The Wisdom of Nature – "Ask the Beasts, and They will Teach You."
Gary Ferguson tells the story of a wolf who was known only as 14. She was one of fourteen wolves re-introduced into Yellowstone National Park in 1995. Together with an older male called Old Blue, with whom she bonded for life, she shared much of the leadership of the pack.
By 1997, two years later, Old Blue was beginning to show his age and those who tracked the animals often found him struggling behind the rest of the pack. He was also unusually slow when it came time to hunt. During close up contact, the biologists who followed the packs progress noted that Old Blue’s teeth were badly worn, a sign of his age. They also noticed how other adults would regularly step in to open the tough hide of a recently killed elk, and then back away to allow Old Blue to eat.
About 6 months later Old Blue had passed away, and following the death of her mate, in a move no other wolf researcher had ever heard of or seen, 14 took off on her own. She left her home territory without her pups and yearlings, which biologists said was quite extraordinary. She was then tracked by an airplane as well as recording the radio signal from a collar which had been fitted to her, travelling miles and miles on her own over what appears to have been a period of a week or two until she returned to her home territory to be reunited with her family. One of the biologists who had been tracking her on this extraordinary journey could find no other explanation for that journey made by 14, other than it was an expression of her deep grief.
Human beings often speak of animals as if they were dumb automatons, simply programmed by instinct and sharing nothing of the depth of our human emotional life. For quite a long time, Western Europeans operated on the understanding that animals did not even feel physical pain. Which accounted for some terrible acts of cruelty towards animals. But a story like that and many others like it, reveal that animals are not only highly intelligent, but also have deep and heartfelt emotional lives. Animals are not so different from us.
I have a picture of Jesus that I keep on my desk that speaks deeply to me. I understand that it dates back to the year 1908. It shows Jesus sitting, in silent prayerful meditation during his 40 day long retreat in the desert after his baptism. At the bottom of the picture there is a quote from Mark’s Gospel 1:14 “He was there in the wilderness, and was with the wild beasts.” When I used to read that verse when I was younger, those words were read as a kind of a threat, that Jesus was somehow in danger during his time in the wilderness. But when you look closer at the picture, the artist clearly has a different interpretation. Rather than Jesus being in danger and being threatened by nature, in the peacefulness of his posture and the peace radiating from him, Jesus is in fact drawing wild animals to himself. They are attracted to him, just as sinners and the riff – raff of society were drawn to Jesus. In the picture there is a little lizard sitting on his arm looking up at him. There are also two birds flying towards him, with one of them, a dove preparing to alight on his shoulder. To his left, there is a wild rabbit that has moved close to his leg and in front of him, a snake has slithered past him without doing him any harm and only in preparing for this sermon did I see that there is the face of a sleeping leopard to his left.
When I first saw the picture, it took me by surprise… the interpretation was so different from my assumption than the wild animals in this verse were in my mind a threat to Jesus. It made me realise just how much we bring our own assumptions with us when we read an interpret scripture. I brought with me an assumption that is not reflected at all in the text itself.
And in fact, the interpretation of the artist is one that makes more Biblical sense than my own assumptions projected onto the text.
On Easter Sunday, I mentioned that most reliable manuscripts don’t include the extended ending of Mark’s Gospel from verse 9 – 19. In fact if you look carefully in in your Bible, you should see that there is another 3rd possible ending that appears in other manuscripts. But getting back to the longer addendum to Mark’s Gospel, it contains a fascinating little passage where Jesus, after meeting with Mary Magdalene, and then with two unnamed disciples on their way to the country, Jesus makes an appearance to the 11 disciples as they were eating, before being taken up into heaven where he is then seated at the right side of God. But in that final meeting with the 11 disciples while they were eating, Jesus first scolds them for being so hard-hearted and stubborn for not believing that he is alive, and then commands them to go throughout the whole world and preach the gospel to all creation. The Good News version incorrectly translates the verse as “preach the good news to all human beings”. But the Greek word that is used should in fact be the word creation.
How strange that the writer of Mark 16:15 believed that the Good News of Jesus was not just meant for human beings, but for all of creation, implying that all creatures and animals are part of the wide embrace of God’s concern and compassion. When last did you share the good news with the animals in your life or even the insects in your garden?
Then in verse 18, the writer goes on to write of Jesus saying to his disciples that in his name they will be able to pick up snakes and that they will not be harmed.
And this takes us back to the writings of Isaiah, who when looking forward to God’s anointed One, writes of a day when:
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the fatling together;
And a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
9 They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
It is a picture of a time when humanity will live not as enemies with creation, but at harmony with it.
And this has clearly been the experience of many of those who have been called saints and holy people, because of their great devotion to God and that their lives had become transparent to the Divine Light shining through them: they have found themselves in a new and harmonious relationship with God’s creatures.
The most famous Western example of this is St Francis of Assisi for whom all creatures had become his brothers and sisters. He is recorded as having taken the words of Jesus in Mark 16:15 quite literally and preached to the birds of the air. The legends that are told about him would never have been told, if in some way he did not display a profound ability to relate to animals in a way that most human beings cannot.
There are similar stories of saintly Christians within the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and in fact stories of saintly people from other religious traditions who have had a special relationship with animals too.
Stories such as these suggest that as human beings grow in love and compassion, our relationship to animals becomes healed and transformed. This should not come as any surprise. It does not even require an Old Testament prophecy to make this point or a quote from Jesus in the second ending of Mark’s Gospel. Even in our ordinary lives, we know the healing that can come from our relationship to animals. We know how our pets can often be extremely sensitive to our own pain and struggles. It probably comes as no surprise to us any-more to hear that taking animals into a nursing home or into a centres for disabled or even severely autistic children can have a transformative effect on them helping them to find peace and contentment where before they may have felt a sense of agitation or dis-ease.
In South Africa the wife of a fellow minister who was trained as a clinical psychologist began using horses in her therapy. She found that some of her patients benefited more from being in a therapeutic relationship with her horses than normal therapy. Scientific studies also suggest that children’s interaction with animals helps not only the emotional and social development of a child, but also their cognitive development as well, suggesting that animals can not only help us to get in touch with the contentment and peace many of us long for, but can also have a positive effect on our intelligence.
Not only can animals aid human beings in our own growth and healing, but the stories of Jesus and the stories of saintly people down the ages suggests that the more healed we become as human beings, the more our relationships with animals will also become healed and harmonious.
I would like to end with two quotes from Scripture:
But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all humankind.
- Job 12:7-10
...but the poor man had nothing but one little lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. 2 Samuel 12:3