I have been fortunate enough to have encountered God several times in my life. This speaks less about my holiness, I suspect, than it does about simple luck.
I have always been receptive to such encounters. I am a seeker of signs, because like so many I am often lost. In a world that seems to continue to spiral out of control, God’s very existence is often brought into question. Especially at times like that it is important to remember our encounters. Unless we preserve them somehow, they will disappear. That could leave us flailing aimlessly, unmoored, lost in despair or resignation or even disconsolate grief.
There are two encounters with the Divine that come immediately and vividly to my mind.
The first of these occurred on a warm summer day. My wife and I were driving through the open farmlands of Amish country with our convertible top down. It is always such a beautiful drive that has us marveling at God’s wonderful creation. We were returning from dinner at one of our favorite restaurants, filled with food, enjoying spending time together, and having a wonderful conversation. I sometimes marvel at how much we still have to talk about even after 45 years.
It was a perfect day. Or so it seemed.
I was lost in the moment with my favorite person in the world. That’s not an excuse for my lapse; only an explanation, as flimsy as that seems.
In an instant, a flash appeared in front of me. I had no time to react. I was not prepared; I had not paid enough attention.
There was a sudden blur of brown and teal that was followed by an awful thud. It is the kind of sound that resonates deep down into a person’s soul. I knew something terrible had happened and I was responsible.
I looked into the rear-view mirror in hopes that I was wrong, or at the very least that I could go back and fix things. Maybe I could rescue a creature that had been as oblivious to its surroundings as I.
But it became quickly apparent that death had come rapidly to a Mallard duck. It had been obliterated at my hands. There was nothing I could do.
I gazed with a fixed stare at the fading image in my mirror. To my horror, it only got worse. There were three ducklings moving out from the tall grass on the side of the road. They were totally bewildered; I could see that even from a distance.
So I had not only killed a female Mallard but had also doomed her babies. I had really killed four of God’s creatures, since the fate of those ducklings was clearly sealed.
I did the only thing I could do: I drove on. I was engulfed in a numbness rarely encountered in my life. Neither of us spoke another word all the way home.
As this experience settled into my consciousness over the next few days I realized that I had disturbed the universe. I had disturbed God’s harmony of life. It filled me with an uneasiness that I could not shake. It repeatedly surfaced into my consciousness, unbidden and unexpected.
Then, into this sense of imbalance, appeared my very young cat, Jake. He follows me everywhere. He follows when I walk outside, almost like a little boy might. Often, as I let him out, he pivots and turns back towards the door as if to ask me to accompany him. Not only does he tag along but at the end of the day he comes when I call so that we can both go into the house together. He’s really a very sweet cat.
This should not be confused with his basic feline nature. Jake is strong, muscular, and a skilled assassin. He has deposited an untold number of animals at my door. Mouse, rabbit, mole, or bird; none stand a chance against this determined hunter. He is serious and efficient at carrying out his genetic heritage. I once knelt down and looked at him just to see what other animals saw. It was a menacing view.
That is why what I am about to describe seemed out of character. It was to be, I concluded, God’s way of leading me through my self-imposed Mallard darkness.
It was late afternoon when the work of the day was done. This is usually a time that brings with it a sense of accomplishment and mellowness. But on this day the memories of mallards were still vivid in my mind. Then Jake came up onto the deck with another of his gifts in tow. This time it was a baby rabbit that he carried up the steps. It was still very much alive, but hopelessly locked in those strong jaws.
At first this seemed no different than dozens of other scenarios that had played out many times before but it was unlike the rest. I missed it at first, since I was tired and preoccupied with the mallards, but in short order the strangeness of this particular gift became clear.
Jake brought the baby rabbit just outside the door and set it down next to him. It stayed quiet for a moment but then tried getting up and running off, but it was no match for Jake’s speed and agility. The cat went after it in a blur.
It was like child’s play really. Each time Jake retrieved it with a swift but gentle grasp on the scruff of its neck and he would bring it back to the same spot and lie down beside it. He would stay put with this terrified, trembling, but very-much-alive rabbit lying right beside him. Each time he brought it to the door, a few feet away, not to me.
This scenario played out several times until it dawned on me. He wanted me to open the door and let him into the house.
I hesitated for fear that I might incur my wife’s displeasure for letting a live rabbit loose inside. But in the end, I decided to do it. I simply opened the door and let him in. Much to my surprise, he left the rabbit outside and walked into the house without even a backward glance.
I scooped up the baby and with a quiet, reassuring voice stroked it gently on its back. I then placed it under a large shrub just beyond the tree line.
There it was: God, in the form of a cat, giving me a chance to redeem myself for the Mallard murders. This time God had done it by taming, for a moment, a skilled and proficient killer. The wonderful paw of the Divine had reached down and healed my soul. I was overwhelmed and thankful for the opportunity to rebalance the scales of life.
Since then, the mallards have faded from my memory, although I must confess I do drive much more carefully now.
The second and most vivid encounter I have had with the Divine occurred at the Philadelphia Zoo. It was there, in early summer, when I looked directly into the eye of God.
It was one of the best birthday gifts my wife had ever given me, taking me to the zoo that day. It was to be my day, she said. We would stay as long as I wanted, and moreover, I could move at whatever pace I chose. I had recently become the proud owner of a single lens reflex camera and wanted to test it out.
There are not many opportunities like that in my busy life. The day was wonderful. There were orangutans, rhinos, and tigers. We spent hours with the tigers until I got a wonderful picture of a young male crossing the moat with water dripping from the tip of his paw. I was able to frame it so it appeared that I had taken the picture in the wild. My son has it in his office—a gift from me for his birthday.
We waited for a long time at the hippopotamus enclosure, too. My wife was ready to move on but she was patient with me. Eventually it paid off. The keeper came in with a bushel full of apples. The hippo immediately opened his huge, yawning mouth. I was able to get a wonderful picture of all those apples tumbling down a hippopotamus gullet.
We eventually came to my favorite zoo residents, the gorillas. As I sat before them I marveled, as I always do, at the power of the adult males. When full grown these primates are as strong as ten men, and yet they can hold a baby in their massive hands ever so gently.
We have, in recent years, seen into the soul of gorillas. I think of days not too long ago when these wonderful creatures were introduced to sign language. As a consequence we relate to them on a totally different level. We didn’t know how close our kinship was until we taught them to speak a language.
While teaching American sign language to Koko, a female gorilla, researchers were astonished by how human she seemed. Perhaps, they thought, she even considered herself to be human. So to test this idea they gave her a mirror and asked her to tell them what she saw. Koko gently took the mirror, looked into it and calmly gave the sign for mighty fine gorilla. This revolutionized how we see these primate cousins of ours. Mighty fine gorilla indeed! What a clear statement of self-awareness that only a handful of humans could echo. I do not think I have ever looked into a mirror and called myself a mighty fine human; although I have often wanted to.
I sat there watching them, lost in my own thoughts. I was hoping to capture some of my wonder on film. I knew it would take time, so I was prepared to be patient.
It was a small gorilla family we had set out to observe. They had been put into newly refurbished quarters since there had been a devastating fire at the zoo that killed many animals. It was a painful time for so many of us who loved them. But that was put aside now as the throngs of people crowded to see the new facilities and this new group of primates.
This family was headed by a young silverback male. He was new at this but was establishing cohesiveness pretty effectively according to most reports I had read. My task on this day was to follow this family for as long as it took to get some really good photographs. We were there for several hours. During that time I moved around and so did they. I snapped a large number of pictures, hoping to get a few good ones.
However the silverback eluded me. Try as I might, I could not get any good pictures of him and he was the one I really wanted. I paced from one end of the enclosure to the other. I tried every angle that I could think of, but to no avail.
When I moved closer, he moved away. I went to the right and he would move to the left. The other gorillas were much more cooperative. On some occasions it even seemed as if they stopped and posed for me, but not the silverback.
He was unaware of my presence, I thought. He was too taken up with the daunting task of providing cohesiveness and leadership for his new family. Such a terrible onus for one so young, I assumed. But I was wrong. If I had thought about it, it would have been obvious. Looking back I see he was very aware of my presence and that I had been tracking him all afternoon. It is in the nature of his job to be aware of everything around him.
Finally, the opportunity arose for me to get some really good pictures; he was coming indoors. I knew of a perfect place where I would be only a few feet away from him. I rushed to the spot and waited with camera cocked for this wonderful creature to pass in front of me. I had one eye looking through the lens and the other eye over the camera awaiting his arrival. It was difficult to take pictures from that vantage point because of the reflection from the thick piece of glass that separated us in order to protect them from human airborne diseases. I moved back and forth to reduce those reflections. And then he was about to pass directly in front of me. I watched as his powerful arms crossed one over the other as is typical of a brachiator. He paced for a bit and then moved quickly and purposefully across that short distance that would afford me my best view.
I don’t know what I expected, exactly. I just wanted to be as close to him as possible. What happened next took only a split second, but it somehow captured eternity. As he passed by me, without even breaking his stride, he turned over his left shoulder and looked directly into my eyes. He didn’t have to search for where I was; he knew. In one instant his eyes were fixed on where his next step would take him, and in the next they were searing deeply into my soul.
I am sure we have all experienced a look that stopped us in our tracks. In fact, I always prided myself as a young father on being able to give my children what they call a stare. But my stare had no meaning here. I was nothing. His look, in contrast, was so powerful that it took my breath away and sent me reeling backwards. With that look he conveyed in a split-second that he was the dominant one; kind, benevolent, caring, and providing, but clearly in charge.
It was a very special thing. I experienced such a blend of emotions that they were not easily separated and discerned. It took a while to understand their full breadth. I wanted to surrender myself to him with the certainty that in that surrender he would care for me. There was no choice really. It was a visceral response, one that never even reached my consciousness.
I wanted to give myself up and allow him to rescue me from the sadness of the world. It would be a place where I would not have to struggle with decisions. They would be made for me; all I had to do was submit to him and follow his lead.
It happened in an instant, and then he was gone. But in that instant I had looked into the eyes of God.
It was all there; everything I thought God was. There was power. There was benevolence.
There was resignation. I knew that he would lead me and care for me. He was almighty and that was indisputable.
As a Quaker I believe in that of God in everyone, but as a biologist I believe that God can be found in all creatures. On that day, in that place, and in those eyes I saw God.
I understand Paul’s experience on his way to Damascus a bit better now. I understand how a divine light could blind him and knock him backwards, because I saw some of that light in those gorilla eyes.
Surely if God were to be revealed in full glory I would be rendered blind and mute. The experience, in this diluted form, was quite enough for me.
Somehow I managed to click off several pictures; in self-defense or perhaps it was just sheer reflex. Although none of my photographs fully captured the eternal eye that seared my soul on that day, there is a hint of it in some of my pictures.
I blew up a particularly favorite picture of mine and tacked it near the doorway of my office as a reminder of the day I saw the eternal eye of God in the face of a gorilla. Each day as I walk in, I stop, look at it, and simply nod.