A few years ago I started to notice doves. I don’t know if suddenly there were more doves in Cohoes and the surrounding area or if I just became more aware of them. It is like when you learn a new word and start hearing and reading it everywhere you go. Is society using that word more, or does your new knowledge make it seem ubiquitous? Sometimes a mystery or some element of our Catholic Faith suddenly becomes more understandable and meaningful to us even though we may have heard it a thousand times before.
I have known since my childhood that the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But I had little experience with doves so I didn’t put much thought to it. I don’t remember seeing doves outside of photos or religious art until I started seeing 3 or 4 or more a week on my drive to work. These were not the pure white ones I see in religious art but rather gray mourning doves. But even the color gray does not adequately describe them because, from different angles, you can see a colorful iridescence gleaming from their plumage. Their mournful call and the whistle of their flapping wings are somehow comforting. What beautiful and gentle birds. Instantly, with my new experiential knowledge of doves, the passage about the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus as a dove became both more meaningful and more mysterious. Seeing these doves was an occasion for me of thinking of God and a comfort to me that the Holy Spirit was with me on the journey of life.
Below is a passage from St. Thomas Aquinas that explains one of the reasons the Holy Spirit appears at Jesus’s Baptism in the form of a dove. The properties of a dove show forth the gifts of the Holy Spirit:
For the dove dwells beside the running stream, in order that, on perceiving the hawk, it may plunge in and escape. This refers to the gift of wisdom, whereby the saints dwell beside the running waters of Holy Scripture, in order to escape the assaults of the devil. Again, the dove prefers the more choice seeds. This refers to the gift of knowledge, whereby the saints make choice of sound doctrines, with which they nourish themselves. Further, the dove feeds the brood of other birds. This refers to the gift of counsel, with which the saints, by teaching and example, feed men who have been the brood, i.e. imitators, of the devil. Again, the dove tears not with its beak. This refers to the gift of understanding, wherewith the saints do not rend sound doctrines, as heretics do. Again, the dove has no gall. This refers to the gift of piety, by reason of which the saints are free from unreasonable anger. Again, the dove builds its nest in the cleft of a rock. This refers to the gift of fortitude, wherewith the saints build their nest, i.e. take refuge and hope, in the death wounds of Christ, who is the Rock of strength. Lastly, the dove has a plaintive song. This refers to the gift of fear, wherewith the saints delight in bewailing sins.
(Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q. 39, A. 6, accessed at http://www.newadvent.org/summa/)
~ Nathan Skinner