When winter comes to the Arctic the solitary polar bears scoop themselves a bed in the ice and curl up for their long hibernation. Then snow comes and covers them keeping them alive in the frigid desert, the cold insulation preserving them from a fatal cold. The female bears give birth during their long deep sleep. The squealing of the tiny cubs activates her milk supply, seven times richer than human milk; and her maternal instinct proves stronger than the most powerful sleepiness. In Spring she goes forth, with the cubs tumbling at her heels, in search of solid food but keeps an eye open for hungry males for whom her babies would provide an irresistible snack.
We cannot help but see ourselves reflected in the animal world. All our human faults are there, territorialism, sexual jealousy and possessiveness, the survival instincts of the ego. What is lacking among them is any sense of sin. To eat the young cubs, to fight to the death sexual dominance does not stain their innocence. If they do things that we find reflected in our higher qualities, fidelity or self-sacrifice these also remain in the natural sphere and cannot be counted as virtue. In Genesis God made animals to keep humans company but found that they were not enough to ease the human need for union.
We often condemn human inhumanity as animal-like which is of course an insult to the animal kingdom. Animals hunt and kill but they do so in order to survive not as we do for pleasure or to displace their anger onto the weaker creatures.
What makes the difference then? Some factor we call consciousness or a particular quality of consciousness that is specifically human. Not a kind that makes us innately superior but one that makes us infinitely fortunate. It is not (only) that we are biologically smarter or kinder. But we have been tickled into a more wakeful condition by the awareness that we are known. We live inside a benevolent knowledge that is more than instinctual and self-preservational. Let us call it grace – a gift that flows from some unobjectifiable spring of pure being straight into the reservoir of our souls.
The next leap forward is that in becoming aware of this we are impelled to turn the attention towards the invisible source even if it means, as it does, taking the attention off ourselves. And so we search for a tangible, visible teacher in whom the great source is fully present and available. Through that connection we can drink from the source of being as nourishingly as the cubs drink their milk.
If you continue in my word, you are my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.
Laurence Freeman OSB