28 May, 2005

Sermon from a spider

Today being the fourth Saturday of the month, I intended to do my monthly volunteer work at Catholic Parish Outreach. I was tardier than usual, because I had forgotten to send my bill payments. I had to sit down at my writing desk and fill out two checks — one to my credit union to make an installment on the credit card, one to State Farm for my automobile insurance — so I was in a hurry when I arrived at my car.

The moment I arrived at the door, I saw something that slowed me: a small, pale-brown spider standing on the driver's side window.

Why was the spider sitting there? What did it want? I hadn't the foggiest idea; mind you, I have no particular insights on spider psychology. I opened the door, hopped into my car, and started it up, fully expecting the spider to make its way elsewhere once it felt the vibrations of the engine. That's what they usually do, after all.

Heh, nothing doing! This one had its mind set on that piece of real estate. I wasn't aware that spiders could be stubborn as mules, but I chuckled as I pulled out of the parking space and headed from the parking lot towards Wycliff Road: surely, I thought, he'll jump off once the car gets going.

If anything, the little critter seemed all the more determined to hang on.

I don't know why that spider was so obsessed with my window. I also don't know why I was so obsessed with that spider. I admit that I find spiders fascinating. There's something magical about a creature with a brain smaller than, uhm, pretty much all of my organs, yet knows that the silky white thread that spools out of its backside is good for building a home, catching other critters, and even constructing a windtrap to move to another location.

How does a creature like that see the world through its multitude of eyes? How does it understand what it sees, and how does it think? How does it "just know" what to do with its body, and how to build its web? It's miraculous, I say — positively miraculous. I don't care what the Skeptics and the Absurdists may say; the spider, and what it can do with such a tiny brain, is a miraculous creature.

Lest you think, dear reader, that I have an overly romantic view of spiders, let me assure you: I have seen what spiders do with their unfortunate victims, and it isn't a pretty sight. It turns my stomach to think of it. Yet this grotesque gluttony is a saving grace for us humans, since spiders eliminate pests. In any case, I maintain that the spider is a miraculous creature, and in my less guarded moments I am caught up with the exuberance of proclaiming that spiders — those ugly, misshapen monsters of the miniature world — are a proof of God's existence, as well as his strangeness and otherness.

Back to the spider on my window.

So here I am, driving at 15, then 25, then 35 miles per hour, on roads with increasing traffic and higher speed limits. Every time I turn onto a new road, I glance at my window to see whether that stubborn little creature has decided to jump off. I'm starting to worry, because I don't want the thing to end up crushed under a car tire.

I find myself rooting for the spider. If you don't yet think that I've a screw loose, read on.

We come to the interstate. The speed limit here is 60 miles per hour. I'm really worried about this little spider, so I slow to 55 and try extra hard not to hit any bumps or potholes on the road.

Things aren't looking so good for the spider. It's twisting this way and that in the wind. Its legs have drawn in close to its body, and it looks as if it might be twisted out of shape. I'm wondering if it's dead, crushed against the window by the wind. On occasion I glance over and notice that its abdomen is being caught by the wind and pulled away from the window, so apparently the spider is still clinging to the window — either from reflex, or from some insane determination to hang on.

(Aside: I realized at one point that if I really cared about the spider, I would pull to the side of the road and brush it off the windshield with a sheet of paper or something. Since I didn't do that, I guess I didn't really care deeply about that spider.)

Meanwhile, I wonder: what is the spider thinking? Admitting that I haven't the foggiest clue what a spider thinks... if even it thinks... Poor spider, with its many lidless eyes, its eight legs, caught up on this vibrating "ground" of my car window, receiving a severe beating from the wind passing by: what does it think about this situation? Does it imagine that it's caught in an earthquake? a hurricane? Or does it only think, DISASTER!!! and do its level best to hold tight?

It occurs to me that the spider doesn't really understand its situation. It doesn't know what a car is, or what it's for; nor does it understand the unfortunate catastrophe in which it finds itself on my window. It doesn't think; it doesn't reason. If it ever reasons at all, it reasons about the things it understands: finding a place to live, building a web, catching prey, making spider babies. Placed in the situation it's now in, the pitiful creature does the only thing it can possibly do: it holds tight and hopes that the living nightmare will soon end.

I thought: That spider is a lot like us. Ordinarily, we think and reason in the small little world we understand, then along comes some "catastrophe" that doesn't fit into our limited perspective. So, what can we do? We hold tight, and hope that the living nightmare will soon end.

A few minutes later, it does. I arrived at Catholic Parish Outreach; turning to open the door, I looked again and saw the spider skittering off to a safe-looking corner of the window. One has to admire that sort of tenacity.

Those who love absurdity will love this: when I arrived at the door to Catholic Parish Outreach, I found a sign that read,

Closed for Memorial Day Weekend,
28-30 May

Later in the day, I found myself sitting before a priest and confessing my sins. The priest listened carefully, then told me: We like to think that we are in control of our lives, that we understand what life is. We get up in the morning, dress ourselves, eat breakfast, go to work, earn money, and so forth — we've got it figured out, right? Ninety-nine percent of our life is things like this, so we think we understand life.

Then some catastrophe comes along — something we can never predict — and the doctor tells you, You'll never walk again, or, You'll have to sit in the hospital bed a few weeks before you can resume your usual activities. Yet life goes on. Life: this mysterious thing that we thought we had figured out, continues and we realize that we didn't truly understand life; those things with which we filled 99% of our time must not have been so important after all, since we can't do so many of them now. But it takes some catastrophe like that to make us realize it, to turn us back to God.

I wasn't entirely sure what this had to do with my confession; I think that priest just likes to say things like that. His habit of making faces and making voices doesn't exactly help me take him very seriously. (He was once involved in drama.)

However, what he said did remind me of that spider, of how the pitiful creature had undergone a similar situation earlier that day. The life it thought it had figured out — a life of searching for ground, making a web, catching prey, and finding a mate — was, for a few minutes (10 or 15), changed into something utterly new to its experience. Life isn't about those things, not even for the spider. Life isn't only about finding a place to live, acquiring a home, finding food, and making babies. Those are all good things, of course, but life is about much, much more than that.

The priest had a lot more to say, and I did come to understand what he was saying, and how it related to my sins. For now, I just wanted to pass on the sermon I received today from a small, pale-brown spider.

1 comment:

Alessandra said...

I also like spiders (well, not the big ones, I mean, they are fine on tv, but not next to you). But I don't like to kill the little ones, the ones that pop into your house. So, unless their web is at a very inconvenient place, I just let them be and live happily catching little insects. I don't know much about them as well, but they do catch flying insects (and whatever else they like), so they are good for killing other bugs naturally.

I know that in the Middle East, spiders are considered as bringing good luck.