We were in the Audubon Zoo on a platform fifteen feet in the air when the tallest two giraffes came around the corner, pushed their faces into ours, and put out their tongues to eat some carrots from our hands. OMG! Talk about a close encounter. What gigantic, regal, and beautiful creatures they were on a gorgeous fall Saturday afternoon.
We learned that Forest, the tallest and most dominant male of the four, has bad breath. You know, that is a bit of TMI when you are actually smelling it. And we learned that giraffe tongues are rough and wet with mucous: more TMI. We also learned that giraffes are affectionate with each other by watching Chewy, the youngest, resting his head on his friend’s shoulder. But it turns out they do not want affection from us, so they would pull away when we would pat their massive heads.
In three amazing hours we touched, fed, smelled, and spoke to some of God’s most unusual creatures. We put bananas into the wet tips of the elephant’s trunks and felt their rough and hairy hides. We fed cheese to a vicious leopard who would have gladly accepted us as lunch, and felt the two-foot long tongue of the anteater as he licked yogurt off our fingers. We stood three feet from a gorilla and were careful not to stare into his face, even as he looked into our eyes, because he needs to establish his dominance at all times. And we cuddled with a sloth who would use his long, dull claws to pull our hands into his soft mouth. We even rubbed the softest areas of the male and female rhinoceros skin, which turns out to not be very soft and is perpetually bathed in mud.
So what does feeding giraffes in our faces have to do with contemplation? Experiencing creation up close and personal is most assuredly a milepost marker on a contemplative path. Contemplatives are seekers of God whose first desire is union with God. But we are not super-religious types who require church buildings, rituals, or printed words for our God encounters. We are like monks in the world who accept God in all her forms as she comes to us however she chooses. And as she expresses herself in the wonders of creation, we delight in close encounters with her other beings.
Who else but an extremely imaginative Creator could devise such diverse snouts as those of the giraffe, elephant, leopard, anteater, gorilla, sloth, and rhinoceros? In contrast, who but a God could create our tiny but effective noses? After all of these close encounters I am shocked that there are still plenty of people who believe creation is one big accident, that we are accidents!
Contemplatives follow another path. We seek oneness with the One who created and still creates, who infuses herself in all she has been making over billions of years. We will look into your face and know Her, (no matter what your nose looks like). And in our best moments we are actually awake, and stand with open hearts, watching for the next encounter such as giraffes in our faces.
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.