12 March 2009

St Benedict's Raven

The text of this post followed after the image, which I found here when doing a Google image search for paintings and icons of St Benedict. I love this picture. According to the artist, Alison Wallace, it is a linocut entitled ‘St Benedict’s Raven’. The reference is to a story in the second book of the Dialogues of St Gregory the Great (Dialogues II.viii.3). I shall give the passage in full from Carolinne White’s translation (Early Christian Lives, trans. Carolinne White [London: Penguin, 1998], p. 176):

At mealtimes a raven used to come out of the nearby wood and take bread from Benedict’s hand. This time, when it came as usual, the man of God threw down in front of the raven the bread that the priest had handed him [it had been poisoned], saying, ‘In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, take this bread and drop it somewhere where no one can find it.’ Then the raven, opening its beak wide and spreading its wings, began to run around the bread, cawing, as if to indicate that it wanted to obey but was unable to carry out the order. Again and again the man of God told him to do it, saying, ‘Pick it up, pick it up. Do not be afraid. Just drop it where it cannot be found.’ After hesitating a long time, the raven took the bread in its beak, picked it up and flew away. Three hours later it came back, after having thrown the bread away, and received its usual ration from the hands of the man of God.

It was not to be the last appearance of ravens in the history of Benedictine monasticism. In the 9th century, a Benedictine monk from Reichenau (on which Felix Culpa has posted here) named St Meinrad, who was living as a hermit, was murdered by some would-be thieves. According to the possibly 10th-c. Vita S. Meginrati:

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.

The ravens were memorialised in the coat of arms of the monastery founded where St Meinrad laboured, Einsiedeln Abbey, a form of which was also later adopted by the Benedictine monastery of Subiaco in Arkansas.

The close association between a holy man who at some point lived alone in the wilderness and the ravens carrying bread in their beaks is of course reminiscent of the story of the Prophet Elijah in III Kings 17:2-6 (LXX), where we are told ‘καὶ οἱ κόρακες ἔφερον αὐτῷ ἄρτους τὸ πρωΐ καὶ κρέα τὸ δείλης, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ χειμάρρου ἔπινεν ὕδωρ’ (Rahlfs text, taken hence). One blogger, in a very interesting post, suggests that this was God’s plan for teaching mercy to the Prophet, since ‘The raven was seen as a cruel creature that doesn't even feed its own’ (cf. Ps. 146:9 LXX). It is a tradition also summarised by Isho’dad of Merv in his commentary on the story of the Prophet Elijah (Books of Sessions I Kings 17.6, qtd. in Marco Conti and Gianluca Pilara, eds., 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Old Testament Vol. 5 of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008], p. 100):

The [Nestorian exegetical] Schools say, A raven stole the [food] from houses, inns, markets and peasants, since it is an impudent, wild and merciless bird by nature. It has no natural love for its young and does not feed them, but another bird adopts them and feeds them. Through this [the Scripture] shows that animals of such a nature performed what God ordered them to do and provided for the necessities of the prophet, whereas the children of Israel, even though they were endowed with reason, did not want to observe the law of God.

At the same time, the fact that [Elijah] was nourished by ravens, and then that the ‘wadi dried up’, occurred through the mercy of God in order to induce the prophet to pity and compassion toward the people, so that his spirit might relent and he might pray God to send rain. . . .

It is this type of less appealing associations that has loomed large in the various appearances of the raven throughout human culture. In Germanic mythology, the raven is strongly associated with battle because of its proclivities for carrion, and H.R. Ellis Davidson notes, ‘The raven, together with the wolf, is mentioned in practically all the descriptions of a battle in Old English poetry, and both were regarded as the creatures of the war god, Odin’ (Gods and Myths of Northern Europe [Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1977], p. 65). Indeed, according to Snorri Sturluson, Odin is sometimes called ‘raven-god’ because of his ravens, Hugin and Munin (‘Thought’ and ‘Memory’) who fly over the world to bring him news (Edda, trans. and ed. Anthony Faulkes [London: Everyman, 2001], p. 33). But, as we see in the Skaldskaparmal, even these more innocent-sounding birds are no strangers to the macabre, for as Sturluson quotes Einar Skulason, ‘The troubler of Hugin’s food finds an end to his trouble’ on the battlefield, and ‘Blue-black Munin drinks blood from wounds’ (ibid., p. 60).

In Shakespeare, the raven is frequently an ill omen, according to Sir Archibald Geikie. The Bard calls it ‘the fatal raven’ in Titus Andronicus II.3, and in Macbeth I.5 Lady Macbeth says,

The raven himself is hoarse
That croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan
Under my battlements.

We are all, of course, familiar with the most famous literary raven, that of Edgar Allan Poe, with its refrain of ‘Nevermore’. But my own favourites are perhaps the ravens of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (NY: Bloomsbury, 2004), where they are the servants of a mediaeval king raised by faeries named ‘John Uskglass’, also known as ‘the Raven King’. According to one of the many footnotes in Clarke’s novel (p. 380, n.4), Uskglass made a contract with the ravens to protect England against her enemies, and they become his messengers and harbingers throughout the book. In one of their more fascinating appearances, a charactre is writing a letter inside a house when he begins to experience a change in his surroundings. The following preternatural narrative starts to interrupt the straightforward one at varying intervals:

Somewhere a bell was tolling, a mournful sound. It was very far away. Childermass barely noticed it and yet, under the influence of the bell, the room around him grew darker and lonelier.

The image of a dreary landscape was before him. He saw it very vividly as if it were somewhere he knew well or a painting he had seen very day for years and years. A wide landscape of brown, empty fields and ruined buildings beneath a bleak, grey sky . . .

He was no longer merely thinking of the landscape. It seemed to him that he was actually there. He was standing in an old road, rutted and ancient, that wound up a black hill towards the sky where a great flock of black birds was gathering . . .

The birds were like black letters against the grey of the sky. He thought that in a moment he would understand what the writing meant. The stones in the ancient road were symbols foretelling the traveller’s journey.

The brown fields were partly flooded; they were strung with chains of chill, grey pools. The pattern of the pools had meaning. The pools had been written on to the fields by the rain. The pools were a magic worked by the rain, just as the tumbling of the black birds against the grey was a spell that the sky was working and the motion of the grey-brown grasses was a spell that the wind made. Everything had meaning. (pp. 500-1)

Alan Jacobs seems to be describing such passages in the following comments from his book on C.S. Lewis (The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis [SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], p. 18):

The surreptitiousness of Faery’s true dangers is harder to capture; I have seen it done nowhere better than in Susanna Clarke’s extraordinary novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004). That surreptitiousness lies primarily in the old idea that Faery overlaps our world—that one can, unwillingly and unwittingly, pass from one into the other. The boundaries are unclear and sometimes nonexistent. This is part of the beauty of Faery—and also, of course, part of the danger, but the danger is part of the attraction, and it was in part this danger that young Jack Lewis heard when he first attended to ‘the horns of elfland’.

But despite this ominous and occult side to the raven in human culture, the Raven King’s magical contract in some ways brings us full circle. We began with the raven humbly serving a man, but St Benedict’s raven is only one instance among many of the restoration of the state of Paradise in the lives of holy men. As Cyril of Scythopolis says in his Life of St Euthymius the Great, ‘when God dwells in a man and rests upon him all beings are subject to him, as they were to Adam before he transgressed God’s commandment’ (The Lives of the Monks of Palestine, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1991], p. 18). Thus, the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé says of St Benedict’s raven, ‘It is the return to paradise, the re-establishment of the harmony between creatures and man who is now once more in possession of himself and in a state of grace with God’ (The Life of St Benedict, by St Gregory the Great, commentary by Adalbert de Vogüé, trans. Hilary Costello and Eoin de Bhaldraithe [Petersham, MA: St Bede’s, 1993], pp. 58-9).

Being so honoured by the animal, it seems fitting that to a certain extent and in a different way, we honour it back. For as Isho’dad of Merv says in a final comment on the story of the Prophet Elijah, ‘But [the food was not brought to Elijah] by an angel, as it was to John, nor by a man, as Daniel received it by Habakkuk, but by a raven, in order to show that there is nothing impure in the creation of God . . .’ (qtd. in Conti, p. 101).


Steve said...

I'm curious about your occasional and consistent reference to "the infallible Adalbert de Vogüé." Is that label taken from another source? Is that your tongue-in-cheek comment? I'm always hesitant about infallibility claims!

aaronandbrighid said...

Dad> Thank you for your query. I believe this post-http://logismoitouaaron.blogspot.com/2009/01/infallible-adalbert-de-vog-on-old-books.html-should explain everything.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

A family affair!

I'm happy that someone else has enjoyed Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell! It's a fun read.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, I enjoyed it a lot. Have you read Ladies of Grace Adieu yet? There's a great story-within-a-story in there about the Raven King.

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

I'll keep it on the list for my next fiction splurge.

Did you know that a raven can talk if you clip its tongue? They're smart and loyal. I find them endearing, for whatever reason, even with their awkward squawking.

Donna Farley said...

Splendid post, I'll add it to my links about ravens & saints. And the image is very striking!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, Matushka. I love this image too. Actually, I wrote the post just to have something to go with the picture!

OUT IN THE OPEN, Sydney, NSW Australia said...

I have just been poisoned with arsenic and cyanide. I believe it has been placed on my carpet by my landlord to force me out of my unit. As a practising Catholic, I always wear the St Benedict cross, and since this has happened I keep seeing and hearing ravens. Here in Australia they are called crows. Are they harbingers of death, or are they trying to reassure me? I trust in God either way.