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Mary and the turtle doves


Across a field from our house, doves line the edge of a neighbor’s roof. I surmise – because from where I gaze I cannot see – that a dovecote stands just by to shelter these pigeons.

Smaller and wilder, the Red Turtle Dove belongs to the pigeon family. It lives in the open country, although so widespread has urbanization become that people might live out their lives without ever seeing the bird.

I myself would not have known about the Red Turtle Dove if not for the book, Birds of the Philippines by Rees and Gonzales. Using the book’s description and picture of the bird, I wrote a poem about it to add to a collection that I had put together of verses about birds. And when our daughter celebrated her eighteenth birthday, I used the poem to commemorate the event.

Dear daughter Genevieve, I write to tell

You of a picture I found in a book

Of birds, that of the Red Turtle Dove. Well,

I thought you might like it, and so I took

The book with me, forgetting that you’re turning

Eighteen, and your interests have gone beyond

Pets and birds, and you spend your time going

Out with friends. Clearly, your mom’s and my bond

With you will have to make room for the slack.

I’d planned to let the dove out of the cage

To your glee, now I’ll have to put it back

Into the glossy prison of the page,

So you yourself will fly, but I’m not sad

For you or the red turtle dove. Love, Dad.

Joseph and Mary took the infant Jesus to Jerusalem to be consecrated to the Lord. In his account of the event, Luke mentions that Mary had turtle doves for the occasion. Mosaic Law considers a woman who gives birth to a male child as unclean for seven days, and requires her purification after thirty-three days, for which purpose, if she cannot afford a lamb, she may offer a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons to be sacrificed.

Sometimes I wonder about the doves that Mary offered. They spoke of her poverty, as well as her obedience to God – obedience being the meaning of sacrifice.  I’ve looked up pictures and accounts of the turtle dove. It has a smaller build than other doves, and of a browner color, with a black and white striped patch on the side of its neck.

It prefers the open field to the woodlands, frequently feeding on the ground. Extremely timid, it flies like an arrow, but not with remarkable swiftness. Turtle doves must have abounded in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth.

As I did with the Red Turtle Dove, I plan one day to write a poem about Mary’s pair of pigeons. It might consist of a series of questions, as in William Blake’s The Tyger.

For instance, I could ask of the doves such questions as: While the man walked carrying your cage, did you know the woman and the child on the donkey journeying with you to Jerusalem? During the trip, when the man opened the cage to feed you with seeds, did you think of flying past his hand to escape and return to the freedom of the fields? If not, what held you back? Was there a voice inside you, the voice of another dove, that told you about a greater freedom, the freedom of purpose, that allowed you to choose the nobler, more joyful option of love?

And when the woman held you in her hands to deliver you to the priest, did you feel that it was herself, instead of you, that she was offering to be sacrificed, especially after an old man had told her, “A sword will pierce your own soul”? Were you, two blessed turtle doves, in like manner, mother and child?

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