Two mornings ago, I heard a racket outside. Looking out the south-facing picture window in the living room, I saw crows circling overhead, cawing loudly. On the ground, a crow lay flopping, beating its wings, but unable to fly. Two crows stood beside it. One or the other occasionally nudged the injured comrade. The hurt crow flopped over, beat its wings loudly, failed to rise. The crows overhead circled and cawed. The two sentry crows flew away. I expected all the crows would fly off, leaving their dying peer to his fate.
But they didn't. Two crows--whether the same or different, who could tell?--flew down and continued to stand sentry over the flapping friend. The other crows continued to circle. The crows above, I decided, were guarding the air against predators. Of the crows on the ground, I thought of the angels in Jesus's tomb, one at his head and one at his feet. They hopped beside the anguished crow as he flopped and flailed.
After a few more minutes, the downed crow managed to right himself, and he lifted off into the air. The two sentries--or angels--rose with him. The crows as a group left. Silence after all that cawing.
What had happened? Had the sick crow flown into the trunk of the nearby tree and become momentarily stunned and disoriented? I don't know, but clearly the story of the animal kingdom as a dog-eat-dog Darwinist universe is not entirely correct, for the crows practiced what looked like compassion. I was reminded of years ago, when our former cat, a self-possessed orange tabby, killed a baby crow one spring. Dozens of crows landed on trees and bushes around our small yard and set up an incessant cawing. When the poor cat finally went out, one crow swooped down and pecked him hard on the head, leaving a little hole in his fur. The cat streaked back inside. Eventually the crows, having made their statement, left. There was no mistaking that they were outraged, and, in a sense, though I anthropomorphize, grieving.
This morning, I read in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/18/science/ancient-bones-that-tell-a-story-of-compassion.html?pagewanted=2 of archeological excavations showing that, around the globe, prehistoric people cared for at least a few of the people who could not care for themselves--the sick, the paralyzed, the malformed. Perhaps these were rare cases or perhaps these particular individuals had powerful parents or were assigned godlike status. On the other hand, perhaps many more sick people were cared for then we know or can know, because their skeletons leave no signs. Whatever the case, despite a story we tell of marginal societies abandoning the sick, weak and elderly, this was not universally true.
Religion tells a story that compassion weaves through the universe, holding it together. As the early Quakers understood, that agape--that Christ, that Light--was and is available to all people, whether or not they've heard of the historical Jesus. It extends to the animals and no doubt to the plants. It led the early Quakers to what we call social justice on behalf of the poor because such compassion enacted the way God meant his people to live--the shalom way, not the earthly way. No"veil" separates matter and spirit, nor are the two "one." They coexist, laced together. Jesus did not use the language of ripping away a veil to describe entering the kingdom--though the poetry of the veil ripping in the temple was used about him--but the language of hearing and sight. Living in alignment with the shalom kingdom first means being able to rightly see and rightly hear what is all around us.
But if the divine surrounds us, infusing nature, then what of all the harrowing examples of savagery we see in the animal kingdom?