Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Learning Nature's Lessons: Growing Whiskers

The following was inspired by the excellent book, ‘Reclaiming the Sealskin’ by Annie Heppenstall-West. I kind of started with her thoughts and then it took on a life of its own...


Matthew 7:7-11
Jesus said, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Ever wondered what’s under the earth? I’m not talking about far down, just a few inches into the sacred ground filled with who knows what. To us earth is simply brown, but to others it’s their whole world. Who needs sun, moon and stars when everything is provided by the earth under the earth? I am thinking here about the mole.

When was the last time you actually saw a mole? Have you ever seen one except on TV? Yet living out here in rural England it’s pretty clear where they’ve been, as they leave their mounds of earth as evidence to remind us that at sometime, when we weren’t looking, they were there. So close, living cheek by jowl with humanity, yet always out of reach in a world we cannot comprehend.

Hidden, under the earth.

Most small furry animals in this country are pretty shy, retiring creatures, yet the aware will see rabbits, squirrels and mice wherever the searcher can be still for long enough. But moles? They’ve gone a step further, bypassing the dangerous surface and the hunters who lurk. He rarely needs to leave his safe haven because in the earth under the earth all his needs are met.

There he is safe and in charge of a world that few understand, but in order to survive and to grow he has to search deep in the hidden dark recesses of the earth.

In our hunger for book knowledge maybe we’re missing some of the greatest teachers, such as the mole. His search for food in the dark earth should inspire our search for God, however we understand that name, in the dark recesses of who we are and the lives we lead. Imagine what it’s like for the mole searching for food. He never knows when he’s going to come across a tasty worm or grub. He has to be ready and he has to keep searching, because if the mole doesn’t keep eating every few hours he will starve to death.

And it begs the question for me, for us, how deeply do we dig, and how much energy do we put into searching? Are we really searching with our whole heart? Is it as important to us as food is to the mole that we sense the loving presence of the Holy One, drawing us on and out? In fact maybe the harder question each of us has to ask ourselves is, ‘What am I actually searching for?’

What are you actually searching for? We need to be able to articulate that need for ourselves before we actually ask the Spirit to provide what it is we’re looking for. So, what am I, what are you actually searching for?


When the mole finds a worm, how does he know? After all, his vision is very limited and for some species it’s non-existent. The same can be said about his ears and his hearing. The mole has to rely on other senses. The difficulty with being a human is that we depend on our eyesight as our primary source of information. Most of what we know about the world we learn through our eyes, and most of the information we record about what we’ve seen is in words or images that we can see.

But religious visions are very rare and are not the primary means by which God speaks to us. So when Jesus says, ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and door will be opened to you’, how do you process the ‘God’ information? How do we know when the Holy One is speaking? If you’re knocking on a door that you can’t see with knocks you can’t hear, how will you know when the door has been opened?

It is in the answer to this question that I think the mole has the greatest contribution to our understanding. With their long whiskers and many sensitive hairs around their noses, moles are very sensitive to touch. They know when something is nearby because they sense the vibrations. When something, or someone, is nearby they sense it brushing their surroundings.

And this, I think, is the key to discerning God’s voice. We need to grow, if you like, spiritual whiskers to become sensitive to God brushing against us, because I believe that actually God is continually brushing against us but we’ve allowed our ‘whiskers’ to become clogged, not taking care of them because we rely too much on our eyes and ears and on the continual flood of information in a technologically rabid civilisation.

Yes we can study, we can read, we can learn. But what we need is to grow whiskers. Theologians who tell you about God from their books are not nearly as enthralling as ones who tell you about God from the stories of their experiences. We want to experience God, but we don’t know how.

So if we have to grow whiskers, what might that feel like?  In some traditions people do what they call shape-shifting. This isn’t actually becoming the literal physical shape of an animal, but for some it involves going a number of steps beyond simply imagining yourself taking on the attributes of the animal and may become more of a spiritual and mystical engagement. But anyone can simply use their imagination and this can be helpful. In order to find new ways of discerning the sacred presence of God it could be a useful exercise to imagine what it must be like to take in information about the world without using your eyes or your ears. Imagine what it must be like to sense the world brushing past you, sending tiny vibrations that you pick up other than by your normal senses. Imagine the shape of a mole.

Sometimes this is how we can learn to hear God, by using the tools of imagination that take us outside of normal existence. Yes God can and does speak to us through our eyes and ears if we spend time in a quiet place, away from modern intrusions. But God also speaks to us silently. As the story of Elijah told us, (see last blog entry) after the violence of the storm, the earthquake and the fire there is the sound of sheer silence, and that is where the voice of God can be discerned.

But it’s not always heard; sometimes it is simply sensed in a way we find it hard to explain because it’s not sight or sound. So maybe we need to grow spiritual whiskers, attuned to the vibrations God makes, and let us learn to allow our whiskers to twitch as God brushes by.

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