Of Wild Animals and Angels (Rev. Victoria Loorz)
This month's theme is "Animal Encounters."
I have always loved animals. And one of my top ten life goals is to “befriend a wild animal.” So, I should not have been so surprised when a most profound experience with wild mule deer broke open an invisible brick wall between my own soul, the soul of the wild and an untamed but tender God. And yet, like most numinous encounters, I was surprised. Even three years later, I am still overwhelmed with curiosity, longing and awe.
I met three different individual does who “ministered” to me as I wandered the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on a series of solo journeys, along with a group of a half dozen other pastors. We were there for the weekend, supporting the development of a program called Seminary of the Wild, led by my friends, Presbyterian pastor and wilderness soul-guide, Matt Syrdal and psychiatrist turned wilderness soul-guide, Brian Stafford, that seeks to integrate Christian spiritual traditions with the soulcraft eco-therapy wisdom developed by depth psychologist and wilderness soul-guide, Bill Plotkin in his book, Wild Mind.
The weekend was a lavish invitation to experience what Plotkin calls “an unmet longing for wildness, mystery and a meaningful engagement with the world.” As Christian pastors, we’d all preached on the call to wilderness, but usually we spiritualized it or metaphor-ized it as a necessary walk into the quote Dark Night of the Soul unquote. We preach sermons that include Baalam’s talking ass or mention in passing during Lent the animals who were “there” in the wilderness with Jesus. But, generally, we didn’t really take a deep, long, serious look at the reality that every single leader within the ancient books of scripture was literally called into the actual wild wilderness at a pivotal time in both their own lives, and the moments in history where their prophetic voices and actions were desperately needed.
I know I never really, up until the past few years, asked the obvious Why questions. What was needed in the desert, in the wild places, before these people could embrace their full calling to leadership? I always felt closest to God in the natural world, but I never really thought about why. Perhaps, rather than going into the desert as a fierce backdrop initiating the encounter with The Accuser, Jesus was, instead, called into the wilderness for support and a cauldron of caring for the necessary inner encounter with that critical Adversary? You know the one. That inner Critic, Accuser, Adversary, that one intent on keeping us small, keeping us distracted and safe from the dangers of prophetic leadership. What if Jesus needed the support of the wild animals and angels in order to face his accuser and the temptations that could have kept him small and hidden and de-railed his mission? The story in Mark’s first chapter seems to lay it out in plain sight:
The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals and the angels ministered to him . . . .”
Perhaps the wilderness, the desert, the places where we are with the wild animals and the angels, are more than a relaxing beautiful environment to ponder our life’s challenges and clear our minds. I am convinced now that the wilderness is something more important than a backdrop. And the wild animals and angels are actually messengers of the holy, offering the support and strength we need to face our inner (and outer) Adversaries. Not that they exist solely for that purpose. Animals and all elements of the wilderness (and I guess that must include angels too) have their own inherent value and purpose in the ongoing story of aliveness. But our intentional and contemplative connection with them is simply part of How Life Works…even if we don’t acknowledge it. Because their life just is connected with our life. Because the world that God who loves and incarnates includes…well, the whole world. We are connected in a visceral, sensual, real, important, and meaningful way to everything else. And that connection is intimately and mysteriously the language of God. This is certainly the message I got in the mountains with the mule deer a few summers ago.
In my own calling into the wilderness, I went to Colorado with the intention of facing my own inner accusers, which Plotkin calls “Loyal Soldiers” - a part of your psyche placed in sentry to defend the ego from anything dangerous like inner transformation, growth and fullness. I was sent out to wander off-trail and allow myself to be drawn to specific and particular aspects or creatures of nature that called out to me. And then to wonder why, to engage in conversation, to allow memories and thoughts and emotions to arise. To treat the encounter as if it were holy, as if it were an encounter of importance both for uncovering my own wild soul and for witnessing, with love and appreciation, the wildness of the Other. And in the process, encountering the Sacred Mystery that holds together all things.
I saw a single mule deer doe crossing the trail and leaping into a little cluster of trees in the forest. Running to catch up with her, I stepped up into the little forest cluster and felt like I had crossed over some kind of strange threshold because once I got there, this doe was standing not 15 feet away, looking back at me, as if she was waiting for me. We stared at each other in that deep, mysterious, liminal gaze that Aldo Leopold talks about with his encounter with a wild wolf. Only the “fierce green fire” in this doe’s eyes was more like a “fierce brown inquisition” that softened as we gazed into something like trust. After only about ten minutes (I’m not sure how long, to be honest, because literally, my mind went into this timeless space and everything, especially now, seemed surreal and almost slow motion), she flicked her ears as if coming out of a trance and paid more attention to the other sounds from the trail. I started breathing again and, as the rain started coming down more steadily, I took a few more steps closer to huddle under a tree. She, however, stayed still, unconcerned about the rain or me. Then, looking straight into my eyes, she slowly and casually buckled her front legs. And then her back. And laid down. Right before me. She was settling in for the night. And she allowed me to accompany her in this sacred space. I cried, as I do when I’m in the presence of the holy or authentic love or any act of profound kindness. I didn’t know what it meant, but I was deeply grateful for this unusual encounter.
And then….it happened again. The next day. With a different deer. And then…it happened a third time the third day with yet another doe. It was uncanny. Unexpected. Unfathomable. I can’t even come up with the right words. The third doe approached ME after I decided it was my turn to lay down before her, following an extraordinarily long staring session. I couldn’t see her once I sat down on the log because the woods were so dense. After about ten minutes (again, time is warped in my memory), she approached me, came to the edge of where I was sitting and gazed at me briefly before beckoning me to join her in the meadow. Which, of course, I nearly tripped over myself following her. There, she laid down completely….like a horse sleeping with her legs fully extended. And we sat there in the meadow together for a couple hours or was it a couple days? No, it was a couple hours before the thunder and lightening turned into powerful showers, which didn’t bother her at all. But, as I am still a domesticated animal unused to accepting August rainstorms as a natural part of the day, I got up to head back to my cabin. As I left, she didn’t get up. Rather, she nodded toward me, or it seemed like she did. I was safe. I was trusted.
I still don’t get the full meaning of this amazing encounter. But, I’ve learned a lot about mule deer since then. And about myself. First of all, I learned that this kind of behavior is not common. It took months for two of the researchers who were accepted into mule deer herds to gain this much trust. Indeed. I’ve tried since then to approach mule deer, but nothing even close to this has happened since. It was a gift, a holy encounter with wild animals and angels ministering to me. And a few more important things. Mule deer are a matriarchal society. The female leaders do not lead with force or aggression. In fact, they do not engage with the normal squabbles from within the herd at all. That is how you can identify them. They are calm and focused on the safety of the collective. When they sense danger, they move. No nagging or cajoling or freaking out or convincing the others. They just go, and everyone else follows. There’s some wisdom here for my journey to embrace my own more feminine and more authentic leadership.
The deer are prey animals, who must be connected with their own fear for survival, and yet, they are not imprisoned by it. In contrast, I somehow decided at a young age that a great way to handle fear is to freeze or pretend I don’t feel it. Sounds great. But it’s actually a great bondage. Because fear is a necessary emotion and by hiding from it, I’m actually aligning with it so closely that I find it difficult to just sit in a meadow for hours appreciating the rain. Like grief or anger or any emotion, fear fully expressed allows space for calm to follow. I needed to wrestle with this and other soul lessons in order to overcome the inner, unacknowledged fears I had of expressing my own voice, of my own calling. I needed to be in the embrace of the wild to face my own temptations to be something other than who I was created to be. Six months after this encounter, I launched the Church of the Wild, a year later, I began convening other pastors who were also called to start “wild churches” outside of buildings in the Wild Church Network; and working with another wild church pastor, Steve Blackmer, to create a Common Ground Network for conservationists and spiritual leaders who are re-connecting people with the sacred nature of nature. The mule deer does helped me to unveil significant aspects in my own calling and helped me to awaken some of my own latent leadership gifts.
I would actually go so far to say that the animals and the angels are indistinguishable in the wilderness. True, there are encounters with wild beasts who devour you. But that is part of the wildness of God/Life as well, as much as we don’t want to make room for that unsentimental reality of mortality. The sentience and actual, spiritual (as well as physical) connection between humans and other species is something holy. Something we’ve lost and are moving now to regain. Something of God we can in no other way experience. A gift.
Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche, Bill Plotkin. New World Library 2003.