The bright male cardinal is back at my kitchen window again today. He is sitting on the sill outside, bonking himself against the glass pane. From time to time, he will peck at the glass, and then goes back to bonking again.
Cardinals are territorial birds, and this male is trying to dissuade the rival bird he sees in his reflection. It is a thrill for me to have a nesting pair in our garden that stays all year ‘round; they have been here for only a few years as the species is slowly expanding into the north. I love the dramatic red plumage, and the drama of their social life as I observe them through my window…
So: Why does he do this? Is this a ‘male’ thing? I wonder if maybe it’s true, that we do observe a bit about created nature — male//female — by noticing what the ‘creatures’ do. While I don’t buy into the extreme stereotypes that all men = martians etc.,or that, because of what I notice with some birds, all passerines are territorial, I really do believe (and find it repeatedly reaffirmed as we work in counseling and spiritual direction with dysfunctional relationships) that men and women are inherently different by nature.
It is too grievous to me to consider what the Church has done with this, and how, particularly, it has used Scripture to support extreme bastions of hierarchy through the centuries, both in the Church and in the home. One has only to honestly and faithfully consider the nature of God as He describes Himself (meaning, LOVE), Jesus as we come to know the Servant in the gospels, and Mr. Cardinal, to figure out that dominion, subservience, power and authority are not a part of the Kingdom.
The beautiful creation story in Genesis 1-3 has inspired some theologians to justify the subordination of women. And the same passages are studied by feminists to refute the same, and establish female independence. I find much richness and depth in this story; much wisdom for understanding motivations, fears, temptations, struggles, and joys in the created peculiarities and fallen complexities for both men and women. It seems to me that God is letting us know, in no uncertain terms, that we are different. I also discover that we are inter-dependent. But, what I can’t discern from these passages, is that Adam is meant to control, dominate, have ‘authority’ over, or otherwise subjugate Eve.
The relationship between this first pair of humans is expressed by the term ‘ezer ke-negdo’. This unusual phrase most likely indicates mutuality. The noun helper can mean either “an assistant” (subordinate) or “an expert” (superior); but the modifying prepositional phrase, used only here in the Bible, apparently means “equal to.” The phrase, which might be translated literally as “an equal helper,” indicates that no hierarchical relationship exists between the primordial couple. This sounds fine to me, leaving room for differing natures and mutual relationship, and fits the ‘Kingdom paradigm’ as Paul says, “There is now neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus…”
My dear, dear sister said something to me recently that nearly broke my heart. She said, “I think I’m becoming more masculine…” When I asked her what on earth she meant, she went on to talk about her journey of discovering her own personal, strong identity, distinct from her husband’s, and realizing that she is becoming more assertive. She said she is losing her “softness”. Wow. My thought was, ‘what a screwed up notion of femininity we’ve perpetuated!’ I was thinking of the culpability of BOTH men and women. Now, I don’t think for a moment that she has lost any of her lovely softness. But perhaps she has lost some of her squishiness. Her nature is still soft, nurturing and inviting, her attitude submissive (in the very best sense of the word, as in “submit yourselves one to another”) and her new-found inner strength and dignity are very attractive. I think she is discovering the woman God created.
What about men? Well, I am trusting that men can have a similar journey of discovery. Our men might discover that they, too, have a quiet and gentle strength that is a wonderful gift from their Creator, and find their greatest joy in using that strength as an act of submission as well. Now, wouldn’t THAT be something? Yes, we certainly have done much damage to our relationships, and have made our Church ugly rather than winsome by applying (and acceding to) rules, structures, expectations and hierarchies that have more to do with power and avoidance and control-driven human nature (both male and female) than with God’s intent and original design. That’s why I’m thinking about my cardinals today.
By defending his territory, Mr. Cardinal is acting out an (apparently) innate instinct to protect and provide for his mate. While she is sitting on her eggs in a few weeks, fulfilling her instincts, he will be bringing her food. Now, lest anyone think I am trying to say they are an example of a God-ordained division of gender roles, I just want to point out that I have also been following a live feed of a pair of Red-Tailed Hawks at Cornell University in NY, and the male is spending as much, or more, time on the nest as the female. This is typical of the RTH, and sometimes the male will even develop a ‘brood patch’, or area on his breast that has no down under his feathers, for warming eggs during incubation, just like the female. Does this mean that he lacks a ‘male instinct to protect and provide’? Seriously don’t think so. And of course we’ll remember the Emperor Penguins of Antarctica, as the males will incubate the egg while the female wobbles nearly 150 miles round trip to fetch food. Does this mean she has abandoned her ‘female instinct to nurture?’ Obviously not. Our human insistence on gender roles, within and without the church, seem to have totally missed the point. As always, God the ‘I AM’, calls us to ‘BE’. He is searching the heart, not the job. Meanwhile, Mrs. Cardinal sits in the lower branches of the spruce tree, enjoying and resting in the un-self-conscious display of protection on her behalf, knowing that Mr. Cardinal is not, in the least, suggesting that she is incapable of looking out for herself. That’s not how the math works out.