Autumn 2001
Volume 1, Number 1

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KNEELING WITH TURTLES

Brian D. McLaren

Eventually I want to address enlightenment—but turtles come first. I have always loved turtles and their drier cousins, tortoises. I don’t know what it is about them, or about me, that makes them seem so fascinating and affable.

The other day I was walking along the Potomac River near a little old railstop/canal-stop/Indian crossroads called Old Town. I was fishing for smallmouth bass, but I always keep my eyes open for turtles. Sure enough, in the shallows near a steep mud bank, a large snapping turtle, smaller than a trash can lid but bigger than a Frisbee, was ambling along, half-bounding, half-drifting, like an astronaut on the moon.

I slid down the bank, waded out, and carefully grabbed him by the rear edge of his upper shell (known as the carapace)—the only really safe place, since he could have savaged a few fingers with one chomp of his powerful and sharp jaws.

He struck at me several times, his jaws making a kind of “whump” at each closure—understandable behavior for a turtle not blessed with good shell coverage (lots of his fleshy parts are exposed on his underside) but who was compensated with a big head and a monstrous mouth.

Kneeling on the mud bank, I realized what was different about this snapper: his rear right leg was missing, probably bitten off by another snapper in early season mating combat. Where the leg should have been, a tibia and fibula jutted out clean and white from scarred flesh, looking for all the world like a scene from a Thanksgiving dinner. How did this animal survive a rough amputation like that? I wondered.

It’s amazing what creatures survive.

Last summer about this time, also near the Potomac, I came across a wood turtle who had been hit by a car. Of all turtles, wood turtles are my favorites—semiterrestrial, intelligent (for a reptile), inquisitive, with real personality (again, for a reptile). As I drove along a country rode, its shape caught my eye, and I pulled over and walked back, expecting it to be dead.

The closer I got, the more certain I was that it couldn’t have survived the impact. On the hot black macadam, with little bubbles of tar forming on the surface, a dark red, almost purplish, pool of blood now the consistency of pudding was drying in the sun. There was this beautiful animal: sculptured brown shell with yellow flecks, bright orange limbs, coal-black head, and a golden circle around each pupil, its carapace literally in pieces just up the grade from the pool of blood-sludge.

But she was alive. (I knew she was female by the more slender shape of her head, and the flatter contour of her carapace.) Her shell must have been broken in seven pieces. I could see the pouch of her body cavity stretched between the shards. She was alert and watched me approach, seeming neither afraid (“Oh no, what next?”) nor relieved (“Help coming?”).

My first thought was to rescue her, to take her home and try to glue her shell together and give her some antibiotics and tender treatment to rehabilitate her. But she was gasping for breath. I realized that her lungs had been punctured and that she could not survive.

My next thought was to finish the job, to put her out of her misery, to euthanize her. But I couldn’t, not because I lacked the nerve, but because of the way she looked at me with her gold-rimmed eye. I cherish no illusions about the mental capacities of reptiles, but I imagined if she could think, she would be saying something like this:

So, here you find me in my final predicament. Those cars come so fast and I had no idea that I was in danger until . . . Crack! Then I felt my blood draining out of me.

Please don’t disturb me. Don’t try to tip me over to see the condition of my underside. It’s no use. It’s too bad for that. I have just a few minutes left. Are you thinking about putting me out of my misery? Please don’t—I’m not in too much pain, really. In fact, before you walked up, I was thinking I have never felt the pleasure of life as fully as now. Neither have I noticed how green my world is, how utterly alive, and how bright and strong is our sun, and how warm is the ground heated by it, and how privileged each creature is to be able to move even an inch, which I have tried to do once more, just to savor the feeling and freedom of movement one more time, but cannot.

So please, stay here with me if you’d like, and think these thoughts with me, but please do not touch me, and please do not try to help me by putting me out of what you might suppose to be my misery. Because despite my horrible wounds, I am not miserable. In fact, no breath of air ever felt so sweet or precious or fresh as the breath I won during that last gasp.

I want to enjoy each moment of this sweet life, each breath, each view of those green bushes there across the road, the movement of that butterfly there. If the only life I had ever experienced were the life I now feel, then I would have reason enough to celebrate. True, I am dying, but at this moment, I am living. That is very good.

So I let her live and just kneeled there with her for a few minutes, living myself in a new way somehow, just for having joined her in her last moments in that bright sunlight blazing from above and that macadam heat rising from beneath.

What has any of this, you may ask, to do with God, the soul, and the spiritual life, the topics I want to address next?

These recollections have me thinking about survival, about being alive against the odds, about something even better than just being alive: being aware that I am alive and grateful for life. I suppose I’m thinking about enlightenment, and about those moments that spark into flame like Moses’ desert scrub bush, waking you up from quotidian numbness, nudging you from being alive to knowing you’re alive.

It seems to me we go through five stages in the enlightenment process.

1. In the first stage, we do not honor life and the world around us at all. We live, we want, we complain, we fight, all without much awareness or reflection. We speed down the highway never noticing the beautiful trees or lakes or fields along the roadside, absorbed in our own little annoyances and schemes.

2. In the second stage, we honor life and the world around us for the pleasure they bring us. This stage is not completely self-absorbed, but it is still self-centered: things are of value as they relate to me. A tree is worth noticing if I can cut it down for my fire; a lake is noteworthy if I can ride my powerboat on it; the field has flowers which I enjoy.

3. In the third stage, we honor life and the world around us for their own sake. We begin to notice the trees and to think of their existence as independent of our own; we notice the lake as a thing of value itself, not just because of its utility for us. The field and its flowers are important not just for the aesthetic pleasure they bring me, but for the pollen they provide for the bees, the home for the fox, the food for the swallows.

4. In the fourth stage, we telescope out from the individual things around us, and we begin to see a whole which includes us. We begin to honor the whole, and we become more aware of the interconnectedness of everything within that whole, including ourselves. We begin to feel honored ourselves for being privileged to be part of the whole: we feel honored by association with the other “players” on the stage.

5. In the fifth stage, we honor God. We honor God as the creator who conceived of and crafted the reality of which we are a part, as the Spirit that ennobles it and sustains it and permeates it, and as the purpose toward which all things move through time.

The precise definitions of these five stages are probably less important than the idea that we must move toward increasing levels of enlightenment, decreasing levels of self-absorption, and deepening levels of God-consciousness. Those “wake-up” moments that surprise us in life signal that we are taking a step ahead and breaking into new territory, breaking through to a new level in our spiritual ascent.

Such moments of awakening can occur almost anytime, anywhere—during a sermon or a song of worship, in solitude along a woodland trail, deep in thought while reading a book, amid a tender conversation . . . even crouched on the bank of a stream marveling at an old snapper’s resilience, or kneeling on a hot country road watching a wood turtle take its tragic final breath in the blazing sun of summer.

—Brian D. McLaren, Laurel, Maryland, is pastor, Cedar Ridger Community Church and author, The Church on the Other Side: Ministry in the Postmodern Matrix (Zondervan, 2000).

       
       
     

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