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Beasts and Angels


by Alice Young, HCM SF-FD Program Associate Faculty


The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him. Mark 1:12-13 RSV

Perhaps it was the quiet forests of southern Alabama that prompted this connection between beasts and angels for me. My husband and I had driven 14 hours southwest of our home in Maryland to visit our son who was working on a conservation project in the Alabamian woodlands. These coastal plain forests, filled with oak, pines, and bogs full of the grey carcasses of last year’s pitcher plants, certainly felt like the wilderness to this northern girl. I’ve always lived in the suburbs of major cities, so it was easy for me to feel that a dirt road leading to freshwater springs and woods filled with long-leafed and loblolly pines 3 miles off the main road was a wilderness!


My son’s job was to help reintroduce the eastern indigo snake to their indigenous terrain. These native ground dwellers had almost been eradicated, but careful conservation efforts were slowly reintroducing them to their original homelands. Most people, I included, have a visceral reaction to snakes, immediately wanting to chop their heads off. Over the years, however, and under the steady tutelage of a boy who has always been entranced by these reptiles, I have come to appreciate their significance in the carefully balanced ecology of creation.


So my Lenten pilgrimage to the wild woodlands was one of curiosity and even a vague sense of sympathy. It was during this trip that I read again the account of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Matthew’s description of Jesus’ sojourn there focused on the nature of Satan’s temptations; he reported that Jesus came out of it very hungry and that the angels ministered to him. Mark, however, who is known for his brevity, summarized Jesus' wrestling with the adversary in only 3 words, "tempted by Satan" but then added that Jesus was also with the wild animals. Why include this detail about the beasts? I had never really noticed it before. Was Jesus watching the wild animals? Observing their stalking and sleeping patterns? Or were they watching him, following him or keeping him company? Was their presence a solace in the loneliness of the desert? Did they offer their freshly killed prey to a hungry Jesus, a kind of wild offering to their Creator? What role did the beasts play? I pondered the presence of the animals in this Scripture as I hiked with my son in the quiet of the Conecuh forests. Abandoned tortoise burrows are now inhabited by the eastern indigo snake and function like underground apartment complexes, sometimes containing up to 6 reptilian renters! I discovered a strange joy in spotting a placid serpent curled up in a bush, only the glint of sunlight reflecting from his shiny scales revealing his hiding place. My son, a licensed wildlife biologist, would allow the sleepy snake to coil around his arms as he measured its length. He checked for pit tags and noted the last time it had been seen. I admired the iridescent blue-black body slithering impatiently through his hands as he recorded its statistics and then gently released it to disappear back into its burrow.


I surprised myself by praying and feeling compassion for the hunger of another emaciated indigo snake that he gently swabbed to check its scales for fungal diseases. And as I watched him care for these forest creatures, I wondered about another young man, waiting in the wilderness, resisting the temptations of false provision, power, and prestige, while resting in the company of the wild beasts. The gospel writers tell us Jesus was there for forty days, a long time, long enough for the newness and excitement of his baptism to wear off, and drudgery and depression to set in. I imagined these other occupants of the wilderness helped him face yet another day, survive the extreme temperatures by pointing to pools of water, guiding him towards a temporary respite in the cool shadow of a burrow. Perhaps before beginning his public ministry to people, Jesus ministered privately in the wilderness to the animals who were created before the humans. Jesus, the Word, through whom all things were made, made all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds, and saw that they were good. (Genesis 1:25) And in turn, these good and wild animals were his companions, a mortal version of ministering angels. My version of the wilderness was full of other peculiar angels. I admired the deep greens and blues of the clear ephemeral spring and the turtles lined up on the pond basking in the early spring sun. A lovely kestrel surveilled us from the same spot every day. Our grizzled bear of a dog rolled around in the dry pine needles and sand, which made his coat feel so soft after a watery plunge in the pond. Angels were everywhere -even in the locally renowned seven-layer chocolate cake and southern coconut pecan cookies! Maybe especially there. We waited for only a week (which felt like forty days!) for a phone call to determine our way out of this wilderness. Would we go north to return home? Or south to a new job? Either direction would lead to new challenges – but the ministering snakes and angels of the wilderness gave me a deeper connection to the God who made them all, and new eyes to appreciate all of his creation.


 

Alice is a Spiritual Director/Supervisor who lives in southern Maryland. She received her M.A. in International Affairs before moving to the Washington D.C. area to work and raise her family. Alice served as a Pastor in The Waldorf Vineyard Church (1997-2016). She received her training in Spiritual Direction from Healing Care Ministries (HCM) Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Direction (SFSD) Program. She also completed the Certificate in Formational Prayer at Ashland Theological Seminary (2014), Developmental Spiritual Direction (DSD) training (2021), and Supervision training (Sustainable Faith, 2022). Alice has been an Associate with HCM SFSD since 2017 and is currently working on adding Supervision opportunities and training into the program. She is available for individual and group Spiritual Direction, DSD, retreats, and 1-1 or peer group Supervision. She is a member of ESDA and SDI. Alice has Dutch roots and was born and raised in Canada. When she’s not walking her giant dog Theo, you can find her reading, writing, enjoying a cup of tea or some dark chocolate with friends, and visiting her children and grandchildren.

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