Kneeling at the Side of a Stingray Pool

I have a bit of a complicated relationship with God these days. And by “these days,” I suppose I actually mean “my entire adult life.” My pendulum swings widely, and unpredictably, between hook-line-and-sinker-for-Jesus and not-at-all-sure-I-buy-any-of-this-like-at-all.

Interestingly enough, I tend to have my most spiritual (I guess that’s the right word) experiences when I’m in full-on skeptic mode. Take, for instance, my recent trip to the St. Louis Zoo.

Favorite Friend and I were wandering the zoo one Thursday morning, and we happened upon the sea lion exhibit just as the trainers showed up. This wasn’t a keeper talk, so there was no explanation or narration. It was, quite simply, school (and snack) time for the animals. After a few minutes of watching their interaction, I asked FF, “Do you think those trainers have any idea how lucky they are? Or do you think it’s just another day at the office for them?”

We decided they must know their dumb luck; they seemed to be genuinely enjoying one another’s company (the trainers and the animals, that is), and there was no impatience with what appeared to be teenaged harbor seal rebellion. There was only laughter.

It felt sacred to me, somehow. Which is weird, because not a whole lot of things feel sacred lately.

A short while later, we made our way to the stingray pool. I followed FF into the enclosure and we soon found an open spot. I put my left hand on the concrete side of the pool and, right leg first, began to kneel.

And I was momentarily disoriented because it felt, for all the world, like I was kneeling at an altar at the front of a magnificent church. I’ve made that same motion dozens of times before—left hand on the pew or altar rail in front of me, right knee to the floor.

Sacred. Holy. At the side of a stingray tank.

We ran our open palms over the smooth backs of those animals for a long time that afternoon, and as each minute passed, I was intensely aware of my posture: my arms deep in the pool, my elbows on the side, my knees on the ground. Nearly supine. As if in prayer.

I was awash in gratitude for the simple joy of a having a friend who invites me to spend time with her at the zoo. I was in awe of creation. I was steeped in joy and wonder and holiness.

I don’t feel like that at all this week. This week, I feel an odd combination of shock and numbness. I’m horrified and unsurprised at the same time. I’m angry and sick and desperate and helpless and frightened and tired. And I don’t even have a significant personal connection to any of the awful things that’ve happened in the world lately: hurricanes on our coastlines (and “our” includes Puerto Rico), an earthquake in Mexico, a terrifying act of mass violence in Las Vegas, and countless other events I’ve blocked or forgotten or ignored. (Shame on me.)

I’m not sure how to reconcile a lovely morning spent with sea lions and stingrays with all that yuck. There are no easy answers. I refuse to offer platitudes about God being in control and I won’t wax philosophical about bad things happening to good people.

But I will say this: Kneeling is a powerful posture. It’s tender and humble. It allows us to touch wonder and mystery and share holy, sacred space with hurting people.

Which leaves me wondering how different our world might be today if we all just took a knee.

Ruben Ortega