What my 3,000-pound steer has taught me about faith.
Thomas Merton wrote that one of the most important and neglected elements in the beginnings of an authentic and interior life is the ability to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things. Elvis seems to have that. I do not. When I take photos or write, I struggle to see how light and color suffuse our world and sometimes rise above myself to capture the beauty in ordinary things. But much of the time, I'm on the phone, trying to convince some disembodied computer or human that I do, in fact, exist and did, in fact, order those HDTV channels.
Elvis is beyond this. He doesn't have to work at acceptance, or retrain his mind to accept the bad with the good.
One afternoon recently, I was rattled by the drumbeat of grim and contentious news pouring out of Wall Street and Washington, first from the car radio, and then from shouting and hysterical commentators on cable news channels. "We are going over the cliff," one said, as a means of offering perspective. I went out to the pasture with an apple and sat down next to Elvis.
"We are going over a cliff, it seems," I said. He turned his enormous brown eyes upon me and looked back to the fence, back at the pastures beyond, back at less fortunate cows who lived in barns, ate silage instead of fresh hay, slept on mats on concrete, and would shortly go to market.
It does not really matter, he seemed to be saying, and I agreed.
This, I think, is the spiritual center of animals like Elvis, the thing that they can teach us and show us.
Elvis is not, to my knowledge, self-aware. He has no consciousness that I can see. He eats, rests, and stares out at the world, content to observe it.
When things are bad or I am nervous, I sometimes have fantasies of killing Elvis, of sending him to another farm or off to market, as it is tough to justify spending so much money on so much hay for a steer.
But I even when I have these bad dreams, I doubt I will ever kill Elvis, because I have been oddly blessed in life to see that creatures like him have lives, just as I do. It is sometimes difficult for me to justify the idea of keeping such a creature as a pet and spending so much money on his feed and care.
Elvis does not know, and will not ever know, that he should be on the menu at McDonald's by now and is destined for a short life, as few steers see their fifth birthdays because their legs are not designed to carry such massive weight for too many years. There are few ways to treat such a massive and powerful beast if he gets sick, so when he does, it will almost surely be the end of him.
Sometimes this makes me sad, even as I grasp the irony: It will never bother him.