Petting a wolf: a spiritual experience

Mohican the red timber wolf among the retreatants (Mary Ann Flannery)

We were gathered outside Living Waters Spirituality Center in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, anticipating something amazing as part of our week's retreat on "The Open Mindset and the Gift of Seeking."

Seated in a circle and watching a torrid July sun fall slowly behind the Great Smoky Mountains, retreatants waited for Bob Gudger, a biologist for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, to bring one of his wolves and give us a presentation on why their preservation across the country is so important.

We hoped the experience might furnish some insight about a wild animal's sense of seeking for survival, not unlike our human drive for physical survival. (Of course, we have an added dimension of seeking spiritual health.) I was told by Charity Sr. Fran Grady, executive director of Living Waters, that Gudger would be happy to bring one of his wolves for an evening of learning and discussion about wolves and, by extension, our place in their world. I thought this a good way to sum up the week and provide an interesting experience of our need to be open-minded about things we fear.

Mohican, a rare red timber wolf, jauntily jumped from his cage on Gudger's pickup truck and stood before us, as if on command. He was tethered to Gudger with a chain leash to discourage the slightest temptation to run into the mountains and never be seen again. He pawed the ground and panted with what appeared to be a smile, sizing up the group as he walked around us. He instinctively passed up the timid and sat down immediately in front of the braver among us; we felt as if we were welcoming Rin Tin Tin on tour.

Mohican and two other wolves live on Gudger's land, which is enclosed by a secure fence and complete with a creek, lots of wild growth, and small prey. Gudger pointed out that his wolves are socialized but not domesticated: They have never been inside his house. He feeds each wolf 10 pounds of chicken every week, the amount of food they would consume in the wild during one week.

He uses his wolves for educational purposes, pointing out to groups, especially schoolchildren, why the wolf has become endangered in so much of America. He explains why we have a responsibility to prevent further decline of their populations, a diminishment that would deprive us of the gifts they are for the environment. For example, wolves keep larger animals like deer moving, allowing for the regeneration of vegetation and nutrients for plant-eating animals.

Gudger took us through the wolf's "code of conduct": pack responsibilities, mating practices, mutual respect among pack members, the raising and training of their young, their sentinel guardianship of the pack, their innate sense of community, incisive intelligence and infallible memory.

"Wolves plan ahead," Gudger said. "They are meditative. They are gentle animals who carry the burden of myths like Little Red Riding Hood."

As the group became more comfortable with Mohican, the large, furry canine lumbered into a settled position, stretching out over a clump of cool grass. I warmed to Gudger's invitation to pet Mohican when he got up and moved around us again. I took care not to look him in the eye, a precaution we had been warned to take.

The retreatants pet Mohican (Mary Ann Flannery)

But he nestled his long nose into my hand as he looked furtively at my facial clues, providing me with my only chance to look at his sepia glasslike eyes for a split second. I reached to pet the top of his head and felt its warmth, my fingers straddling the side of his face. He crouched once again and stretched out slowly and gracefully, full length at my feet. He was at peace. And so was I.

I thought of St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson's book Ask the Beasts as Mohican rested there, panting and smiling among new friends. This experience dissolved ancient prejudices and once again — for at least these 10 spiritual-seekers — restored the overwhelming respect for an unseen thread that connects all of us to creation, even the creatures we fear the most. It made me think of Johnson's insight that "encounters with the otherness of their wildness can evocatively mediate 'the qualitatively different otherness of God.' "

We seekers on this retreat had been discussing the "otherness of God" — the God we have taken for granted or overlooked in so many incidents and people, thus dampening our fervor in finding the real God in our lives. In his handsome, completely wolf-like manner, Mohican taught us something of the "otherness of God," a part some of us had never known before his visit. We now look at the wolf differently.

Johnson refers to Sallie McFague's comparison between the arrogant eye and the loving eye, pointing out that "the arrogant eye sees in a utilitarian, objectifying way that subdues and controls; the loving eye pays patient, careful attention to the particularity of the other in non-sentimental, vitally interested way."

I thought of my own dog as I petted Mohican. After an hour of vigorous fetching and running, my cocker spaniel, Finn, will join me stretched on the floor, exhausted but satisfied with companionship. When we lie there, Finn and I stare at each other, something a wolf and a human cannot do, and I am taken into the Somewhere of Finn's spirit, traveling thousands of years to where Mohican is now, and I feel the creator whose "otherness" in the moment is real and palpable.

For Johnson, Charles Darwin's eye "was the exercise of the loving eye." And on that sultry July evening, when a group of retreatants met Mohican the red timber wolf, petted his noble head, stroked his thick fur, and learned of his unique gifts for our environment, the scales of prejudice and fear fell from our eyes.

We saw through a loving eye.

[Sr. Mary Ann Flannery is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati who offers retreats and spiritual direction. She has held teaching and administrative positions at several local colleges, including a 20-year tenure at John Carroll University.]