“Look,” I said, index finger tapping a dictionary entry, “‘Lent,’ in its root word, means ‘spring.’” My two young sons glanced out the window at the snowcovered yard. “That means Lent is a time for us, like other living things in spring, to grow.” The older boy nodded dutifully. The younger asked if he could have a cookie. Those two boys are adults now. In all the years they sat at our table, I never found a way to talk about Lent that made their faces light up and their limbs twitch with intrigue. Little wonder, since I had no affection for the season. Lent meant pained self-examination and fervent scouring of the internal house—fervency that faded as the season wore on.
One year I thought I’d found the way to enliven Lent. I learned that for centuries the church had pointed to Noah’s Ark as a symbol of “our Lenten passage.” Ah, a story—featuring a boat massively bigger than Grandpa’s! And animals, which never failed to get the boys’ attention. I dug out a basket for our ark. The small model animals already in the toy box, plus some new ones they eagerly picked out at the bookstore, would be the ark’s lucky occupants. Each night after supper one of the boys would choose an animal he wanted to put in the basket-ark and tell what he liked about that animal, why he was glad to have it onboard: the amazing speed of the cheetah, the amazing acrobatics of the monkey, the eagle’s amazing eye. . . .
They were attentive, I was engaged. Next, the spiritual application: Noah’s story is our story, I told the boys. The ark is the church, the community that carries us across the roiling chaos of our lives—personal troubles and public troubles. All that water—it’s the chaos, and also the water of baptism that strips off the tough husk we wear so that love can spill out of us.
I watched my sons’ faces go blank, their bodies slump in their chairs. They wanted to talk about the ark’s screeching, leaping, hissing, slithering animals. Alas, the church gave no instruction on the animals’ symbolic value. The animals were merely animals.
All of this was before the words “climate change” and “mass extinction” floated in our shared cultural air. Biologists now tell us that Earth is undergoing its sixth mass extinction—species loss is that rapid. The first five extinctions spiraled out of geologic cataclysms of one kind or another—an asteroid-Earth collision, tectonicplate shift, volcanic eruption. Today’s cataclysm is a new kind. For the past century, whole species have been disappearing a hundred times faster, by conservative estimates, than in the past, because the choices about shelter, food, transportation, communication, and leisure that we humans make every day are pounding the planet. We are laying waste the animals’ only home.
Which is the only home of human animals too. This beautiful blue-green globe is the one ark we all ride.
The boys had it right all along. Attention to the amazingness of our arkmates routes us directly to the heart of Lent. The season means to rouse us from our self-absorption. Absorbed instead in the beauty of other creatures, we see how they value their lives, lives woven together across species in beautifully complex webs. The nine-ounce red knot flies from the southern tip of the world to meet the horseshoe crab at precisely the week she crawls from the waters of Delaware Bay to lay her eggs. Once alive to the exquisite web holding all creatures, we also see the holes slashed through it. By us. We’re enraptured by the animals’ beauty, and we’re horrified by the suffering we inflict on that beauty. With Saint Paul we can hear all creation groaning, including ourselves.
I didn’t hear all creation groaning when my sons were young. I was oblivious to the millions dying, their kinds never to be seen on the earth again. If I had known, I wonder if I would have been able to tell the boys. They had not yet learned to feel themselves separate from any living thing, a separation we adults find necessary to function efficiently. Probably they would have cried. Or maybe, in rage, thrown things. Certainly they’d have been confused about the Creator who, I told them, cared for the falling of the smallest sparrow. Sad, angry, confused, they would have suffered with the suffering of God’s beauty. Which would have brought us to the white-hot core of Lent.
Not a place I want to go, much less bring children to. But a place I now can’t avoid.
The first Christmas my sons were both in their twenties, I was at my childhood home and noticed the new issue of National Geographic. Riffling through it, I saw a feature story on those great orange apes, orangutans. A quick glance at the pictures told me this was not a story that would enhance holiday cheer. I put the magazine at the bottom of the pile and tried to forget about it. But one of the pictures—eight baby orangutans in a wheelbarrow—kept swimming into my mind. A month later, I gave in. I found the magazine and read the story. A few days later a friend gave me an article from Audubon magazine about the amazing, imperiled red knot.
The global wave of animal suffering caught me up. It has indeed taken me to the white-hot core of Lent where I’ve felt broken open and sick at the revelation that the way we live is, each year, killing millions of magnificent, innocent creatures of all kinds. I’ve had to see and confess that my habits of body, mind, and heart aid the slaughter of God’s beauty.
Two thousand years ago, long before the current extinction crisis, Saint Paul heard all creatures groaning. We human creatures are groaning, he said, because we’ve had some glimpse of who we might be, and it’s painful to wait for our full transformation into persons of unbounded love and compassion. Other creatures, already fully themselves, groan in the pain that humans inflict on them. They suffer sacrificially, because of and for us. If we’ll hear them groaning, they’ll midwife our birth into new lives of unbounded compassion—what Paul called “the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Then our freedom will be their freedom.
The stories that follow are of animals groaning at the brink of extinction. The nonhuman animals described are suffering the pain of impending death. They too are the hungry, the homeless, the hunted of the earth—“the least of these,” Christ’s brothers and sisters. The human animals described suffer with them. Born into a larger compassion, these people see turtles and birds, apes, insects, fish, and amphibians as kin. They also suffer knowing that the animals’ peril foreshadows our own.
For this format, I’ve had to greatly simplify both the miracle and the peril of each creature. And I’ve had to leave the stories of thousands of equally magnificent and endangered animals untold. These few serve here as messengers for the many. They can alert us to the precarious and pregnant moment we’re in. The purpose of Lent has always been to startle us awake to the true state of our hearts and the world we’ve made. Which wakes an aching, wild hope that something new might be born of the ruin.
The promise of Lent is that something will be born of the ruin, something so astoundingly better than the present moment that we cannot imagine it. Lent is seeded with resurrection. The Resurrection promises that a new future will be given to us when we beg to be stripped of the lie of separation, when the hard husk suffocating our hearts breaks open and, like children again, we feel the suffering of any creature as our own. That this can happen is the wild, not impossible hope of all creation.
If I had it to do again, I would tell my young sons about the suffering and deaths of the amazing animals they love. I would let their hearts be broken. Then I would tell them that hearts broken open in love create a new ark. That when we suffer in love together, a Suffering Love beyond us can birth, through us, a new world where “they will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” This is what we and all creatures groan for—this more beautiful world that lies quietly waiting in every heart.