Several years ago I was walking with a contractor friend through the lovely Japanese gardens in Fort Worth, Texas, when he said something about a certain man he knew, that he guessed he had "seen the elephant and heard the owl." I had never heard the phrase before, and was intrigued by it. When I asked where it came from, my friend pleaded ignorance. He had seen it in Western novels, he said, and always in the context of somebody's being spooked on the trail by something — spooked so badly, in fact, that he would never return to that trail.
A few weeks later, by coincidence, I was reading James Michener's massive novel Centennial, about the settling of the state of Colorado, and ran into the part of the phrase about the elephant. Michener described the migration of a young Mennonite farmer, Levi Zendt, and his new wife, Elly, from Pennsylvania to the West. They loaded all their belongings on a big Conestoga wagon and headed for Oregon. In the Rocky Mountains, they ran into all kinds of troubles. Then, just as they reached the far side of the mountains, where the going would be easier, it happened.
Levi went out one night to check on his oxen, and out of the shadows rose the great elephant. "It was gigantic," says Michener, "thirty or forty feet tall, with wild, curving tusks and beady eyes that glowed."
Levi's resolve vanished. He went back to the camp and told his wife and the others that they were turning back and settling in Colorado. "I saw the elephant," he said.
Seeing the elephant and hearing the owl.
It is effective imagery, isn't it, for all of those formidable experiences in life that leave us shaken and uncertain about ourselves, that graphically remind us of our finitude, our inability to play god any longer with our destinies.
It is like the imagery in our reading from Job, which serves the same purpose. Job has seen all kinds of problems. His life is in shambles. But he is still proud, proud of his own righteousness, proud that he hasn't yielded to temptation and cursed God. And God comes along and kicks that crutch out from under him. God shows him these amazing, terrifying monsters, the Behemoth, with things like "tubes of bronze," and the Leviathan, whose sneezings "flash forth light," and whose eyes "are like the eyelids of the dawn."
They are bigger than life. They are worse than anything Job has ever seen in a nightmare. And Job is shaken to the very core of his being. "I despise myself," he says, "and repent in dust and ashes."
Like the elephant and the owl.
Job would never forget.
You don't, do you? You don't forget those crisis experiences, those watershed moments when things don't go the way you'd planned, or reason fails and life is simply too much and you are jolted to the very center of your being.
You know the kinds of times I'm talking about, don't you?
You learn that you have leukemia — or, worse, that your child has it.
You get fired from the only good job you've ever had, and don't think you'll ever get another.
You're in a horrendous automobile crash, and the person sitting next to you tries to say something, then spits up blood and stops breathing.
You get married, you're going to have a baby, and suddenly there's a war and your husband is called up and sent to the front lines.
The elephant and the owl. End-of-the-line experiences.
Terrible, frightening, nightmarishly-proportioned experiences that you can't handle in the usual way, that draw you up short and remind you that life isn't the rose garden you thought it was, that threaten your composure and your sanity and even your religious faith.
What do you do about them? Well, it helps to have some humor, doesn't it? Even a little Woody Allen humor. "There are two kinds of life," says Woody in the film Annie Hall, "horrible and miserable. If yours is only miserable, be glad it isn't horrible."
Humor — the word "humor" — is derived from the Latin word humis, which means "earth." It has to do with being brought back to earth, humiliated. Seeing things in the proper perspective. Recognizing one's weakness, one's finiteness, one's place in the whole created order of things.
That's why the old Greek and Roman comedies were mostly of the slapstick variety, with confused identities, madcap chases, and lots of pratfalls. The falls were especially important. People were brought "back to earth," just as they are in a Buster Keaton film or a Charlie Chaplin movie.
And the comedies were not unrelated to the tragedies, for the tragedies too brought people down to earth. Life, after all, is earthy. Of the earth. The first man was Adam — "clay."
We forget. We start using lightbulbs and then television sets, we learn about E=MC2 and make a few atom bombs, we discover penicillin and do a couple of open-heart surgeries, we build a fifty-story building and an interstate highway or two, and suddenly we think we are something else — mind or intellect or spirit.
And then we have to be reminded. Like Job.
So it doesn't hurt to have a sense of humor when we meet the elephant and the owl, so that we're not really surprised about the turn of events.
A friend of ours had a double radical mastectomy a few years ago. Both breasts. Afterwards, she was going to attend a big party, where she knew she would encounter a lot of friends for the first time since the operation. She didn't want it to be maudlin or serious. She inserted a rubber duck in each side of her brassiere and every time somebody hugged her the ducks squeaked.
More recently, we have been monitoring by phone the progress of a friend on the West Coast who has rectal cancer. When he first learned it, it was the elephant and the owl; it nearly destroyed him. He couldn't bear the thoughts of having a cholostomy and wearing a bag for the rest of his life.
Then one night he called and started talking about the bag. "I've been trying to decide," he said, "between a Gucci and a Pierre Cardin." We knew he was all right, and that, whatever happened, he could handle it. A little humor.
But surely the experience of the elephant and the owl is more than an occasion for jokes. If it stops us in our tracks, and lays us open as if we had just been neatly cleaved from head to foot, then it must be a momentous occasion for learning something about ourselves. Who could imagine a better time? It is what the existentialist writers a few years ago — Sartre and Heidegger and the others — were extolling as the most important thing that can happen to a person.
You don't really know who you are, they said, until you are faced with a catastrophe or a near-death situation. Until then, you lead a life of pretense and illusion, posing as the person you think you are or the person other people expect you to be. But once you have come smack up against it — against the elephant and the owl — you can begin to find out who you really are.
You can learn from the experience.
It isn't for everybody.
Some people are squeamish. They don't like to look inside themselves. They don't want to know if they are not the people they always thought they were.
But listen to these words from Malcolm Muggeridge, the great British journalist:
Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, everything I have learned, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness. If it ever were to be possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence, the result would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. (From Malcolm Muggeridge, A Twentieth Century Testimony [Nashville: Thomas Nelson Co.], quoted in Reader's Digest, January 1991, p. 158)
Everything he has learned, that has enhanced and enlightened his existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness. That's deep, isn't it? But isn't it true? Hasn't it been true in your own experience?
My wife and I were eating dinner in a restaurant in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, when we met one of the most interesting people we've ever known. His name is Peter Prince. Like Muggeridge, Pete is a former journalist. Now he's writing books about old cemeteries in the Smoky Mountains, and self-publishing them.
Pete has an effusive personality. He is full of life and full of himself and full of his work. But it wasn't always so. A few years ago, Pete went through several years of deep depression. It was so bad that he had to give up his job and stay home all the time. He spent most of the day sleeping. His wife would call him from work and ask what he was doing. He would struggle to get to the phone, tell her he was sitting there thinking, hang up, and go back to bed. Finally, his wife couldn't take it any more and she divorced him. He was really going around with the elephant and the owl.
Then, one day, a friend decided that going to the mountains would be good for Pete. He helped him dress and forced him into the car. And something happened to Pete in the mountains. He knew he was home. He began to get better almost at once. He began taking long hikes through the national park. He discovered some old cemeteries and got interested in them. He started writing articles about them. He bought himself a desktop publishing outfit and began publishing his own books. He blossomed into a new person.
But the most important thing he got out of the whole experience, said Pete, was the chance to discover some things about himself, the chance to learn. Now he's writing a book about that. He's calling it Climbing Pete's Mountain. I can hardly wait to get it, because Pete Prince, who was locked for two years in the dark basement of depression, is now one of the most vibrantly alive human beings I have ever met. He has turned his experience with the elephant and the owl into one of the greatest learning opportunities of his life.
Pete learned that there is something tough and indestructible about the human spirit. He also learned that God is there, through all the business of the elephant and the owl, and that God cares.
"I never was what you'd call very religious," said Pete. "I sometimes go to church but I'm not a church member. Yet I knew, through it all, even at the worst times, that God was there and I could trust Him."
Humor … learning from the experience … and trusting God.
Sounds like Job again, doesn't it? There Job was, covered with boils, nothing but skin between his bones and the air, his children dead, his farms pillaged, his buildings burned, his friends gone, his wife — what happened to his wife, did she die or did she leave him? — and down at the very bottom of the experience, in the deepest despair a man could face, he had this dream (maybe it was a waking dream) in which God showed him the Behemoth and the Leviathan, the most terrible beasts anyone ever imagined, and Job survived. After the delirium, after the awful vision of those monsters, coming as they did on top of everything else, Job was still there.
He had said before that he trusted God, that even if God were to take his life, he would trust Him. But what he learned — after all that — what he learned was that God was trustworthy. In a way he had not understood before, he learned that he could trust God. It made him want to worship.
"I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear," he said, "but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
You can't go any further than that. That's the ultimate. It's what life, at its finest moment of insight, is all about. Really seeing and hearing God. Wanting, above everything else, to worship God.
Sometime after I had read Michener's novel, with the man who had seen the elephant, I happened upon another, much smaller novel, by Margaret Craven, entitled I Heard the Owl Call My Name. It is a quiet and gentle story about a young Episcopal seminary graduate named Mark Brian, who is dying of an incurable illness. Mark does not know he is dying, but his doctor has reported it to his bishop. The bishop, a good and kindly man, ponders what he should do. He decides to send Mark to serve in a small Indian village in British Columbia, Canada, called Kingcome. He himself has been to Kingcome, and knows that this simple people of the village will be able to teach Mark how to die.
There is not much plot to the story. It is more like real life, like a photograph album and not like a movie. Mark fits in beautifully with the Indians. They treat him as if he were part of their tribe. He observes their deep faith. They teach him about the woods, and about fishing, and about community. He learns their legends, one of which is that when you hear the owl call your name from the top of the tall pine trees, you are going to die. One day, Mark hears the owl call his name. It does not matter, for he has learned how things live and how they die. He has learned to trust God the way his Indian friends do.
Craven describes one of their funerals, for a woman who has died in childbirth. The women of the tribe prepare her body. When the coffin arrives, Mark tolls the church bell and everybody assembles at the church for the service. When it is over, Mark leads the way for six men carrying the body, and then six more men to spell them when they tire. They walk, single-file, followed by all the others, down the narrow path leading to the deep woods where the burial ground is. An eagle soars overhead as they go, and once they surprise a doe and her fawn. At one point where the path turns, Mark looks back and sees the whole tribe stretched through the cedar and the hemlock, moving slowly and silently along.
"Thus he went," says Craven, "the air fresh from rain and filled with the sweet smell of fir, the sky blue and white with cloud. On the top of Whoop-Szo above the timber line, snow lay waiting for the warm suns of July to send it sliding downward with a rumble that would fill the village. And it seemed to Mark that death belonged here as the mountains belonged, as the eagle belonged, and the little scurrying squirrels that peered at him from the fir boughs. And it seemed to him that the ugliness of death was as unimportant here as the fir needles which made the path soft beneath his feet, or last year's windfall in the thick underbrush." (Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name [New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1973], p. 85.)
When Mark's time comes, he isn't merely resigned to dying. He accepts it. He remembers the times when he and a friend have been out in a boat coming up against a sheer cliff or a steep island side, only to find suddenly that there was "a little finger of the sea waiting to lead them on."
He knows, when he dies, that is the way it will be. He can trust God to provide that little finger of the sea that will lead him on.
There is a big diference between being resigned to death and accepting it. Resignation means bowing to the inevitable. Acceptance involves claiming life, loving it, celebrating it.
That's what faith in God is all about. It means, when you see the elephant and hear the owl, you don't moan and cry and recoil from life. You don't complain about the way things are, that you got a rotten deal. On the contrary, you look at God the way Job did, and you say, "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."
In other words, "I worship thee."
Because you have got to the core of everything — the meaning of life and the experience of God — and you have done it right through the hard, intractable stuff of the human situation.
And you know it is good.

Job 40:6-9, 15-24; 41; 42:1-6

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