Several times a year I go to a retreat center and spend some time in silence, woods walking, prayer and meditation.
I just returned from that place after spending last night and part of today there.
One thing I love about St. Columba (the retreat center) is being with the animals. So few people traipse around the place, the animals actually seem to feel at home there. This past May, on one visit, I watched at length deer, raccoon, a blue heron, turtles galore, a chipmunk, a tiny little shrew, and of course all kinds of birds—including two owls.
Last night as I drove up, two deer were startled by my car. I turned off the headlights and stopped the car. One ran into the woods, but the other stayed and nibbled in the field where I could watch her for a while until she ran to join the other.
This morning I saw a flock of geese on the other side of the lake. They must have seen me, because they flew away almost as soon as I got there. Then I saw--no kidding--a normal raccoon and an albino raccoon climbing up a tree together, turning to stare at me every now and then, obviously concerned about my presence.
I left them alone, not wanting to frighten them further, and went back to the cabin for morning prayer.
The reading for the morning was Isaiah 65:17-25. “. . . .The wolf and the lamb will lie down together, the lion will eat straw like the ox. . . .They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,” says the LORD.
Whenever I encounter creatures in the woods, I do my best to be quiet and gentle. I try to telepathically tell them that they don’t need to be afraid, that I will not hurt them.
Often, though, they run away.
This morning’s scripture connected with my longing to live in harmony with all of God’s creation. That longing for a time and place where there will be no need for fear.
Later I went for another walk, this time hoping to see the deer. I had heard sounds like gunshots earlier. I thought maybe it was coming from activity related to the construction site down the road. But since the area all around the center is wooded, I knew that hunters might be out there. In fact, at one point I heard a shot so loud, I jumped and my heart pounded. I heard voices and knew there had to be hunters, on the other side of the fence somewhere.
I was wearing a bright red jacket and figured it would be okay to walk. After all, this is a huge retreat center, a sanctuary, with a fence and NO TRESPASSING signs all around.
As I walked among the fallen leaves and green pine trees, I looked down and could not believe my eyes. Bright red blood on a leaf. On more than one leaf. A whole circle of leaves with fresh blood.
And not far away, a larger spot on the ground, red all around. Entrails. I wept. It was clear that the hunters had been on this side of the fence, probably just minutes before when I heard their voices.
My first actual thought was, “I hate them!” But I had also just been reading Brennan Manning on compassion, and I knew I couldn’t stay in that.
I walked to the center’s office and told what I had seen. I learned that at last count, ten deer lived on the land. One less now. In fact, after the sheriff’s department man came out, they found another. Two less.
Maybe the same two I saw last night, so peaceful. One willing to stand and eat right there in front of my car.
I was angry. I am angry. The sheriff's man said they should not even have been hunting anywhere near there on the other side of the fence, because it is so close to houses and buildings. These jerks had built a deer stand less than 100 feet from the fence. Somehow they had gotten over a nine-foot barbed wire fence to get these deer. If they are from anywhere around, they know this is private property and that there are deer on it, deer that are not used to be hunted. Lazy, cowardly hunters, in my angry opinion. Probably sitting around tonight bragging about their prowess.
Mostly, though, I am grieved. Grieved for the innocence and pain of the deer, the terror they must have felt.
Grieved for the lost innocence of this world, for the pain of the people all around, for the terror they feel and the terror they create in each other’s lives.
Thankful in a new way for the vision of Isaiah 65:17-25.
And thankful for a God who gave us the vision and teaches those who will listen to live now in anticipation of the new heaven and new earth.
Postscript: No, I do not think hunters are categorically terrible people. Some people hunt to survive. But I do not understand hunting as sport. I like my dad's idea: enjoy the woods, enjoy the detective-like suspense, find the animal, but if you have to shoot it, use a camera.
And I anticipate shorter, less serious entries in the future! But this had to be written. Deer don't get funerals or gravestones.