Don’t Miss the Pelican

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” ~ Emily Dickinson

Tell it slant. Find a way to tell the story in an effective, interesting way. Reach into the mass of it and pull out the nugget and go with it.

A few weeks ago when I came across the legend of the pelican, it pierced my heart, soul, and mind, and I knew I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know what I wanted to say or how to say it. I held off, days went by, and I kept feeling that the story was far more beautiful than waiting to find a slant or waiting to glean all the truths from it. Or any truth at all.

pelican

Here’s the story: Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.

Truth is, I cannot write a story or essay without seeing some particle in it that becomes my focus or truth, something different, something that really speaks to me, something I can manipulate and mold into something meaningful. It gives me my approach. I don’t need to tell the same old story that everybody else does or see the truth that is evident to all or brush along the edges, wading in the shallow end, and not go deep. I need to see it in my own way.

Here’s the truth I came to as I wrote to discovery: “It’s an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us. Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.”

Afterward, I was talking to my friend, fellow writer, and English professor, Neil, about it. I told him I couldn’t write the story at first. I didn’t know how to approach it. I couldn’t figure out what exactly I could learn from it and what deeper meaning it had. And then it came as I voiced the situation out loud.

I started my February 7 blog post with: “I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles. I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.”

And so could it be that we are so busy with the itinerary of our lives—going to work, going to church, going to committee meetings, going to speaking engagements, taking care of family, begging God to show us how we’re needed—that we miss the one little thing that’s there in plain view? The one grain of sand on the beach where we could have made a difference. The one little need. The one.

I play bubbles with my four-month-old puppy. I blow and fill the back yard with soap bubbles, and she chases them. Inevitably, one bubble strays off, and she goes after it, leaving ninety-nine other floating bubbles moving in the sky above. “Look at all these!” I say, trying to call her back to see the possibilities in the group as a whole. She keeps up after the one.

In that majestic marvel of a cathedral, Notre Dame, there’s one pelican that looks down on the city and its population and its tourists. Yet how many don’t see it? How many miss the story? How many are so focused on the cathedral as a whole, and how many are focused on the architectural details and notes of historical truth pointed out by tour guides? How many miss the truth, evident, yet way above their heads?

In your quest to go and do and tell to the thousands, did you miss the one who had a real need that day? Are you more about fulfilling obligation than touching a heart? I think sometimes we are so much about chasing the ninety-nine that we miss entirely the one.

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Life-rendering Pelican

I remember Paris. I remember Notre Dame, for I was there at a young, impressionable age. I remember touring the interior and strolling down the avenue across the river and looking over at the ancient landmark—its nighttime illumination, its lights reflecting in the Seine, its Gothic spire with such a thin cross at the top, the bells and towers, the ornate and intricate architectural details depicting biblical history, the colorful windows, the buttresses, and the gargoyles.

Notre_Dame_de_Paris,_East_View_140207_1Notre Dame de Paris

I do not remember, however, seeing the pelican statue nestled between the gargoyles atop the cathedral, beak on chest, piercing it so her blood can flow.

notredamesouvenirbookSouvenir Book from Paris

I came across the legend of the life-rendering pelican earlier this week, and it has continued to scroll through my mind.

Legend held that mother pelicans, when they couldn’t feed their young, would lean down, and press their long beaks into their chests, piercing them, and sustain their babies with their own blood. For Christians this imagery recalls Christ’s death and resurrection, and the way Christ continues to sustain God’s people through the sacrament of Communion.

pelican

The Life-rendering Pelican

One of the oldest symbols in the Christian tradition is that of the pelican feeding her young. She is not as well known in Christianity today, but she still exists in places. Many cathedrals use this imagery in statues, stained windows, and at the altar. The pelican’s pose is almost always the same: she stands upright with her wings outstretched and her beak pointed down into her chest, her children flocking around her, looking up at her expectantly.

The legend actually precedes Christianity. Fossil evidence of pelicans dates back at least thirty million years to the remains of a beak similar to that of the modern species, found in France.
The legend of the pelican had a few variations. It was adopted into Christianity by the 2nd century, when it appeared in the Physiologus, a Christian adaptation of popular animal legends and symbols.

“The little pelicans strike their parents, and the parents, striking back, kill them. But on the third day the mother pelican strikes and opens her side and pours blood over her dead young. In this way they are revived and made well. So Our Lord Jesus Christ says also through the prophet Isaiah: ‘I have brought up children and exalted them, but they have despised me’ (Isaiah 1:2). We struck God by serving the creature rather than the Creator. Therefore He deigned to ascend the cross, and when His side was pierced, blood and water gushed forth unto our salvation and eternal life.”

The legend became popular in Christian art and was taken up by many later writers, including Shakespeare, referred to by Laertes in Hamlet: “To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms; and like the kind life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood.” (Act IV, Scene 5, Line 46)

I pulled out my college Shakespeare book—I took two semesters of Shakespeare. The passage was highlighted with a green magic marker, but there were no notes in the margin, meaning my professor did not expound on the meaning and implications of the life-rendering pelican. Surprising, because Dr. Mariah Butler took every opportunity to relate literature to the Bible or Christianity.

The legend has stayed with me all week. It is an allegorical depiction of Christ taking his own blood and securing eternal redemption. It shows sacrificial love.

It’s also an image of our calling. We often slip through life thinking that only preachers are called by God, that only those in full-time church ministry are called. No. All Christians are called to share God’s life-giving love with the world—giving of ourselves to sustain those around us.

Yet we often only sit inside those cathedrals (or churches) under the pelican and listen to another, who is exercising his (or her) call and speaking an interpretation of what he (or she) has learned through growth in that call, and when we walk out of those cathedral (or church) doors, we walk away from the pelican . . . and the reminder that we, too, are called to pour blood (or love, or help, or support, or ministry) on those around us as we go through our days . . . at the office, at the grocery store, at home, on the walking trail, over the fence, wherever our path takes us.