A male Bullock’s Oriole turned up on my hummingbird feeder again this morning. Yesterday he was by with his girlfriend. We have plenty of hummingbirds, but these Spring visitors always bring a different kind of color. They love the Red Hot Poker flowers, too. Outside of hummers who need the sugary calories to stay alive, I don’t normally think of birds having a sweet tooth beak. However, feathered nectar-sippers are really quite common around the world. In Ecuador where I grew up there is a whole family of Flower-Piercers. Rather than slip tongues into the openings of blossoms, they have a hooked beak to pierce through the base, breaking the safe from the side, so to speak, to get at the sweetness.
Sweetness is more than carbs—in fact, if we could have safe sweetness without carbs we’d probably go gob-stopping crazy. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, one-time dean of the Saint Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York, wrote, “It is by abstaining from food that we rediscover its sweetness and learn again how to receive it from God with joy and gratitude.”1 Sweetness is known by contrast, just like the startling orange and black of the oriole sets its beauty apart from the iridescence of the hummingbirds. Perhaps sweetness is known precisely in the contrasts that make manifest the meanings of our lives. If so, sweetness is known twice, once in the tasting, and again in contrast to the savory. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote, “…pure discipline may best manifest its sweetness in contrast with the impurities of wickedness…”2
In my edition of St. Augustine’s complete works the word “sweet” or its derivatives occurs 473 times. Maybe “sweet” describes “good.” The good can be known in and of itself. Evil is only known in contrast to the good. The Good, like sweetness, is enjoyed when first tasted, and again in contrast to evil.