The God-Shaped Hole!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Eagle's Restoration

The God-Shaped Hole in people's hearts makes them seek something greater than themselves, greater than this fallen world.

There is currently circulating the Internet a slideshow of dubious authority. It describes the legend of the eagle's rebirth and renewal. Here is a summary, taken from various sources. (Variations are given in parentheses.)

The Bald Eagle is the longest lived species of eagle, living up to 70 years (or 100). However, to reach this age, it must make a hard choice.

At the age of 30 (or 40, or 50), it flies to a high place, sheltered from the sun, where water is present, and there endures a harsh trial of endurance and change.

Its body has become overgrown with feathers, and its wings can't move as well as they once could. It plucks all the feathers from its body.

Its talons have grown curled and useless. It plucks its talons from its feet.

Its beak has grown too long and curled. It breaks its beak against a rock.

Defenseless, it cries out and waits. Other eagles hear its cry, and come to aid it in its time of renewal. They fly overhead, scaring off predators, and bringing food to their incapacitated friend.

For 150 days (or 40), it drinks the water (some variations omit the food and other eagles) and waits for its feathers, beak, and talons to grow back.

An oil sack grows on its chest, over its heart. When its beak and feathers have grown back, it pierces the oil sack and spreads the oil on its feathers. (This variation sometimes omit the feather-plucking, saying the oil "heals" the broken or old feathers.)

Many Bald Eagles don't survive this process, but those that do have the will to survive this time of change (trial, renewal, rebirth) fly away from the experience as young as a new eagle, with another 30 years of life (40, 50) still ahead.

The moral of the story varies with the teller. Christians who tell this story say it talks of God's plan, His love, His protection, His dislike for our tendency to find a comfort zone and stay there, or His requirement that we change or die.

I've seen examples of this story on sites as widely unrelated as a New Age blog and a high school's page about its mascot, the eagle. One website about home sales and marketing uses this story to illustrate that, as the market changes over time, the savvy marketer will shed its old marketing materials and sales pitches, and retrain with more up-to-date methods and materials! I can imagine using it as a political example of America needing to discard something (the military, the Social Security system, the income tax, class and race barriers) to become strong once more.

I've found at least one example of someone who would have lost her faith in a time of trial, had it not been for that story.

When a pastor presented this, noting at the time his uncertainty of its truth, I wondered if it was correct. Searching the Internet for the story of how the eagle breaks its beak, I found it to be almost wholly inaccurate.

The eagle's beak does continuously grow, like a fingernail, and the eagle sometimes rubs it against rocks to file down irregular growths, like an emery board. Breaking its beak would be a seriously life-threatening injury, and no evidence has been found that this occurs; however, someone in ancient times may have seen the filing down of the beak, and assumed it was breaking it. The hook on the end of the beak is a valuable and necessary tool for tearing meat, not an irregular growth to be discarded. It is never in danger of "freezing shut".

The eagle never plucks its talons from its feet. In captivity, their beaks and talons must be kept trimmed; however, wild eagles don't seem to have problems keeping them at the right length.

The Bald Eagle lives 30 years in the wild, at most 40 in captivity. It never goes to a high place for a time of renewal. However, it does like high places.

An oil sack never grows over its heart, to renew its feathers. However, it does have an oil gland which it uses to clean and waterproof its feathers. This process is called preening, and most birds preen.

It does not pluck out all its feathers at a single point in its life. It does molt a portion of its feathers over the summer, being careful not to become flightless in the process. This is called molting, and most birds molt to some degree.

I've dug a bit deeper since finding the link. It turns out that the church father Augustine presented the eagle in a commentary on Psalms 103:5. (Here is Psalm 103:1-5, ESV)

(A Psalm Of David.)
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

In his commentary on the eagle, and renewal of youth, Augustine notes:

When shall my longing be satisfied with good things?
when, do you ask? "Your youth shall be renewed as
the eagle's." Do you then ask when your soul is to
be satisfied with good things? When your youth
shall be restored.

And he adds, as an eagle's. Something here lies
hidden; what however is said of the eagle, we will
not pass over silently, since it is not foreign to
our purpose to understand it. Let this only be
impressed upon our hearts, that it is not said
without cause by the Holy Spirit. For it has
intimated unto us a sort of resurrection.

And indeed the youth of the eagle is restored, but
not into immortality, for a similitude has been
given, as far as it could be drawn from a thing
mortal to signify a thing immortal, not to
demonstrate it. The eagle is said, after it becomes
overpowered with bodily age, to be incapable of
taking food from the immoderate length of its beak,
which is always increasing. For after the upper
part of its beak, which forms a crook above the
lower part, has increased from old age to an
immoderate length, the length of this increase will
not allow of its opening its mouth, so as to form
any interval between the lower beak and the crook
above. For unless there be such an opening, it has
no power of biting like a forceps, by which to shear
off what it may put within its jaws. The upper part
therefore increasing, and being too far hooked over,
it cannot open its mouth, and take any food. This
old age does to it, it is weighed down with the
infirmity of age, and becomes too weak from want of
power to eat; two causes of infirmity assaulting it,
old age, and want.

By a natural device, therefore, in order in some
measure to restore its youth, the eagle is said to
dash and strike against a rock the upper lip of its
beak, by the too great increase of which the opening
for eating is closed: and by thus rubbing it against
the rock, it breaks off the weight of its old beak,
which impeded its taking food. It comes to its food,
and everything is restored: it will be after its old
age like a young eagle; the vigour of all its limbs
returns, the lustre of its plumage, the guidance of
its wings, it flies aloft as before, a sort of
resurrection takes place in it.

For this is the object of the similitude, like that
of the Moon, which after waning and being apparently
intercepted, again is renewed, and becomes full; and
signifies to us the resurrection; but when it is full
it does not remain so; again it wanes, that the
signification may never cease. Thus also what has
here been said of the eagle: the eagle is not restored
unto immortality, but we are unto eternal life; but
the similitude is derived from hence, that the rock
takes away from us what hinders us. Presume not
therefore on your strength: the firmness of the rock
rubs off your old age: for that Rock was Christ.

Most Christian sites that cite the eagle story also mention Psalm 103:5, the believer being renewed like the eagle. It appears this is the origin of this story. Ironically, this telling is not too inaccurate, since it only mentions the eagle filing down its beak. However, it does introduce the elements of only doing it once in its life, rather violently, with renewal afterward, and better/younger plumage.

In conclusion, eagles are one of God's amazing creations. They are pilots, maintaining their body in tip-top shape for flight. They are hunters, maintaining their hunting equipment. They are long-lived birds that soar the hights. But they are not the immortal Phoenix.

So the moral of the story is, learn to distinguish data from lore, fact-reporting from storytelling, and truth from meaning. And don't hang your faith on an email from a dear friend.

birdchick refutes eagle slideshow
bird expert on preening
Augustine on the renewal of youth as an eagle

Appendix: Preening and molting, from the middle link:

I wanted to talk about preening since we've been seeing a lot of images
showing the parents working on their feathers while they've been on the eggs.
The importance of feathers cannot be overstated as they literally mean life
and death to a bird. And so consequently, eagles spend a lot of time
maintaining their feathers, which includes cleaning them, waterproofing them,
smoothing them, etc.

An eagle will molt (shed its feathers and grow new ones) every year, although
biologists report that not all feathers get replaced in each molt. Molting is
a gradual process that occurs mostly in summer but might extend into spring
and fall. The flight feathers are not lost all at once, so the eagle is never

In order to maintain the feathers they have, an eagle will straighten and
smooth them, often by using its bill to "zip up" the feathers, so the feathers
maintain their smooth and aerodynamic appearance.

In addition, an eagle will apply oil from its preen gland (also called the
uropygial gland), which is located at the base of the tail. The bird will
squeeze the gland to extract the oil and then work the oil into its feathers.
This oil cleans and waterproofs the feathers, and also deters feather
parasites. Although our eagle parents are spending a lot of time on the eggs
-- and not fishing as much -- they still need to have waterproof feathers so
they don't get chilled when it rains or snows on them.