been fortunate enough to have encountered God several times in my
life. This speaks less about my holiness, I suspect, than it does
about simple luck.
I have always been receptive to such
encounters. I am a seeker of signs, be-cause like so many I am often
lost. In a world that seems to continue to spiral out of control,
God's very existence is often brought into question. Especially at
times like that it is important to remember our encounters. Unless we
preserve them somehow, they will disappear. That could leave us
flailing aimlessly, unmoored, lost in despair or resignation or even
There are two encounters with the Divine that come immediately and
vividly to my mind.
The first of these occurred on a warm summer day. My wife and I
were driving through the open farmlands of Amish country with our
convertible top down. It is always such a beautiful drive that it has us
marveling at God's wonderful creation. We were returning from dinner
at one of our favorite restaurants, filled with food, enjoying
spending time together, and having a wonderful conversation. I
sometimes marvel at how much we still have to talk about even after 45
It was a perfect day. Or so it seemed.
I was lost in the moment with my favorite person in the world.
That's not an excuse for my lapse; only an explanation, as flimsy as
that seems. In an instant, a flash
appeared in front of me. I had no time to react. I was not prepared; I
had not paid enough attention.
There was a sudden blur of brown and teal that was followed by an
awful thud. It is the kind of sound that resonates deep down into a
person's soul. I knew something terrible had happened and I was
responsible. I looked into the rearview mirror in hopes that I was
wrong, or at the very least that I could go back and fix things. Maybe
I could rescue a creature that had been as oblivious to its
surroundings as I. But it became quickly apparent that death had come
rapidly to a Mallard duck. It had been obliterated at my hands. There
was nothing I could do.
I gazed with a fixed stare at the fading image in my mirror. To my
horror, it only got worse. There were three ducklings moving out from
the tall grass on the side of the road. They were totally bewildered;
I could see that even from a distance. So I had not only killed a
female Mallard but had also doomed her babies. I had really killed
four of God creatures, since the fate of those ducklings was clearly
sealed. I did the only thing I could do: I drove on. I was engulfed in
a numbness rarely encountered in my life. Neither of u spoke another
word all the way home.
As this experience settled into my consciousness over the next few
days realized that I had disturbed the universe. I had disturbed God's
harmony of life. It filled me with an uneasiness that I could nor
shake. It repeatedly surfaced into my consciousness, unbidden and
Then, into this sense of imbalance appeared my very young cat,
Jake. He follows me everywhere. He follows when I walk outside, almost
like a little boy might. Often, as I let him out, he pivots and turns
back towards the door as if to ask me to accompany him. Not only does
he tag along but at the end of the day he comes when I call so that we
can both go into the house together. He's really a very sweet cat.
This should not be confused with his basic feline nature. Jake is
strong, muscular, and a skilled assassin. He has de-posited an untold
number of animals at my door. Mouse, rabbit, mole, or bird; none stand
a chance against this determined hunter. He is serious and efficient
at carrying out his genetic heritage. I once knelt down and looked at
him just to see what other animals saw. It was a menacing view.
That is why what I am about to describe seemed out of character. It
was to be, I concluded, God's way of leading me through my
self-imposed Mallard darkness.
It was late afternoon when the work of the day was done. This is
usually a time that brings with it a sense of accomplishment and
mellowness. But on this day the memories of Mallards were still vivid
in my mind. Then Jake came up onto the deck with another of his gifts
in tow. This time it was a baby rabbit that he carried up the steps.
It was still very much alive, but hopelessly locked in those strong
At first this seemed no different than dozens of other scenarios
that had played out many times before but it was unlike the rest. I
missed it at first, since I was tired and preoccupied with the
Mallards, but in short order the strangeness of this particular gift
became clear. Jake brought the baby rabbit just outside the door and
set it down next to him. It stayed quiet for a moment but then tried
getting up and running off, but it was no match for Jake's speed and
agility. The cat went after it in a blur.
It was like child's play really. Each time Jake retrieved it with a
swift but gentle grasp on the scruff of its neck, and he would bring
it back to the same spot and lie down beside it. He would stay put
with this terrified, trembling, but very-much-alive rabbit lying right
beside him. Each time he brought it to the door, a few feet away, not
This scenario played out several times until it dawned on me. He
wanted me to open the door and let him into the house. I hesitated for
fear that I might incur my wife's displeasure for letting a live
rabbit loose inside. But in the end, I decided to do it. I simply
opened the door and let him in. Much to my surprise, he left the
rabbit outside and walked into the house without even a backward
glance. I scooped up the baby and with a quiet, reassuring voice
stroked it gently on its back. I then placed it under a large shrub
just beyond the tree line.
There it was: God, in the form of a cat, giving me a chance to
redeem myself for the Mallard murders. This time God had done it by
taming, for a moment, a skilled and proficient killer. The wonderful
paw of the Divine had reached down and healed my soul. I was
overwhelmed and thankful for the opportunity to re-balance the scales
of life. Since then, the Mallards have faded from my memory, although
I must confess I do drive much more carefully now.
The second and most vivid encounter I have had with the Divine
occurred at the Philadelphia Zoo. It was there, in early summer, when
I looked directly into the eye of God.
It was one of the best birthday gifts my wife had ever given me,
taking me to the zoo that day. It was to be my day, she said. We would
stay as long as I wanted, and moreover, I could move at whatever pace
I chose. I had recently become the proud owner of a single lens reflex
camera and wanted to test it out. There are not many opportunities
like that in my busy life. The day was wonderful. There were
orangutans, rhinos, and tigers. We spent hours with the tigers until I
got a wonderful picture of a young male crossing the moat with water
drip-ping from the tip of his paw. I was able to frame it so it
appeared that I had taken the picture in the wild. My son has it in
his office—a gift from me for his birthday.
We waited for a long time at the hippopotamus enclosure, too. My
wife was ready to move on but she was patient with me. Eventually it
paid off. The keeper came in with a bushel full of apples. The hippo
immediately opened his huge, yawning mouth. I was able to get a
wonderful picture of all those apples tumbling down a hippopotamus
We eventually came to my favorite zoo residents, the gorillas. As I
sat before them I marveled, as I always do, at the power of the adult
males. When full grown these primates are as strong as ten men, and
yet they can hold a baby in their massive hands ever so gently.
We have, in recent years, seen into the soul of gorillas. I think
of days not too long ago when these wonderful creatures were
introduced to sign language. As a consequence we relate to them on a
totally different level. We didn't know how close our kinship was
until we taught them to speak a language.
While teaching American sign language to Koko, a female gorilla,
researchers were astonished by how human she seemed. Perhaps, they
thought, she even considered herself to be human. So to test this idea
they gave her a mirror and asked her to tell them what she saw. Koko
gently took the mirror, looked into it and calmly gave the sign for
mighty fine gorilla. This revolutionized how we see these primate
cousins of ours. Mighty fine gorilla indeed! What a clear statement of
self-awareness that only a handful of humans could echo. I do not
think I have ever looked into a mirror and called myself a mighty fine
human; although I have often wanted to.
I sat there watching them, lost in my own thoughts. I was hoping to
capture some of my wonder on film. I knew it would take time, so I was
prepared to be patient.
It was a small gorilla family we had set out to observe. They had
been put into newly refurbished quarters since there had been a
devastating fire at the zoo that killed many animals. It was a painful
time for so many of us who loved them. But that was put aside now as
the throngs of people crowded to seethe new facilities and this new
group of primates.
This family was headed by a young silverback male. He was new at
this but was establishing cohesiveness pretty effectively according to
most reports I had read. My task on this day was to follow this family
for as long as it took to get some really good photographs. We were
there for several hours. During that time I moved around and so did
they. I snapped a large number of pictures, hoping to get a few good
ones. However the silverback eluded me. Try as I might, I could not
get any good pictures of him and he was the one I really wanted. I
paced from one end of the en-closure to the other. I tried every angle
that I could think of, but to no avail. When
I moved closer, he moved away. I went to the right and he would move
to the left. The other gorillas were much more cooperative. On some
occasions it even seemed as if they stopped and posed for me, but not
He was unaware of my presence, I thought. He was too taken up with
the daunting task of providing cohesiveness and leadership for his new
family. Such a terrible onus for one so young, I assumed, But I was
wrong. If I had thought about it, it would have been obvious. Looking
back I see he was very aware of my presence and that I had been
tracking him all afternoon. It is in the nature of his job to be aware
of everything around him.
Finally, the opportunity arose for me to get some really good
pictures; he was coming indoors. I knew of a perfect place where I
would be only a few feet away from him. I rushed to the spot and
waited with camera cocked for this wonderful creature to pass in front
of me. I had one eye looking through the lens and the other eye over
the camera awaiting his arrival. It was difficult to take pictures
from that vantage point because of the reflection from the thick piece
of glass that separated us in order to protect them from human
airborne diseases. I moved back and forth to reduce those reflections.
And then he was about to pass directly in front of me. I watched as
his powerful arms crossed one over the other as is typical of a
brachiator, an animal who walks stuped over on their knuckles. He paced for a bit and then moved quickly and purposefully
across that short distance that would afford me my best view.
I don't know what I expected, exactly. I just wanted to be as close
to him as possible. What happened next took only a split second, but
it somehow captured eternity. As he passed by me, without even
breaking his stride, he turned over his left shoulder and looked
directly into my eyes. He didn't have to search for where I was; he
knew. In one instant his eyes were fixed on where his next step would
take him, and in the next they were searing deeply into my soul.
I am sure we have all experienced a look that stopped as in our
tracks. In fact, I always prided myself' as a young father on being
able to give my children what they call the stare. But my stare had no
meaning here. I was nothing. His look, in contrast, was so powerful
that it took my breath away and sent me reeling back-wards. With that
look he conveyed in a split-second that he was the dominant one; kind,
benevolent, caring, and providing, but clearly in charge.
It was a very special thing. I experienced such a blend of emotions
that they were not easily separated and discerned. It took a while to
understand their full breadth. I wanted to surrender myself to him
with the certainty that in that surrender he would care for me. There
was no choice really. It was a visceral response, one that never even
reached my consciousness.
I wanted to give myself up and allow him to rescue me from the
sadness of the world. It would be a place where I would not have to
struggle with decisions. They would be made for me; all I had to do
was submit to him and follow his lead. It happened in an instant, and
then he was gone. But in that instant I had looked into the eyes of
It was all there; everything I thought God was. There was power.
There was benevolence. There was resignation. I knew that he would
lead me and care for me. He was almighty and that was indisputable. As
a Quaker I believe in that of God in everyone, but as a biologist I
believe that God can be found in all creatures. On that day, in that
place, and in those eyes l saw God.
I understand Paul's experience on his way to Damascus a bit better
now. I understand how a divine light could blind him and knock him
backwards, because I saw some of that light in those gorilla eyes.
Surely if God were to be revealed in full glory I would be rendered
blind and mute. The experience, in this diluted form, was quite enough
Somehow I managed to click off several pictures; in self-defense or
perhaps it was just sheer reflex. Although none of my photographs
fully captured the eternal eye that seared my soul on that day, there
is a hint of it in some of them.
I blew up a particularly favorite picture of mine and tacked it
near the doorway of my office as a reminder of the day I saw the
eternal eye of God in the face of a gorilla. Each day as I walk in, I
stop, look at it, and simply nod.
NOTE: This article and photos by Dean Bratis appeared in the
April 2009 issue of Friends
to Friends' Writings