The Call of the Wild
“And one was a soldier and one was a priest and one was killed by a fierce wild beast.”
This has always been one of my favorite lines from any hymn in any hymnal in any tradition.It comes from “I sing a song of the the saints of God” and I always smile a bit whenever I hear that line. Maybe it’s personal for me. I mean I was a soldier, I am a priest, but I surely hope to avoid that third option.
The whole point of the hymn, written in 1929, is to broaden the definition of what it means to be a saint. It mentions the classic saints, “patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.” But it also goes on to talk about the “saints” in our own world that can serve as examples in our daily life and encourages us to live saintly lives as well.
Not to minimize the sacrifice of the early martyrs of the Church, but being done in by a “fierce wild beast” just doesn’t sound like much fun. Plus, the only “wild beast” in my life is Delilah, my 11-year-old yellow lab/husky mix rescue dog. She comes to work with me most mornings and, while she once barked at the UPS guy, her general demeanor is not exactly ferocious.
This snippet of hymn text did become a bit more tangible for me, however, recently. A group of 27 of us from St. John’s — half teens and half adults — spent ten days on a transformative trip to South Africa. We took in the sights, immersed ourselves in the culture, learned about life in this post-Apartheid world, followed in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and finished up the journey with two days on safari in the African bush of Kruger National Park.
It’s hard not to reflect upon your own mortality when you come face-to-face with a lion. Or a leopard. Or a pair of hyenas. Or practically any other animal we encountered — rhinos, elephants, buffalo. Okay, maybe not the gazelle. They seem rather skittish and tame.
But returning home just in time for Ash Wednesday services and the start of the penitential season of Lent seemed somehow appropriate. As I hauled my jet-lagged self up to the altar rail to impose ashes on the foreheads of parishioners with the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I was myself thinking about the fleeting nature of this mortal life. Out in the bush, most animals are just hoping to eat and not get eaten. That’s the bar and it’s pretty low; the drive to survive.
Hopefully we have slightly more ambition, but there are days and even seasons of our lives when we just hope to survive. The victory is in simply enduring and making it through to the next moment. This isn’t a sustainable model to experience the fullness of life in all its joy and wonder. Yet it can be our reality in our darkest moments.
Even though we live in a death-denying culture, one that resorts to euphemism to avoid talking about death, unless we confront the reality, we cannot fully live. That’s the paradox of life and the hope of faith. And we’re reminded that to fully live is to forego fear in exchange for embracing the inter-connectedness of our lives. Only when we allow the death of our self-centered natures and open our hearts and minds and souls to generosity and compassion, are we able to experience true peace and joy.
Getting mauled by a “fierce wild beast” still isn't on my bucket list. But I do think even the potential helps keep life in perspective. And it helps us remember that saintly souls are all around us. As the song says, you can meet them in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea (another line that cracks me up!); for the saints of God are just folks like me, and I mean to be one too.” Which is something we can all aspire to.