Detachment and the Cooing Dove
The turtle dove’s call was known by everyone in the Middle East. Like our mourning dove, its soft, deep coo seems to draw a listener to another world. They prefer hidden and quiet places, in mountains or deserts far from crowds. For all these features, the Holy Scriptures use the turtle dove as a symbol of detachment. God calls our hearts to remain disconnected from the world. We are strangers, pilgrims, gypsies in foreign country. Our efforts to remain detached should influence everything we do, think, and say.
Our Gospel invites us to pull back.
Christ begins with a claim: “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house” (Luke 11:17).
We see this everywhere. In our own country, we find ourselves increasingly divided up by camps (tribes really), where there is little discussion and lot of mud flinging. Time will tell how this works out. Christ’s words are true in family life too. A Christian household functions as a hierarchy, with the father as its head and the mother as supporter. This provides harmony, a man and a woman working together, each with a unique and complementary role. Society has been undermining those roles for at least a century. Now, our Lord’s words do a fine job describing the modern home: “A kingdom divided against itself.”
Christ’s words also apply to our soul. We cannot be worldly-minded and heavenly-minded. One gives way to the other. Groucho Marx once told his colleague: “Don’t look now, but there’s one man too many in this room…and I think it’s you.” You can say that to the devil. Here is how St. James puts it: “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). St. James never beat around the bush about anything.
Jesus Christ goes on:
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but not finding any, it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Luke 11:24-26).
The first point to be made here is how very real is the spiritual life. In the late 19th century, Mr. K. Uekskuell published his after death experience in the Moscow Journal. After passing away, this previously agnostic academic was met by a host of demons. I find his reaction striking because it is so modern:
“Evil spirits! O, how much irony, how much of the most sincere kind of laughter this would have aroused in me but a few days ago…As was proper for an ‘educated’ man at the close of the nineteenth century, I understood this [idea of regarding the existence of evil spirits] to [simply] mean foolish inclinations [and] passions…a certain abstracted conception. And suddenly this ‘certain abstracted conception’ appeared before me as a living personification…”
We may raise an eyebrow or two here, but I think we need to stretch ourselves. Are we so enlightened? The Holy Scriptures and the experience of the Church over the years paint a picture of the universe that matches very well with Mr. Uekskuell’s experience.
It is hard for us American Christians to take this seriously. All our television shows and lecture halls paint one specific worldview, which is hammered into our skulls since we were children: a world flat and secular. It is a kind of filter, and a very efficient filter. We interpret everything through it. If an experience does not fit, we forget about it quickly. This is why G. K. Chesterton so brilliantly insists:
“My belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America.” Christians, he concludes, believe in miracles because of evidence. Atheists disbelieve in them because of their doctrine.
We have a lot to shake off if we really want to take Christianity seriously.
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but not finding any, it says, “I will return to my house from which I came” (Luke 11:24-26).
The next point to be made is our need for holiness. It is not enough to avoid evil. We have to strain ourselves to reach out for the good. In chapter two, in the Song of Songs, God invites us to detach.
“Rise up and come, my companion…The winter is past, and the rain is gone…The flowers are seen in the land; The time of pruning has arrived; The voice of the dove is heard…[Come] to the shelter of the rock.”
The Winter symbolizes the futility of our world: the stuff you read in the newspapers and all our stress through the week. The Spring symbolizes the new life in Christ. When we leave worldliness behind, we find a whole new world with light and beauty, as well as new responsibility. It is the time of pruning and cultivating. The Egyptian scholar, Fr. Tadros Malaty, expounds on this scripture.
“The human soul does not unite with the Word of God until the winter of her worries and the storms of her vice are over. She is no more shaken by every wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14). When the storms of the lusts subside, then the flowers of the virtues begin to blossom. Then the voice of the dove is heard…the hidden wisdom of God in a mystery…The turtle-dove is mentioned because this bird spends its time in hidden and secluded places. He loves mountainous desert and hidden sections of the forest, so it can be far from the multitudes…[and so God says to us] ‘Look at My glory with an unveiled face, so you may hide in the clefts of the rock and in the secret niches of the cliff’.”
The Church Fathers often talk about detachment. Detachment is the foundation of prayer and all righteous living:
“Prayer requires a completely carefree life, for even the slightest worry disrupts our prayers,” Elder Thaddeus teaches. “The Lord has said that we are not to burden ourselves with food and drink and with the cares of this world.”
For many, this really does mean selling everything and joining a cloister. For the rest of us, it means detaching from the world little by little, making the Days of Holy Obligation the chief priority in our lives, setting aside time for prayer and scripture, and replacing one habit at a time. We have to learn to retreat “to the shelter of the rock.”
There is something otherworldly about the call of dove. Take a moment to listen sometime. Here in Texas we have our mourning doves and their coo sounds like a sad and beautiful lament. God speaks through everything in creation, calling to us: “Rise up and come.”