A peacock feather graces the cover of this issue of Inspire. We’ve all seen them, certainly, but I’m guessing that most of us aren’t aware of their significance as a Christian symbol.
The peacock and its beautiful feathers have been a source of wonder and mystery for millennia. The bird is mentioned, for example, in 1 Kings as an indication of Solomon’s great wealth: “Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.”
In Christian symbolism, the peacock also represents immortality and the miracle of the resurrection. An ancient belief that the peacock’s skin never decayed gave rise to the first belief. The annual molting of the peacock’s beautiful feathers reinforced the latter. These same feathers with their distinctive “eyes” also came to represent, for Christians, the all-seeing eye of God.
For all of these reasons, peacocks often were included in ancient Christian churches, catacombs and tombs, and their bright and vivid colors continue to inspire today.
In the 20th century, one of my favorite authors—Flannery O’Connor—actually raised peacocks on her rural Georgia estate. In a famous essay called “The King of the Birds,” she opens by noting that she is frequently asked why she raises the strange birds. In response, she says, “I have no short or reasonable answer.”
But raise them she did. And in her expansive correspondence of letters, she often included a peacock feather as a gift to the recipient. To one friend, she had hoped to send along a book, but realized she had already lent it to someone else. “So,” she wrote, “I’ll send you instead a genuine work of the Lord, a feather from the tail of one of my peacocks.” “I have a flock of about thirty,” she continued, “so I am surrounded.”
O’Connor is best known for what, on the surface, appear to be difficult, dark and terrifying stories. But, as one reviewer notes, the world she depicts—which is “shaped by a thoroughly Christian vision”—“is also the place where grace makes itself known.” As a result, her stories, while accurately reflecting the broken and fallen world in which we live, “turn out to be a call to mercy.”
Mercy, in fact, is such a pervasive theme for her that one biography about O’Connor—picking up a line from one of her own works—is titled The Terrible Speed of Mercy. On the cover of that book is, appropriately, a peacock feather.
In our worship recently, we used a version of the confession and forgiveness that read, in part: “We are saved, not by anything we have done, but by God’s mercy poured out on us richly.” You might say that—just as O’Connor was surrounded by her peacocks and their beautiful feathers—we are surrounded by God’s mercy. This Lent, may we have eyes to see and receive anew this beautiful and astonishing gift.
Grace and Mercy,