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Starting Point

Then I get the divine joke


A few months ago I moved from Albuquerque, N.M., to a rural setting in eastern Maine. I live alone in a small cabin nestled among tall firs, cedars and birches a few hundred yards from the ocean. It is my intention to practice a life of simplicity and quiet, to drop out of the frenzied pace of contemporary American urban culture long enough to remember what is essential to the soul.

After daily Mass at the Catholic parish in the nearest small town, I often sit for an hour or so in the empty church, with its stained glass windows and dark woodwork, and as the old building whispers and shifts around me, I explore the Bible as one would search through an elderly grandmother’s trunk. I rediscover things not thought of in years, finding old, beloved treasures, dear memories and even some wonders never seen before.

An image that has been appearing frequently in these explorations is the idea of God as shepherd. The psalms, the prophets, the gospels say it again and again, words I’ve heard since childhood. But now those words mean something entirely new to me. Because here, just a few miles from my cabin, my sister lives, and she keeps as a hobby a small flock of sheep.

They are, to put it mildly, a nuisance. They must be put into a barn at night to protect them from coyotes and bears. They must be moved from one pasture to another every few months since they are veritable eating machines, consuming grass at an alarming rate. They have a stupid look about them, and yet they are astonishingly clever when it comes to finding their way through a faulty fence to reach more appealing grass on the other side.

And yet my sister loves them. Perhaps in the same way in which an ancient shepherd might have loved them, except that she has no economic dependence on them. She will occasionally sell a lamb, but the wool from the spring shearing mostly just accumulates in her basement until some local artisan comes by in search of wool for spinning, weaving or felt-making. Otherwise, the sheep have no monetary value. She simply loves them because they are sheep and they are hers. When she issues a high-pitched two-note call, they come running to her. She has named them all. She likes to sit in the grass in the pasture with a book, with sheep grazing around her.

So suddenly I get the divine joke. Yes, we are laborers in the vineyard, we are disciples, we are the light of the world, we are the salt of the earth, we are saints and sometimes martyrs, we wash one another’s feet, we preach the Good News, we are co-creators of the kingdom. But sometimes, even a lot of the time, we are just sheep.

A great deal of our daily existence is spent just surviving, grazing on the events in front of us, not necessarily mindlessly or purposelessly, but doing what needs to be done. And much of God’s work in relation to us is simply watching over us, making sure there is reality for us to munch on, keeping the bears and coyotes away and bringing us back when we become too lost or confused.

Maybe most important is that God not only takes care of and guides and protects us, but that God also, beyond all logic, likes us. Even when we are helpless, clueless, obstinate and troublesome, God hangs out with us. Our existence is valuable, even when we are not thinking deep thoughts or accomplishing great works. To God, we all have names. God made us capable of joy and contentment, and delights in our pleasure.

Acknowledging our sheephood does not absolve us from our moral responsibility to care about the world, to oppose injustice and to serve the suffering. But sometimes the effort to be sophisticated, postmodern, intelligent, radical and effective must be laid aside.

After casting out whatever demons we can, Jesus invites us to come away to a quiet place. Sometimes the only thing he wants us to do is trust, to be simple creatures in need of him. Sometimes our shepherd wants nothing but to be with his sheep.

Mary Vineyard is a massage therapist living in Downeast, Maine. Her e-mail address is mkvine@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000