Our barn was that kind of sacred space a few nights ago. I went out to feed the guardian dogs like I always do, just after dark, in the hour when it seems darkest to me…all light of the sun gone, stars twinkling but not yet noticeable in my intense concentration to see what’s in front of me. I balanced the scoop of dog food in one hand while I held my smartphone in the other, the flashlight app shining in front of me, searching for one food bowl and then the other.
When I stopped at the second bowl, I noticed our old ewe lying on her side, half inside the barn, half out. She was barely moving. I knelt down to lift up her head and immediately saw that she was weak. I tried to stand her up, but she couldn’t unfold her legs for me to get her up. I called Lisa. I needed her help to move her into a warm area of the barn. I wanted her to have a chance to say goodbye. I’ve seen this before. I knew we were losing her. They say a down sheep is a dead sheep, and we most definitely had a down sheep.
The ewe is our oldest animal, a sheep that came from a flock from which Lisa first started her own flock. We call her Left Teat, her proper name long ago forgotten after she was christened with the new upon losing half of her udder to gangrenous mastitis. Left Teat is a battle axe of a ewe. She has a deep, raspy bleat that sounds like she’s smoked two packs a day her whole life. Her thin legs hold up her large, sagging body. Aside from the infection in her udder, she’s never been sick a day in her life, well, at least not that we know of. She sat vigil with her grandson and later with her daughter when they each died earlier this year. She’s slow now, but she has a powerful will to live.
Lisa came out and sat down next to her. She held the ewe’s head in her lap. I filled the dog food scoop with sweet grain, a treat that a sheep or goat with any life at all left in them can’t resist. I placed the bowl in front of her. She plunged her head into it and ate vigorously. A good sign, I thought. But, I’ve been tricked by that before. I know better than to believe that’s a guarantee we can nurse an animal back to health.
Lisa heard some gurgling in her lungs, so I ran into the house to get a syringe with an antibiotic that we know works well with respiratory illnesses. I drained the nearly empty bottle dry. We had just enough to give her one dose.
After her shot, Lisa and I moved her to a comfortable area in the middle of the barn, free of drafts and away from the hay feeder where the goats were jockeying for position to get dinner. Lisa quietly held her head. Tears were streaming down our faces. We decided to see if we could get her to stand. Her weak legs struggled under her weight, but she stood, and stayed that way until a young goat, inexplicably, rammed her and knocked her down. We helped her sit up and sat down next to her, waiting, crying, trying to make meaning of the tears.
We’ve had sheep and goats long enough now that the older animals are reaching the natural end of their lives. We lost several this year. There was Spot and Sunshine, Jewel and Belize, all fixtures in the Living Kitchen barnyard. Each died after what would be considered a normal lifespan, but still too soon for us. With each one’s death, we’ve wondered if we still have what it takes to farm with livestock. It takes a toll. We share a special connection with the animals, and they with us.
After we got Left Teat comfortable, Sally, our oldest goat, walked over to where we were sitting. She lowered her head and nuzzled her nose into Left Teat’s neck. She stood like that for several minutes. We cried harder, moved by the gesture. Sally lifted her head from Left Teat and began to lick the tears from Lisa’s face. For the next several minutes she comforted first Left Teat and then Lisa.
We didn’t want to leave, but it was getting late. The dogs needed attention and we needed to make a gesture toward eating dinner. Before I turned in for the night, I went out to check on her one more time. I walked slowly toward the barn, dreading the sight, already feeling the frustration and anger of losing another animal well up from deep inside my gut. When I passed through the barn door, tears were already falling from my eyes.
The light reached the pile of hay where we’d left Left Teat and with one more step covered her, revealing two animals sitting up, side by side, chewing their cud. Goat and ewe were cuddled up, doing what they do. Not only was Left Teat still alive, she was better, holding up her head, faraway look in her eyes as her jaw slowly gyrated from side to side. I was shocked.
I slept more peacefully that night than I expected. When the alarm went off the next morning, I put on my boots and coat and grabbed the flashlight. I didn’t want to lie in bed one minute wondering if she was still alive. When I got to the barn, I found her on her side, several feet from the spot where we’d left her. Sally was still lying in the spot next to where Left Teat had been. She hadn’t moved an inch. Left Teat let out a deep-throated bleat when she saw me and started struggling to get up. She didn’t quite have the strength to do it, so I helped her. I moved her back over to the spot next to Sally. She sat up and started chewing her cud. She’d lived through the night, the loving care of an old goat to keep her company. A few hours later, she was up wandering around the barnyard. Lisa let her into the yard, where she grazed all day. Later that night we found her in the barn sitting between Sally and another goat, Dottie, head held high, chewing her cud.
I fear I project too much onto the animals, making meaning of their gestures that so anthropomorphizes them that I perpetuate a ridiculously romantic notion of what it means to care for animals on a farm. They are animals, not people. I don’t have any real idea what they understand and how they make sense of what happens, but something bigger than me, than the animals was at work that night in the barn. No scientific explanation would diminish it for me. It moved me in a way that no experience with the animals ever has.
Alan Lightman, author of The Accidental Universe and a professor at MIT with dual appointments in science and the humanities, says this,
Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than our selves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.
Maybe faith is the ability to believe that an old goat can sense our distress and offer comfort where we can’t, to sit with an old ewe with a powerful will to live, keeping her warm, assuring her that she isn’t alone, until the medicine can work its wonders. Maybe it’s the ability to let go of any scientific notions about the separation of species and believe for a moment that sometimes we can care for and save that which is vastly different than us because we are connected in time and space, breathing the same air, walking the same ground, feeling the same sunshine on our faces and the same cold, biting wind cut to our bones. Maybe its believing that will to live, care, love, and empathy are as important as medicine in curing an ailing being, accepting that animal and human are equal in their inability to make an illness just disappear, but also equal in their ability to offer care for one who is suffering.
I think there’s no mistake this happened at Christmas time. Jesus' birth was really not so different from the healing of an old ewe. They both remind me that God came to us in the same way I experience life with these animals…connected with us in time and space, flesh and blood, able to feel what we feel and participate in those things that are much bigger than our selves. Much theological training has left me knowing very little with certainty these days, but on this Christmas Eve, this is my confession of faith.