Girl Meets Elephant

June 18, 2009 at 2:30 pm (Childhood, Family, God, Lectio)

Well, a certain commenter has got me thinking about religions and denominations and world views, and at the risk of blabbing my theories all over the internet (but isn’t that what blogging is all about?), I would like to share this poem by John Godfrey Saxe, which is actually a re-telling of a Hindu myth:


It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach’d the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -“Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me ’tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
“What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain,” quoth he,
“‘Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: “E’en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant
Is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

When my children ask me about religion, I always tell them this story about the elephant.


My own zig-zag spiritual path has involved encounters with each of the following:

1 Raised Post-Vatican II Catholic, including the spiritual renewal of the 1980s

2 Assembly of God during high school, including a summer working at an AOG camp and a mega-conference during which I evangelized using the four spiritual truths

3 Living in Japan with a family who practiced the combination of Buddhism and Shinto typical of the Japanese

4 A nameless church that met in homes

5 Collegiate studies in comparative religion that introduced me to Taoism, Buddhism, Judaism, Hindu, Confucianism, etc.

6 Marrying basically a pagan (in the best sense of that word)

7 Discovery of the Catholic mystics

8 Continued reading in a variety of religious traditions: chakras, Kabbala, whatever I run into that feels like Truth.

I hope that where this has finally landed me is in the camp of humility at my inability to understand what is really going on. I fully acknowledge that I am a blind woman running into various parts of an enormous elephant that I am unable to see. I think it is very possible that each of the world’s religions taps into a pure vein of what is the ineffable divinity at the heart of the universe. I KNOW it is very possible that we really haven’t a clue, and that if we WERE to experience the divinity in its resplendent form, that our nervous systems would not be able to handle the load.


In terms of EXPRESSION of spiritual experience and outward communication of and participation with community in spiritual life, I fall back on the experience of Christmas in my hometown. Lockport, New York, was settled by immigrants from Ireland and Italy who found work in America digging the Erie Barge Canal. Because so many settled in Lockport, the city has always been predominantly Catholic. However, there is quite a difference between the Irish-Catholic traditions and the Italian-Catholic traditions.

Take Christmas for example. In my house, we ate potatoes and roast beef and opened one gift on Christmas Eve listening to Nat King Cole and drinking eggnog. Imagine my surprise to find out that my Italian friends had the Feast of Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. What?! Fish!? That’s not Christmas!!!!!


But I am absolutely convinced that the feeling of Christmas in each household is the same. Family. Food. Gifts. Magic. Mystery. Light in darkness. What specific food and music is involved is beside the point. And some people grow up on roast beef, discover the seven fishes through a spouse, and have suddenly found their celebratory home.

Now, if sacrificing small children is what it takes for you to be singin’ and swingin’ and gettin’ merry like Christmas, I am probably going to have a problem with that, in the same way that “killing the American he-devils” might make me think twice about Jihadist Islam or stockpiling weapons to prepare for Armageddon makes the Branch Davidians seem not quite aligned.

But I cling to “by their fruits ye shall know them,” and I keep reminding myself that it is a very large elephant and I am a grasping blind woman. The shelf of “Bibles” that make me feel aligned is large and eclectic. The very fact of Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama makes me feel God. The art of Sher Fick makes me feel God.  The novels of Haven Kimmel make me feel God. The poetry of Elizabeth Bishop makes me feel God.


used worldbishop

I am completely open to being told I am wrong about all this. Therefore, I would welcome a discussion here. Feel free to agree, disagree and/or throw in some new ideas of your own.


  1. Liz in Virginia said,

    You’ve done it again, Maureen!

    So, my son and I have decided that we are probably Buddhist Catholics. Or maybe Methodist Buddhists, with a side of “Hail, Mary.” And we have a hard time believing that a loving God exists who would turn the Dalai Lama aside at the gates of heaven.

    Your post begins to ask the tricky question — is there such a thing as an ultimate truth that is know-able by humans? And if we think we know it, is that maybe a sign that we are on the wrong track?

    Your list of the people, art, texts that make you “feel” God resonated with me, but I have a streak in me that mistrusts pure feeling — we mortals have been misled by feeling as often as we’ve been led astray by “logic.” I don’t think we can reason our way to an understanding of God, but I don’t think we can get there just by feeling, either.

    On Havens’ blog (of Happy Memory) I was one of those people who hoped that heaven will be a place where I can get all the answers. But on this Earth, I think the seeking is the important thing, rather than the answer.

    For Mother’s Day a couple of years ago, I was given the perfect bracelet, inscribed with these Italian words: “ANCORA IMPARO;” — “And still I learn.”

  2. Maureen said,

    Hi Certain Commenter Liz –

    I kept drafting a comment reply to your last comment on my other post, and the more I wrote the longer it got, so I ended up posting the above.

    I know what you mean about “feeling” being a questionable and risky gauge, since no doubt suicide bombers “feel” religious euphoria also. I wonder if a better word is ……experience? know? intuit? I can’t come up with a better word because I don’t think we have a word in English for it. The best I can come up with is from Hinduism and that is that my chakras resonate to Truth.

    Carolyn Myss (whom I read with a grain of salt) talks about that “voice” in us that comes from nowhere, doesn’t seem attached to us or our feelings, that says “You know you shouldn’t have done that” or “Get your butt over there and welcome that lonely person to the meeting.” I think I hear that voice. Where does it come from? Are we born with it or is it instilled through our upbringing?

    Do you think we have a “conscience” or a “astral body” or a pure soul that DOES resonate to truth? outside of how we feel – since often acting as we know we “should” asks us to often act counter to our feelings?

    One of my very favorite books is Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hahn. He talks about various parallels between Buddhism and Christianity. It sounds like you and your son should check it out.

  3. Maureen said,

    Liz, me again.

    I love the words on your bracelet. It reminds me of what a Benedictine monk answered when asked what he and his monks practiced.

    He replied, “We fall and we get up again, fall and get up again.” I think this is why Benedict emphasized humility so much. As a certain former president demonstrated, KNOWING you are right leads you and the rest of the world into a pretty bad place.

  4. Collette said,

    Great post! I like an intelligent post that makes me think. I am Polish & was raised in & practice the Roman Catholic faith. I have always been interested in other religions, also. Reading about others always made me wonder what is the “real” religion. Of course, being Catholic, none of that should matter, we just have faith that ours is the real & “true” one. But you wonder. Why aren’t Roman Catholic & Polish catholic the same thing? Polish catholics aren’t under rule of the vatican. And some 7th day adventists believe the pope is the anti-christ or devil or whatever.
    Even though I am a practicing Roman catholic, there are things I don’t agree with. And most of the time, I like to pray to God by just talking to Him.
    I think that no matter what you believe or even if you don’t, each one of us is right in our hearts. As long as we don’t try to force our beliefs on others & try to live a good life, I’m fine with it.

  5. Maureen said,

    Collette –
    Hello! Welcome. I am not very familiar with Polish Catholicism – very few Poles in my hometown. I’d love to hear more about it. Glad you wandered by. Feel free to share your traditions if you’d like.

  6. sher said,


    I am speechless.

    you have no idea.

    after 4 days of hell . . . to find this gift awaiting me in my overflowing inbox.

    you make me ball my head off and it IS always when I desperately need the release of the emotional and spiritual tension I am under.

    can I carry you around in my pocket?

  7. Marie said,

    I wish I knew where to begin on this. Your blog was referred to me by someone, and I only wish the story of the Elephant was understood by more people. This message from this story is very similar to the message I recieved from the Lotus Temple at Yogaville, Va. Being at Yogaville changed my life spiritually. Seeing that there are people in the world that have such a beautiful glow of faith, but accept everyone elses faith under the idea that in the end we are all connected to the same Divine. The idea is not only inspiring but along the lines of ” I want world peace”. Does it really matter who, how or what we have faith in as long as we have faith and feel the peace that it gives us and guides us in our spiritual path?
    I don’t know if any of that makes any sense, or if I really even conveyed what I really mean and feel. I just wish we could all just worship freely and instead of critisizing ones worship we could say “how can I learn from you to further my spirituality?”

    Blessed Be to All

  8. Maureen said,

    Marie –
    Thank you for commenting! Yogaville sounds like an intriguing place – I am off to look at the website. Stop in frequently. I kind of bounce around between farming and Asperger’s and spirituality and books.

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