We’re living in a time when it’s easy to panic. Calls for quarantine, for social distancing, for staying away from others are all very scary to hear. There’s certainly more than enough fear to go around.
The Lenten program we chose months ago, before the coronavirus was the threat it’s become today, is the extraordinary book While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks. And indeed God must have directed us to that book, for it is also relevant to the situation in which we all find ourselves. Timothy Laniak—who spent years in the Near East observing the lives of shepherds—remarks on the singular mentality of sheep. Here’s what he observed,
“First one sheep jumped to its death. Then another and another, and then dozens more. Having left their herds to graze while they ate breakfast, stunned Turkish shepherds now watched as nearly 1,500 others leapt off the same cliff” (p.201)
“It is,” he concludes, “a curious behavior of sheep that once one picks a trail, the rest simply follow the tail in front of them without regard for their destination.”
I will be honest: up until recently, I didn’t understand how this sort of thing could happen. When I first read the passage I quoted above, about the sheep following each other off the cliff, my first thought was, how stupid are they? I felt terribly superior to the poor sheep. I would never do anything that silly.
Oh, really? Like many of us, in the first days of understanding that an epidemic was heading our way, I panicked. What would happen to my cat if I fell ill? Have I written my will? How will my elderly neighbors survive? Will I ever see my stepchildren again?
The shepherds know how easily panicked their sheep are; that’s why they’re there. They love the sheep. They know them each by name, or personality, or size. They watch as their sheep pass under their rod, making sure every single one is accounted for, morning and night. They make sure to lead the sheep onto the right paths, the paths that will bring them to sweet grass or a desert oasis of blessed water. They keep the sheep from following the wrong path, from jumping off the cliff.
There are so many paths one could follow, crisscrossing each other, leading in different directions. This is as true for us as it is for the flocks in the Holy Land. And we’ve seen the results, already, of panic over the coronavirus: grocery stores stripped of everything on their shelves, fights breaking out over rolls of toilet paper.
If left to our own devices, how would we know which path to take? Whom would we follow?
Blessedly, we are not left to our own devices. We have a Shepherd who loves us and cares for us. Who shows us the way to live, the path to take, so that we can be in communion with him and, together, become a community of faith. Even if for a time that community needs to be virtual.
Part of the reason for a society to have laws is to keep its citizens on the right paths, the paths that won’t take them over the edge of a cliff, the paths that will enable everyone to live and thrive together. Breaking the law means moving off on a different path. Breaking the law doesn’t just endanger the lawbreaker, it endangers the whole community. We’re seeing that acted out right now, as we’re urged to maintain social distancing, to stop going out, to be cognizant that we can all endanger each other without meaning to: those are the paths that will help us all survive.
The Bible is filled with imagery that speaks of walking in God’s ways, on God’s paths. “My steps,” say the Psalmist, “have kept to your paths; my feet have not faltered” (Ps. 17:5). Elsewhere he implores, “Make known to me your ways, Lord; teach me your paths” (Ps. 25:4).
This imagery isn’t accidental. We live in a complex world where it’s often difficult to perceive the right way through any given situation—much less a way through the days and years of our lives. “Midway on life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost,” laments Dante in the Inferno.
It’s fundamentally simple. Our Shepherd has our best interests at heart; we are called simply to follow where he leads. The path he’ll take us on isn’t always easy; at times it will feel rocky and hard to follow. But if we trust and love him, we know he won’t take us on a path we cannot follow, or on a path that doesn’t ultimately lead where we need to go. For the sheep, that is the safety of their enclosure at night; for us, in the night of our lives, it is the joy of the Kingdom.
Sheep-paths are worn into ruts because they are the best way through the landscape. Generations of shepherds have guided their sheep into these righteous ruts. And if we look at the history of the Church, we’ll see there are some righteous ruts there, too.
Do we all follow the right path, the one on which Jesus is leading us? What would be helpful to us along the journey? As we all live through this uncertain time—and cannot perceive for ourselves the right way forward—trusting our Shepherd to watch over us is the best pandemic precaution we can take. And with additional time to reflect, we might be able to add some practices to keep us on the right path. What would help you trough this crisis and moving forward? Morning prayer? A daily Scripture reading? An evening examen? As we move through these troubled times, let’s pray for guidance to the right path.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Image by Steven Lasry for Unsplash