Did you grow up learning children’s songs at church? One of the earliest hymns I learned was “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” whose words were written by Mrs. Cecil Alexander around 1848 in a collection of hymns for children. The tune I learned is often paired with the words she wrote, a melody coming from a century earlier than that. You can find it in our blue “With One Voice” hymnal #767, and the final verse is “God gave us eyes to see them, and lips that we might tell how great is God almighty, who has made all things well.” With that invitation, I hope you will allow me to tell you of one of God’s creatures who impacted my life and my faith.
Harriett was my rabbit. I chose her when she was a baby, bringing her home to have her droppings to fertilize my garden boxes (my gardening book said rabbits were easy keepers providing perfect garden manure!). Harriett was white with brown and gray spots, a “miniature lop.” Miniature lop bunnies are not small, they often get to weigh about five pounds – large enough to fill your arms and warm you with their softness. When I got my bunny, I really thought Harriett would be doing a job for me and I did not expect her to become a pet. I knew folks who kept rabbits in the house as pets, but that was not an option for me. We had set up a dog kennel outside with a rabbit hutch inside it and put it in our backyard. I brought a chair into the kennel so I could sit inside while Harriett stretched her legs, safe from our dogs. I also set up a tub to catch the “bunny beans” to fertilize my garden. I got a second bunny soon after to keep Harriett company and they were sweet companions. I thought having rabbits was going to be simple, but I was wrong.
Rabbits are considered “exotic” pets, so I had much to learn. Rabbits do not talk, so that does not help! There are no “I’m hungry” meows, or “Come play now!” barks, only a rare loud “Thump!” that rabbits do with their hind legs when they need to warn about danger. One practical thing I learned about rabbits is that they need wood to chew, because their teeth keep growing. The wild crabapple trees in my backyard donated branches. I learned that hot days could kill a bunny, so when the Boise weather was nearing 90 degrees I would move Harriett into a cage in our garage during the heat of the day and bring her back outside to her hutch at night. I learned Harriett liked a bit of dried mango as at treat much better than a bit of raw carrot, taking the treats right from my hand. Initially I thought that holding Harriett was stressful for her, but her breeder reassured me that her faster breathing and vibration from her body when I held her was Harriett telling me she was happy, not stressed. I learned that a gentle nibble on my shoulder was a way Harriett showed me affection, and I found that Harriett loved to stay in my arms for as long as I had time to hold her. So, I did. Harriett used to snuggle her head under my chin as we would sit, allowing her body to melt into mine as I pet her softly and scratched her ears.
When Harriett was young, I was working as a hospital chaplain with busy days during the week and being called in for emergencies during the nights and weekends. My daughter would have been not quite two years old when I got the bunnies, and she would toddle around in the yard and dig in the dirt as I gardened. I remember her tiny fingers touching Harriett’s face and ears. I was a wife and a working mom and I did not sit, at least I didn’t before I had Harriett. Being an extrovert, I liked to do walking prayer and I talked through everything. I was not very comfortable with sitting in silence and not doing anything (even reading a devotion is doing something!). I generally had no reason to sit, I could not get anything done that way! So, then I had a rabbit who wanted to sit with me, wanted me to hold her, who I had to tend every morning and night, and I learned to sit. I practiced it, daily. I learned to be silent, and to listen, and to feel God’s peace in those moments. Some folks do meditation, I got a rabbit!
Henri Nouwen wrote,
In the evenings while I held Harriett, I would talk to her and to God, and look at the sky and the stars, and simply breathe. We can notice things when we pause, when we are just sitting outside, notice things that we might not otherwise notice – hearing a bird’s call with distant traffic noise behind it, glimpsing the shape of the night’s moon behind the darkened leaves of a near tree branch, feeling the temperature of the fresh air against your skin in the night and in that season, and if we are holding our pet we might also be noticing the beating of the small heart inside the warm body we hold, and how our breathing synchronizes with that smaller being’s breaths. This created a daily rhythm for me that invited me to be still and mindful, to listen, and simply to receive the love of the gentle, silent, loving creature who was with me. It felt like Harriett and I and God had whole conversations in that outward silence, rich and full on the interior. For me, it was contemplative prayer with company, day after day, year after year.
Thank you for letting me tell you about Harriett. I lost both my rabbits this Christmas, each died of old age peacefully in my arms and they are buried in my yard. I am grieving and my daily rhythm has changed. My grief feels big, but it is a small piece of the greater experience we all are enduring with the ongoing pandemic and social isolation, unrest after the national election and polarized relationships, financial insecurity and hunger, and many griefs that touch us all in different ways. Please know that my heart goes out to you if you are grieving also in our world today or have experienced your own loss. Perhaps at some point you also have lost a pet and understand, or maybe you know about silence and being still. I hope you hear in my writing a message that is not small, that when we are open to it God will bring us love and grace in the silence, in the sitting, and in connection with God’s creatures great and small. Perhaps this is some comfort, the invitation to sit and be still, to go outside, to hold an animal, to breathe a full deep breath, and to simply let yourself be available to God and listen, no matter what stress or concern is also with you these days. To just be, and to know God is with you, and there is love.
Jesus taught the disciples and said,
The Psalmist writes,
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
May it be so. Amen.