etc., and he’s authored books on Western Civilization/Catholic cultural and literary themes. Due to his orthodoxy, to make short work of an ongoing travesty, he’s currently experiencing ‘difficulties’ with the administration, student body and faculty of his ostensibly-Catholic employer.
            You would like his work, I think, and I hope you’ll seek it out.

        • The Four Temperments: phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic, sanguine.
          This exchange prompted some time-wasting entertainment in my household this morning. I took an online FT test, then had my husband and children take it, to see if I had guessed their “types” correctly. Was right on all (*preens*)

          • Hi, Margaret. As I can tell from your comments that you’re rather a stickler about this sort of thing (as I am), let me clarify that personality-type ‘inventories’ like the Four Temperments are all oversimplified constructs mostly fit for entertainment purposes. Whether old (like the FT) or newer (like the Myers-Briggs), they’re fun- and can perhaps help us gain insight. (They flatter our vanity, too, as we imagine ourselves to be perspicacious observers of ourselves and others.) But, as the Great Stalin implied, we actually have traits from all these categories, in measures not so cleanly perceived.
            Sorry to be this pedantic. I must be a true phlegmatic indeed 🙂

    • Because of their high intelligence, crows around the world have figured out the safest places to winter are cities. (No hunters.) When I lived in Davis CA, there were so many wintering crows there the trees looked leaved, and their droppings would be inches deep around the areas of malls and shops where they liked to perch. And the noise at certain times of day was disturbing. We like them better out in the country.

  3. Interestingly, ravens are one of the only species, which upon finding food, will go and find other ravens prior to feeding. And doves mate for life, always making sure to maintain their nesting pair. Thus, Noah knew if either a raven or a dove were to find dry land, they would be sure to first return to the ark rather than just establishing a new home.

  4. I have a fake raven named Consider. When I bought him, I wrote down the chapter and verse (I’m always writing little notes) in case anyone asked me why I called him Consider. One day while listening to a radio preacher, he kept saying “what is the wisest thing to do” . I thought that was a good thing to remember for my decision making, so I wrote that too, happened to be on the same piece of paper. Months later the note turned up in a desk drawer. I read “what is the wisest thing to do”, Luke 12:24, which of course I had to look up – Consider the ravens! They neither sow nor reap…and God feedeth them.

  5. It’s strange how the secularists who want us to “adopt” (rather than own) dogs and cats object so strenuously to the notion that animals can interact in “human” ways with the saints. The PETA people want human beings and animals on the same level–meaning they want humans on the animal level, and not vice versa.

  6. Nature suffers when man pursues unabated material wealth. But it is important to remember the world was created for man. The great sin is not against nature but against God when we love money and wealth more. The missed opportunity of Laudato Si is failing to use it to call man to a deeper Catholic faith through fasting and prayer. Laudato Si is more about worshipping the poor and nature and not about man’s primary purpose, the reason man was created, to know and love our Lord.

  7. A great piece and an excellent closing. And THAT is where we begin. As a child, in the years before Vatican II, we were taught by our pastor that along with Man being the only creature God had created for Himself, God also made man the steward of His natural creation. In Genesis the protoparents were commanded to “subdue the earth.” This translation fails to convey the actual meaning of God’s command. In the context of Genesis, to subdue means to subjugate or make obedient. Thus, Adam and Eve were to be in authority over nature and to render to God a good accounting of their stewardship of His creation. Good stewardship does NOT mean exploiting and exhausting nature, but managing nature and all of its resources, both living and inanimate, in such a way that it can be sustained, maintained, respected, cherished, enjoyed and, yes, used until the Lord decides to end this, His, activity — which, now that the Messiah has come, has ransoned mankind, is victorious over death and is at the Father’s right hand, means when He comes to judge the nations and their peoples.

  8. Thanks Hilary. Excellent Easter meditation. And now in conclusion:

    “Consider the ravens, that they sow not nor reap; which have neither
    storehouse nor granary; and God feeds them. How much better are ye than
    the birds?” Luke 12:24

  9. A book on Irish folklore that I have mentions a tradition that when the Christ Child was born in Bethlehem, the raven was the first bird to fly low across the heavens, bringing the good news of the Nativity to mankind. It says nothing further but it’s another example of this bird belying its sinister appearance.

  10. I just sent my son out blackbird shooting this afternoon. They’re so noisy. Now I feel bad- they’re not aaaaaanything like ravens, right? Right? :

    • Even if they were, they can become a terrible nuisance and a health risk when their numbers get too high. Crows, too. I love nature and also grew up in a very rural mountainous area. I love all wildlife in their natural habitat. We raised sheep, and I have some very negative memories of both magpies and ravens as they will both attack new born lambs. They are, after all, scavengers and opportunists. I do still admire their beauty and intelligence, however.

  11. Didn’t a crow attack one of the doves released into the air by PF from a balcony at the Vatican some time ago ? …..or was it a raven?

  12. Absolutely great piece. This might be one of my favorite articles that you have written, although there are so many from which to choose.

  13. A beautiful reflection and a profound conclusion! The symbol of the raven is perfect for it! I might note that the raven in the story of Noah plays a rather more mysterious and beautiful role. As one Bible scholar points out, in Genesis 8:1-5 God remembers Noah and all living things that are with him in the ark, and sends a wind to blow until the the flood waters have receded from the earth. The same scholar notes that this wind harks back to the wind of Genesis 1 that blows over the deep before the Creation. Then in Genesis 8:6-7 Noah sends out a raven to fly back and forth over the earth until the earth is dry. There is thus a wonderful parallel between the merciful and creative wind from God that restores the natural world, and the flight of the raven. Thank you again, Hilary White!

  14. Thank you for this essay. I have a granddaughter named Raven, an animal and nature loving, tough as nails, sweetheart. I pray the saints and angels watch over her.


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