Surprised by the Sacred

Of snakes, sleeping souls, and sextillions of infidels


| November-December 2002


Driving on a road not far from my home last summer, I saw an injured snake, hit by a car, stuck by its open wound to the pavement. It was curling and writhing, struggling to free itself. I stopped, thinking to move it from the hot, bare road into the shade of the ditch, where it would suffer less.

As I reached the snake, lying on its back, twisted around its wound, it took one very sharp, deep breath, a gasp so deep I could see its rib cage rise beneath the ivory scales along its upper body, and, in that moment, it died. I was struck in that moment by an awareness of order and union: the snake at my fingertips had been a living creature, drawing breath as I draw breath, taking air into its body. Living—the word was suddenly expanded for me in meaning, in impact.

The elements composing this moment—the struggling snake, the unrelenting summer sun, the steady buzz and burr of the insects in the weeds around us, the fragrance of dry grasses—all these elements suddenly felt holy to me.

A similar moment of enlightenment, also involving a snake, is described in a poem by D.H. Lawrence. On a hot summer day the speaker comes upon a snake drinking at a water trough.

He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slacklong body,
Silently . . .
He lifted his head from his
drinking, as
cattle do . . .
And flickered his two-forked
tongue from
his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more.


The watching narrator believes that the snake is poisonous and that he should kill it.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like
a guest
in quiet, to drink at my
water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified,
and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?


The underlying unity of life is revealed in that moment. All life—beautiful or reprehensible, dangerous or benign—takes sustenance from the earth. The surprise of encountering unusual juxtapositions brings awareness of the sacred circus of life that surrounds us.