Has a cardinal—or another favorite member of God's creation—ever crossed your path in a moment when you were in need of peace, comfort, or direction from God?
Believe it or not, the bright and elegant cardinal has a spiritual background that extends back hundreds of years. When early European settlers in North America first spotted and named the handsome birds, they recognized plumage reminiscent of the red vestments worn by members of the Roman Catholic curia.
The unusual crest atop the cardinal's head reminded the first North American settlers of a miter, the headdress worn by Catholic bishops since ancient times. The tall headpiece tapers to a point, like the bird's plumage. Because their stately red appearance called to mind the distinctive clothing worn by Cardinals of the Church, the bird received its moniker.
Red has long been the symbolic color of the Blood of Christ for all Christians, so these spiritual associations took root for Christians in the New World as they marveled at the bird's striking and regal beauty.
A Bit About the Bird
These graceful songbirds are not native to Europe, so they were a novel discovery thought to be quite remarkable when Europeans settled in North America.
Their range covers the eastern half of the United States and reaches to Texas, the desert southwest, and parts of Mexico. They are rare in the far western and northwestern states.
Because they are not migratory, they require dense brush or thick foliage and need ample cover in colder months. They seek shelter then in shrubs or thickets.
Carotenoids in the cardinal's diet give its feathers the brilliant hue. The amount of the pigment ingested and deposited in the feathers as they molt produces their variable red tones.
Over time, perhaps because of their striking appearance or religious associations, and because of the symbolism of birds across many different cultures and belief systems, the cardinal took on a symbolic meaning. Many began to associate them with messages from heaven or from a departed loved one. Though many of these beliefs were erroneous and superstitious, we can still see in the cardinal a symbol of hope and God's care for us (see more on avoiding superstition below!).
Birds in the Bible
Birds are astonishing creatures. They are fragile, yet powerful in their astounding ability to soar to the heights on their delicate wings. Though all of God's creations are extraordinary, birds represent some of His most mysterious and inspiring handiwork, lifting our thoughts to heaven by their very existence.
Mentioned throughout Sacred Scripture, birds often represent particular qualities of God the Father, aspects of His love or identity, or virtues to which we should aspire. The dove symbolizes the Holy Spirit. The eagle represents strength, power, and the heights of victory.
The tiny and delicate sparrow represents God's provision and His desire to care for us completely. The swallow, trusting in the protection of the Lord; the peacock, eternal life. The list of references to these marvelous creatures in Scripture goes on.
Other birds have taken on spiritual significance throughout Christian history, though not mentioned in the Bible. Pelicans, for example, have symbolized Christ since medieval times. According to an old legend about these birds, they will pierce their own flesh with their long beaks, nourishing their young with blood from their breasts. This symbol of the Eucharistic sacrifice is celebrated in art and stained glass throughout the history of our Faith.
Birds hold spiritual meaning across many cultures. For Egyptians, Celts, Irish, Mayori, Hindus, and Native Americans, birds were creatures representing the sacred. As we have seen, avian imagery permeates the true religion, our Catholic religion, too.
While we can't (and shouldn't) read divine signs into things like a bird sighting, Our Lord nonetheless can use these things to bring us encouragement and to remind us of the hope we have for eternal life and the salvation of our loved ones. They can also be a reminder to pray for those we have lost and all the faithful departed.
This kind of encouragement brought peace and consolation in times past and has continued to inspire people in moments of doubt, sorrow, confusion, or sadness.
When they longed for answers, asking God to show them a way, seeing a cardinal could be a reminder of hope.
We are seekers of hope, after all, as we struggle down here below and aspire to what is above. But it's important not to confuse cultural association with superstition. Catholicism is a faith—in the person of Jesus Christ, not a set of superstitions. But human beings can become superstitious, applying meaning or looking for patterns that do not necessarily exist, or applying false powers to created things.
The cardinal is not a loved one incarnate, for example, or a certain sign from heaven. A superstitious perspective is always contrary to how the Church tells us we should approach God. It runs counter to the proper understanding of how God works in the lives of His children.
But a cardinal could represent one of the many ways God reaches out to us, to reassure and comfort us as we struggle. As we work our way on earth towards our heavenly home, we want to feel—to know—that God is listening and present to us, that He hears our prayers and knows what we cannot put into words when we suffer and wonder about His will for us in a given situation. And He often uses the elements of His creation to offer us encouragement. In fact, if we keep our eyes open, that inspiration really is everywhere in His world!
Listening for God in the noise of the world, or the noise of our own minds, has always been a challenge for us as His children. God can choose to speak to us in as many different ways as there are unique souls seeking to hear Him. In fact, He will often speak and act through others, and He does send us signs of hope to bolster our faith.
The most important aspect of that communion with our Creator is to open our hearts to God, seek His will and guidance in prayer, and listen for His voice.