Not very many Mainers get to wake up in the morning saying: “Ah, today I must bless the elephants…”
But I did, on December 8th. For more on why Opal and Rose, two mature Asian elephants, now dwell in the town of Hope, Maine, check out www.hopeelephants.org or
For me, seeing and touching the elephants was both a privilege and a memory-prompt: When I was a little girl, I lived in Thailand, where Asian elephants, (elephas maximus) are native, and thus a much more common sight than they are in Maine. I took a ride on an elephant— I remember being very high up, and looking over the edge of the howdah to see the elephant’s dusty, bristly gray back. Elephants live a long time: That elephant could still be alive today. They also are reputed to have excellent memories. (Remember me? I was the blond American four year old who’d wet her pants…)
This is what I had to say:
And Sawahdi ka(b)
I am so honored and grateful to be here with you, Rosie and Opal.
I am a minister in the Jewish-Christian tradition, one that doesn’t have much to say about elephants. They don’t turn up in the Bible except for an occasional reference to ivory, “elephant’s teeth” in the book of Kings, and then later, in the Hanukah story. The Macabees, the Jewish freedom fighters defeated the Selucid army in spite of their superior weaponry, which included the first century equivalent of Sherman tanks, war elephants.
The Judeo- Christian silence about elephants is an accident of geography: Israel lacked a native population of elephants, and by the time Christian Europe had sufficient experience to begin to incorporate elephants into European and later North American culture, the religious canon was sadly closed. Donkeys, camels and sheep yes. Elephants no. So elephants instead were consigned to children’s books: Babar, Dumbo, Horton.
This is a shame, frankly. In other religious traditions—Hinduism, of course, and Buddhism but also Islam, elephants play a much larger role. (Did you know that Mohammad was born in the Muslim Year of the Elephant?) And why not? They’re such easy creatures to sacrelize (and, unfortunately, to sacrifice) They have the attributes necessary for God-hood—basically, they’re really big and can squish us —but at the same time they’ve got the qualities that human beings think of as being distinctively and attractively well, human. In particular, they have self-awareness, which is another way of saying they have consciousness. Elephants feel one another’s pain, and seek to care for one another, they form strong bonds and extended families, and they respond to another elephant’s distress with attempts at rescue or remedy. Elephants empathize.
Consciousness and empathy, incidentally, are not only what human beings have, they are what our religions, at their best, seek to encourage and expand: They are the very best we’ve got.
A human being who has achieved enlightenment, for a Hindu or a Buddhist, has expanded her consciousness and achieved universal empathy, while a Jew or Christian who seeks to fulfill the Great Commandment will describe what I believe to be the same experience anthropomorphically: I shall love the Lord with All My Heart and Mind and Soul (Consciousness) and love my neighbor as myself (Empathy.)
Consciousness plus empathy equals love, and because God is love, consciousness plus empathy equals God.
In Hinduism, the elephant-headed God Ganesh is known, quite understandably, as “the remover of obstacles.” Got a boulder-sized problem? Ganesh will pick it up in his trunk and carry it out of your way. But Ganesh is also associated with the intellect and wisdom—and, as I was happy to learn—Ganesh is patron deity of writers! What I was even happier to learn, however, is that one of the stories about Ganesh is that he was created directly from the laughter of God.
So elephants are not only enormous and powerful, and not only loving, they’re also funny. What an excellent image of God!
Ah, but in the Judeo-Christian tradition it is we who are created in the image of God—which should strike us as very amusing too, but unfortunately we take this and ourselves seriously. Well, we are enormous, at least in our impact, and powerful. We, too, squash things.
Rosie and Opal’s relations, the woolly mammoths were native to North America, here to greet the first humans to come across the land bridge around 12,000 years ago. Predictably, the arrival of our species was swiftly followed by a wave of extinctions that took out virtually all of the larger species on the American continent, including the mammoths. African elephants, Rosie and Opal’s cousins, are threatened with extinction even as we speak, partly because of habitat loss, partly because “elephants teeth,” are still prized by wannabe kings.
It would be a tragedy if our grandchildren were only to know of elephants through zoos and picture books, terrible if what is unsympathetic and mindless in us won, and we succeeded in trashing a world whose astonishing complexity and richness we have only begun to grasp.
Still, if there are elephants in Hope, there is Hope in elephants: If Rosie and Opal are here with us, cared for by us, known, respected and loved by us, and if their wild relatives are loved by us because we know Rosie and Opal, this is in itself both a symbol and an indicator of what a human being is and can be.
Together we will bless Rosie and Opal.
Dear God, we thank you for this day, for this land, for this place and moment and for the love that drives us to care not only for other human beings but for all sentient beings.
As is the way of all our loves, this love is grace. May we receive it humbly and experience it gratefully.
We ask that our hands, hearts and minds be strengthened, encouraged and made wise and thankful by love
We ask that the creatures brought to this strange blessing- place might find it interesting, amusing and comforting, even as their presence interests, amuses and comforts us
May they receive their care here as it is offered, as love
O’ may we always retain the knowledge that to be permitted to peacefully interact with the bodies of God’s creatures, to watch them move, grow, age and die, to feel their skins and their heartbeats beneath our fingers, to look into their eyes…This is a profound privilege. May we be deeply grateful. May we, in gratitude, be instruments of your peace.
Kab khun ka mak