Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Galatians, described himself as bodily marked by Jesus: “… for I bear in my body the marks of Jesus“– literally “stigmata.” Similarly, the biographers of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the 13th century, claim Francis’ body bore the stigmata of Christ.
In a far humbler sense my own life is marked, not by deity but by dogs and animals to whom I’ve opened my life. Opening my heart to animals great and small has left stretchmarks on my soul.
Every time I feed my animals down at the barn I pass tangible symbols of my marked psyche at Las Golondrinas. Years ago, a hastily formed-up concrete pad at the gate separating the donkey barn from the hay storage shed was inadequately ‘protected’ while the concrete was drying. A couple of upside down lawn chairs and a two by four board were NOT enough ‘barrier’. The result is a concrete pad ’signed’ forever by pygmy goats, donkeys, and a chicken! Similarly, when I poured the curving concrete walkway leading from the well-house to the corral, Burnsie managed to embed footprints across the path.
I wouldn’t have my place any other way. The animals we invite into our personal world reflect on us even as we reflect on them. Hearts surrendered are mutually ‘branded.’
These are not lofty ’stigmata’ in a theological sense, but they are no less real. Perhaps in a secular age it is as real as stigmata get. As Annie Dillard says in Teaching A Stone To Talk:
“Now we are no longer primitive; now the whole world seems non-holy. We have drained the light from the boughs in the sacred grove and snuffed it in the high places and along the banks of the sacred streams. We as a people have moved from pantheism to pan-atheism.”
Nevertheless, I find the sacred comes alive for me in my simple life with my animals. All cultures have believed in power beyond human power, in life beyond death, in spirit. Many have believed in an animated, inhabited, sacred world surrounding the natural world that constitutes reality. I find such beliefs restore my sense of belonging which I lose in electronic worlds. Life with my animals becomes sacred covenant providing rules and rituals for restoring harmony, for re-entering and celebrating the natural world I’m part of. My animal-marked life gives me coherence in chaos and gives me real - not virtual - connection. My lowly stigmata lead me back again and again from technological complexity of modern living to what is simple, basic, and real.
In my own quiet way, I can understand why Saint Paul was proud of his marks. Like a sacred tattoo, his stigmata branded him as owned by another. I can understand it because I wear my own ‘brandedness’ with pride, too.
Dog and cat hair on my clothes? You bet. Puppy-stained floors? Yep. Paw-printed landscape and heart? Absolutely … and forever.
Joseph Harvill, Scottiephile