Where Eagles Dare

April 03 2018 | by

FOR CENTURIES eagles have been revered by humanity as symbols of majestic power. Around 540 BC Cyrus the Great of Persia displayed an eagle on his battle standard. In 102 BC a Roman consul introduced the eagle as a ‘heraldic animal’ of the Roman Republic. Today several nations worldwide, including the United States, Austria, Albania, and Russia, use the eagle in their coat of arms. In Scripture, the four living creatures in Revelations 4:6 (a man, an ox, a lion, and an eagle) have traditionally been associated with the Four Evangelists, with the eagle representing Saint John. According to Islamic tradition, the Black Standard of Muhammad was known as ‘banner of the eagle’. Heraldry during the Middle Ages frequently displayed eagles on shields and banners. The USA has a national rugby team and Germany a national football team named the Eagles. In addition, almost 40 well known sports teams worldwide are named Eagles. Over sixty different species of eagles live on all continents except Antarctica. These aggressive birds are heavy and strong with a broad chested body and large, rounded wings. They swoop down onto their prey and grab and crush it with their powerful talons. Eagles generally have two eggs per nesting cycle (four is rare).


Contemplative people


The majesty of an eagle reminded St Anthony of this passage in the book of Job: “Will the eagle mount up at thy command, and make her nest in high places? She abideth among the rocks, and dwelleth among cragged flints, and stony hills where there is no access. From thence she looketh for the prey, and her eyes behold afar off” [Job 39.27-29] (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals – Volume II, pp. 374-75; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Messaggero di Sant’ Antonio Editrice). Because it nests in “high places” and has keen eyesight that can “behold afar off,” St Anthony likened the eagle to contemplative people. “Proverbially, the eagle has keen eyesight – ‘eagle-eyed’, we say, and can gaze at the sun without flinching” (Sermons II, p. 375). Having been trained as an Augustinian monk before becoming a Franciscan, Anthony knew the works of St. Augustine who, in his writings, recalled an ancient legend “The sun invigorates the eyes of eagles, but injures our own.” Anthony extrapolates, “Natural History teaches us that it [eagle] has extremely keen sight, and makes its young look at the sun before their wings are fully-fledged. It strikes them, and turns them to face the sun; and if the eye of one chick should show a tear, it kills it and feeds the other” (Sermons II, p. 375)


The sun: image of God


Anthony turns this harsh observation into a spiritual lesson by using the eagle as a symbol of saintly understanding and the sun as an image of God. Psalm 84:11 uses this image: “For the Lord God is a sun and shield,” as does Malachi 4:2: “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” Jesus identified Himself as “the light of the world” (John 8:12 and John 9:5) which, in the physical world, would be the sun. Hebrews 12:2 bids us, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

“The eagle is a symbol of the saints’ keen understanding, and their sublime contemplation, which directs their children (their works) towards the true sun and light of wisdom, so that any hidden impurity, or anything foreign to its nature, may be revealed in the sun’s brightness. All iniquity is reproved by the light, and the works of darkness are made manifest by the light [cf. Eph 5.13]. If they see that any of their works cannot face the sun aright, and are confounded by its rays and caused to weep: they kill them straight away. The ray of grace shows who is a true child. The true work looks on the sun aright, and bears the heat of tribulation. It does not flinch. The impure work looks towards the earth, and faints in tribulation. It weeps for the loss of temporal things, and so should be killed, and good work fed from it. When you kill what is evil in yourself, you refresh what is good; what makes evil grow weak, makes good grow strong” (Sermons II, p. 375).


Apparent cruelty


Anthony understood that eagles generally have only two chicks, but he believed this was intentional on the eagle’s part. “It is also said that it lays three eggs, but casts the third one out. If an eagle should be seen with three chicks, it throws one out of the nest to feed the others more strongly” (Sermons II, p. 375). Anthony gleans a spiritual lesson from this apparent cruelty. “The three eggs, or three chicks, of the eagle represent three loves of the just man: the love of God, the love of neighbor and the love of self. This last should be cast out entirely from the nest of his conscience. Self-love greatly hinders the love of God and of neighbor, and so it should be entirely cast out” (Sermons II, p. 375).

Anthony mentions another interesting belief about eagles. “It is also supposed to gather amethysts, those precious stones, into the nest with its chicks, so that snakes may be driven away from them by its power” (Sermons II, p. 375). The medieval mind believed that snakes attacked clothed men, but fled from naked ones in the same way that Satan attacks anyone clothed in worldly affairs, but flees from those who have thrown off their wicked ways. Those who were naked were like Adam and Eve before the fall, clothed not in leaves or skins but in pure, humble humanity.


The amethyst


A violet variety of quartz, the amethyst has always been considered a precious stone. Amethyst was one of the twelve precious stones in the high priest Aaron’s breastplate (Ex 28.19). The twelfth foundation of the Holy City was built of amethyst (Rev 21.20). The ancient Greeks believed that amethysts had special powers, one of which was to prevent intoxication. In the person who wore the gem, the amethyst was believed to instill a sober and serious mind, and to control evil thoughts, quicken intelligence, protect from contagious diseases and evil, make a man shrewd in business, preserve soldiers from battle wounds, aid the warrior to victory, help the hunter find game, and put demons to flight. Amethyst would bring forth the highest, purest aspirations of chastity, piety, sobriety, and control over one’s thoughts and actions. Amethyst encouraged calm, bravery, and contemplation.

Using his knowledge about snakes, eagles, and amethysts, Anthony makes this conclusion, “… the amethyst is the chief of precious stones, violet in color, flickering with golden fire and emitting a purple radiance. It represents the life of Jesus Christ, which was violet in its poverty and humility; shown with golden fire in his preaching and miracles; and showed purple in his Passion. The just man ought to keep this amethyst in the nest of his conscience, to drive away the serpents of devilish temptation from his chicks, his works” (Sermons II, p. 376).

Updated on April 03 2018