Although an Unreasonable Contrariety, the Loon did have Religion

I’m not concerned with religion, rather I’m concerned with compassion for living things; in particular compassion for animals. And I guess that’s a religion. I knew a bird who had religion, a loon—a primitive bird—a bird that made an early appearance on the evolutionary scene. Of the four species of loon, the one I knew, my friend was a Gavia Arctica—a large bird, two to three feet in length—with an uncanny, wraith-like cry.

She had a aura of the beginning about her, her presence generated a nape-of-the-neck eeriness, like standing at dawn at Stone Henge, half expecting a Druid to step into the circle. I glanced up almost expecting to catch sight of a pterodactyl, that most mysterious, beautiful bird.

I met her on a windy day while standing at the edge of the Bering Sea. She was in the water not more than a hundred feet from the softly curling surf. She didn‘t sit like a gull, there’s a masculine and raucous touch about a gull. Rather she cuddled deep into the undulating swells, but not because she was cold; she was simply thinking things over. There was a primal pulse, and ebb and flow to the swell; in sitting in it she looked like a mandarin, a dharma—in fact like the Lord Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

She didn’t have enough gray matter above the eyes to be a philosopher, but she did have poise, all philosophers must have poise. She rested while the ocean heaved, but just because she rested in the sea didn’t mean she knew the width and breadth of the Pacific Ocean. Oh well, but then neither did I. But the difference is she knew she didn’t know!

Then, I ask you, what does she do? She sat down in it—she reposed in the immediate as if it were infinity, which come to think of it, it was.

That is my definition of religion; and the loon had it! She made herself a part of the boundless by easing herself into it, just where it touched her. Medieval people were more like the loon that we. They took life as it presented itself and ran it up the spires of Gothic Cathedrals. They crossed few oceans but they floated on the sea of time.

Cats are more like the loon than we are. We can radio the moon and the moon answers back with a pip. But a cat can make a hearth-rug a haven of the infinitude, or launch four kittens in a cracker box next to my stove to purr with pride because she’s tuned-in on the cosmic.

I like my loon, her of the black feathers with white markings, of the ruby-red eyes. She doesn’t know much but she does have religion. By “religion” I don’t mean religion in the usual sense of worshiping a God or gods, but only a sense of awe and wonder toward ultimate mysteries, an expression of the unknowable. For the loon religion is the basis of her recoognition of the deepest, widest, most certain of all facts—that the Power which the universe manifests to us is inscrutable.

But whether a believer in a God or an atheist, the Unknowable will not go away. It is a realm impossible to contemplate without the emotion I would call the mysterium tremendum. Fortunately such reactions are short-lived or one could go mad by inhaling what Henry James called “the blighting breath of the ultimate why.”  The emotion behind all religions, aside from their obvious superstitions and gross beliefs, is one of awe toward the impenetrable mysteries of the universe.

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Marmalade, my erudite, pure bred, Norwegian Forest cat

When I put down my book The Meaning of Zen, I saw my cat Marmalade smiling into his fur. He was dexterously combing it with his pink tongue.

“Cat,” I said, “I would lend you this book to study but, from the paw marks on the cover it appears that you have already read it.”

He looked up and gave me his full gaze.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he purred. “I wrote it.”