Discovering the Holy Beyond Our Species

Humberto Braojas, Unsplash

by Chris Koellhoffer, IHM September 27, 2020

When Basil Pennington wrote, “I am a place where God’s love turns up in this world,” might he also have been thinking of creatures beyond the human family? I like to think so.

Most recently I read about a female humpback whale who had become so entangled in hundreds of pounds of crab traps that she struggled to stay afloat. Her tail, her torso, her mouth were wrapped in ropes and lines. After a fisherman discovered her and radioed for help, a rescue team arrived, assessed her condition, and concluded that the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. An extremely dangerous attempt, because a simple slap of her tail could easily kill a rescuer.

After hours of cutting and removing lines, the divers successfully freed the whale, who swam off in circles, then came back to each rescuer, one at a time, nudged them and pushed them gently. Some divers said her movement, which felt like exuberant gratitude, was the most touching and profound experience of their lives. Certainly, the man assigned to cut the rope out of her mouth felt himself exposed to her soul. He said that the entire time he was freeing the line from her mouth, the eye of the whale followed his every move intently. He was so haunted by looking into that enormous eye that he says he will never be the same. He was shaken by soul.

In this story, the place where God’s love turned up in the world was in the skills and the care of the rescue team, certainly. But couldn’t it also be true that God’s love turned up in the jubilant dance of a freed humpback whale and the grateful gestures she offered to her awe-struck rescuers?

God’s love has turned up for me in a Golden Retriever who offered the wordless comfort of laying his head on my lap and nuzzling me at a time when I struggled with a painful dilemma from which I longed to extract myself.  God’s love has looked back at me in the unblinking, inquisitive gaze of a wild pony on Assateague Island. God’s love has appeared off the coast of Vancouver in the witness of a pod of orcas tenderly caring for their calves.

Steve Halama, Unsplash

Hopefully, we’ve all been moved by incredible acts of compassion and care offered by the human family. Might we not also expand our worldview to embrace our animal and plant kin, our relatives who also serve as that sacred place, that mystical reminder, of the presence of the Holy?

Where has God’s love turned up for you recently?

Sit in stillness with the Holy One.
If you have a companion dog or cat or other animal, invite them to sit with you, if they’re so inclined.
If you’re without such a companion, call back the memory of a non-human creature you have loved or cared for.
Offer thanks to these creatures who reveal the face of God to us.
Offer praise to their loving Creator.

Thank you for your prayerful support of all who were part of a directed retreat at the Jesuit Center for Spiritual Growth in Wernersville, September 21-27.

Now please hold in your prayer the Nursing Sisters, Sisters of St. Joseph, and Cenacle Sisters who reside in Rockville Centre, NY and who will be part of a guided retreat I’m offering October 5-9. Thank you.

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4 thoughts on “Discovering the Holy Beyond Our Species”

  1. I loved this and I give thanks for the many blessings offered to us each day by our Sisters and Brothers in the Natural World. I use Sisters and Brothers because for me all are Kin all are family.
    How many times have they lifted my spirits, given me the gift of laughter, caught my breath by their beauty and presence, and shared their wisdom with me when I took the time to be with them, in person or via a photo and asked!!

  2. This is just beautiful Chris…I am going to relate the story of the rescue to my grandchildren Teddy and Winnie who live whales… Ted already at 6 has wanted to be a Marine biologist for a couple of years now.. he is extremely aware.
    Your message about our other companions on this planet is a treasure.

  3. I so enjoy reading your reflections! Thank you for sharing them with us.
    I was so touched by this one that it caused my eyes to well up. What a gift those rescuers received. God’s creatures are such a gift to us. My long past granddog whom I kept occasionally loved for me to brush her and I can still see her eyes looking at me with such gratitude that it brought me just as much pleasure as it did her.

  4. Chris, thank you for your beautiful words about gratitude in our life – present with others, and with all creatures great and small.

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