As a child, I had the usual canine pets. Duffy, Tuffy, and Molly were the names of our family’s dogs, but no cats since everyone was allergic. My mother also loved canaries. We experienced a high turnover with these on account of their natural constitutional delicacy. They frequently succumbed to drafts, only to be discovered when the cage was uncovered in the morning, lying at the bottom with their feet stuck up in the air. I also had some unusual personal pets. Among the most unlikely of these were arachnids.
Many consider spiders repulsive, inspiring fear and loathing, but they have always held a fascination for me (a crypto arachnologist?). Somewhere in my early years, I must have caught sight of a spider in its web, subduing its prey, and from that point on I was hooked. Even my kindergarten teacher was displeased with my crayon artwork. Too many chubby black spiders with spindly legs instead of the pretty flowers the other children were drawing. But this was more than an artistic allure. Weather permitting, I made it my almost-daily quest to search out the silken lairs of spiders in and around my boyhood home. In my investigative rounds, I rarely timed my arrival to catch a glimpse of a spider busily preparing its meal. But that didn’t stop me from creating my own “nature dramas” to watch them ply their predatory trade as I made close observation.
With practice, I became considerably adept at snatching insects alive and unharmed as sustenance offerings to my pet spiders. Crawling critters like ants and beetles were favorite targets. Flinging them headlong into the web, I waited with impatient captivation as the spider emerged from its dark and seclusive den and hurried (despite its nearsightedness) to locate the struggling prey in its web. Sinking its fangs into its hapless victim to paralyze and predigest it with venom and wrapping it snuggly with its sticky silk, the insect offering was either hauled back into the spider’s lair for leisurely consumption or left alone in its silken bundle until it had ceased its frantic struggles, a neatly packaged ready-to-eat meal at some future date.
My dear mother (of happy memory) knew exactly what I was up to. When my father or brothers asked her where I was, she would sometimes tell them, “Oh, he’s outside feeding the spiders.” The rest of my family seemed to understandingly acquiesce in my eccentricity.
I must admit a twinge of karmic guilt. After all, I was forcibly and intentionally taking the life of a sentient being by sacrificing it to my “pets.”
As I reflected on these spider offerings of live insects later in my life, I must admit a twinge of karmic guilt. After all, I was forcibly and intentionally taking the life of a sentient being by sacrificing it to my “pets.” But, on one occasion, when I sheepishly disclosed my contrived nature dramas to a visiting Buddhist monk, he offered me a less self-recriminating interpretation. Was I not making a compassionate gesture to the spider in providing it with food? Truth to tell, I haven’t yet worked out all the karmic kinks in this complex nature-drama scenario.
Ethical meanderings aside, my arachnological escapades subsequently seemed to spark alternative reflections on these experiences as I grew older and wiser and had more education under my belt. Something else was going on here. Something even with a heavy theological import. Theological? Allow me to explain.
Most web spiders are myopic. They only get a decent glimpse of what’s right in front of them. Their delicate sense of touch serves them much better, and they seem to possess an uncanny ability to deftly maneuver in the direction of their catch as it struggles to free itself from the web’s sticky bonds. I surmise that a spider also has restricted consciousness and awareness. Perhaps these extend no farther than the boundaries of its self-limiting web or thereabouts. No surprise here. Unless I touched the web itself, alerting the spider to some unseen foreign presence encroaching on its awareness, I feel confident in saying that the spider had absolutely no idea that I was only inches away, waiting on its every move.
Would it be proper to suggest an analogy between observing and feeding my spider pets and the presence of an undisclosed, transcendent God caring for my own mortal needs?
Here’s where my theological imagination takes wings. Would it be proper to suggest an analogy between observing and feeding my spider pets and the existence and presence of an undisclosed, transcendent God overseeing my human life and caring for my own mortal needs (like food, as only one example)? Comparing my human consciousness to that of the spider almost extends to the omniscience, on my part, of an all-knowing God. After all, my own human field of knowing and awareness is so vastly beyond what the spider likely knows or is aware of. It had no clue that I was taking an active and intentional role in supporting its life by providing it with nourishment.
If this analogy can inhere in our empirical reality (as a philosopher might state it), then what would prevent the possibility that it would also “inhere” in some other, nonempirical frame of reference, perhaps some transcendental order?
Clearly, this is no proof of God’s existence, heaven forbid. But the mere fact that the analogy seems to stand on its own merits points to the possibility that a personal reality far beyond my own feeble efforts to know or to perceive gives form to my theological imagination, including the hope of a cosmological source of nourishment, the concern and embrace of an all-knowing, all-seeing deity aware of and ready and eager to help me in all my needs.
Not everyone will like the analogy I’ve presented here. Indeed, the whole idea of the revelation of Godself in the empirical observations of spider predatory behavior will seem far-fetched, even ludicrous to some. But the deity we worship as the Almighty God is capable of, and, indeed, has already expressed Godself in some quite remarkable ways through salvation history and the miracle of God’s handiwork in nature.
Let’s not be too quick to discount the possibility that the Divine can break through our awareness in some totally unexpected, creative, and even creaturely ways. Even through my pet spiders.