Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Freddie the Fox

About ten years ago I made a retreat at a monastery on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There were a number of marvelous views on the long, winding road that led back to Highway 1. I was in need of much solitude, and I was able to stay in a hermitage, so my days were spent in the presence of God and his great ocean—and Freddie the fox.

I think it was one or two days into my retreat when I first met him. Initially he was little more than a pair of watchful eyes in the dusk, which could have been almost anything. But I became curious and stood a bit out of the way, behind the sliding glass door of the hermitage. As he cautiously drew nearer, I discovered, to my delight, that my new friend was a fox. I named him Freddie, if for no other reason than the alliteration. Occasionally his girlfriend showed up, too, and I named her Georgette, for no particular reason at all.

Foxes (or at least Freddie, since I know little about foxes in general) have a curious way of approaching what I assumed was a hoped-for handout. He came a few steps toward the hermitage, then seemed frightened and ran back. Then a few steps closer, then ran back—but not so far this time. I guess he was testing how safe he’d be with the new occupant of the place. I started leaving bits of food on the concrete step outside the door. Freddie would go through his ritual while I watched, partly hidden. He would approach, run away, come a little closer, run back a little way, come a little closer, till he finally came close enough to snatch his little snack and take it back to share it with Georgette (I didn’t see that, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was a gentleman, fox or no fox). Night by night, I was making myself a little more visible to him.

Finally, the great moment came. On the last evening of my retreat there was not merely a bit of food on the step, but a human creature holding a bit of food in his hand. Would Freddie go for it? I was quite excited to see what would happen. (Really, though, I did spend a little time in prayer on the retreat as well!) He began his ritual: approach, draw back, approach, draw back. Freddie got closer; he was taking a risk now. There was the food, but it was attached to a hand that was attached to something much bigger than he was. Closer, closer, snatch! He did it! Freddie took the food from my hand and ran off into the night, and I’m not sure which one of us was more satisfied as to the outcome of that little encounter.

Why am I telling this story? Well, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the relationship of Freddie to me is something like the relationship of many of us to God. We have a sort of instinctive sense that something good is being offered at the well-lit house and we know that we have to come out of the darkness to receive it. Only gradually do we realize that gifts are being placed before us, not randomly, but by Someone. Yet we don’t really know very well this extra-large Being who dwells there, so we’re not sure if we can trust Him. So we begin with a cautious approach—making sure we have a clear getaway path should things get too uncomfortable. But we haven’t received that which we truly seek, so we come a little closer, still afraid, still drawing back, though maybe not quite so much. After all, He hasn’t done anything to harm us, and He seems welcoming enough. It’s just that it’s all so new and strange to us, and we bear within us an inarticulate fear of the Unknown.

But we’re hungry, and there He is with the Bread of Life. So we come a little closer. Our little ritual of running toward and away from Him becomes wearisome—and certainly unfulfilling—and we finally draw near enough to hear Him say, “Come to Me, you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you.” Is it worth the risk? Hopefully we decide that it is, and we begin to eat out of his hand. The analogy breaks down somewhat with Freddie taking the food back into the darkness, but who knows if he wouldn’t eventually have allowed himself to become domesticated and live in the light with his master on an ongoing basis? Once we come out of darkness into the Light, and eat from the Master’s hand, we are called to go on living in the Light, “that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all the days of our life” (Luke 1:74-75).

The Lord wants us to approach Him with confidence, with love and trust, for He will provide all things for us unto everlasting life. Our simultaneous movements toward and away from Him will not enable us to achieve our goal, but will keep us in a kind of uneasy relationship, refusing the risk of the self-surrender in trust that alone will secure our happiness and fulfillment.

Walk toward the Light—in these days that Light shines in the Star over Beth-lehem, the “house of bread”—walk toward the outstretched Hand bearing the Bread of Life and the promise of salvation. Don’t turn back, even momentarily, but confidently approach Him of whom the psalmist spoke: “The eyes of all look hopefully to You, and You give them their food in due season; You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 144/145:15-16). Foxes have lairs but the Son of Man will give them a better place to lay their heads…