• Alaric Mark Lewis

On collared doves and Hildegard of Bingen


Quite recently I have noticed two birds that have been visiting my balcony with increasing regularity. At first I thought they were pigeons and was inclined to view their presence with distaste, as I recently returned from Rome where I had to scrape off two years of accumulated excrement left by pigeons on my balcony there. (I hope you're not reading this over breakfast …) But, thanks to Google, I have discovered that my Norwich balcony is not serving as a place of respite for common pigeons, but rather for collared doves. I don't know if there's much of a difference between the two, but I'd like to think that the collared dove is somehow posher, and not the loathsome brute that its Roman counterpart clearly is. One tries to keep up appearances, and I don't want my neighbours thinking I am cavorting with the wrong type of bird.


The doves seem to live in a large tree on the other side of the river and fly over several times a day to stand on my balcony railing and watch what's going on in my sitting room. That there's never too terribly much going on in my sitting room (a bit of telly-watching, reading, piano-playing, and dog belly-rubbing are the room's principal activities) doesn't seem to deter them at all; they stand and stare with the rapt attention usually reserved for Shakespeare plays or rugby matches. Having learned that collared doves mate for life I have named them Desi and Lucy and address them as such. Of course I have no way of knowing if these are really their names, but they seem to be good sports about it so I guess it doesn't matter in the end. Desi and Lucy are very laid back (something that clearly cannot be said about Roman pigeons – don't get me started) and almost freakishly still – they really seem to be just standing there in hopes that I will invite them in to watch the news, which I never do, of course, as I don't think my dog Linus would be terribly appreciative of their company. A lesser bird (like, say, a Roman pigeon) would probably perceive this as a slight, but Desi and Lucy take it in stride; they really are unflappable.

One thing they are not is noisy (something that clearly cannot be said about Roman pigeons – don't get me started). For the most part they seem quite happy just to be there without having to say anything at all which – I think we can all agree – is a most admirable trait. The only exception to this is very early in the morning when, coffee and prayer book in hand, I open the curtains to sing morning prayer looking out over the river. Usually sometime around the Te Deum they make their way to the balcony and begin cooing. I must be honest and say that they are absolute rubbish at chant, but they don't seem to mind so I guess I shouldn't either. Could they pay more attention to phrasing? Without a doubt. Do they sometimes coo over parts when I, as presider, should be chanting alone? Yes, they do. Do they face east for the recitation of the Creed? No, they do not. But it would be churlish of me to point these things out to them even – if I know Desi and Lucy as well as I think I do – they would totally be fine with any constructive criticism I might lob their way, would let it slide off them like water off a duck's back.

No, Desi and Lucy are not very good at chanting morning prayer. And, though I don't want to speak ill of my frequent guests, they are a bit odd, just standing there and staring. And, well, on a couple of occasions Desi (I'm pretty sure it was he) has, let's say, left a little gift on the balcony that I have had to clean up. (Nothing as explosive as those Roman pigeons, of course – don't get me started.) They are in many ways not the best prayer-partners I've ever had but I can honestly say they're not the worst either.

But then I look out at them, begging them with my eyes to keep up with me even when I know they won't, and think that for all their shortcomings they still come over across the river to my balcony and join in. There is obviously something within them that – imperfect birds though they may be – nevertheless compels them to open their mouths in praise of God. They may not be perfect, but they do it anyway. There's got to be something to that.

Hildegard of Bingen,whom the Church remembers today, wrote Don't let yourself forget that God's grace rewards not only those who never slip, but also those who bend and fall. So sing! The song of rejoicing softens hard hearts. It makes tears of godly sorrow flow from them. Singing summons the Holy Spirit. Happy praises offered in simplicity and love lead the faithful to complete harmony, without discord. Don't stop singing.

These seem like sensible words to me, and – though I can't speak for them – I feel like Desi and Lucy probably agree. All of us are odd birds indeed, but if we can summon the desire to praise God, well, there's no telling how high we can soar. Desi. Lucy. You. Me. Maybe – who knows? – even those Roman pigeons.

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