“Do you hear what I hear?”

I love a good story, especially when the story stops you in your tracks and demands you to think and to pause and to ponder it. Below is such a story told by the psychologist Robert D Romanyshyn of a visit he made to the Central Park Zoo in New York. I’d like you to think about, to pause over and to ponder this moment of encounter like I did when I first read it. The story prompted me to wonder if I am as prepared for such moments when it’s possible to hear and to respond to the still small voice of God as Romanysham describes.

“It was a winter day during a visit I made to the Central Park Zoo in New York City. On this occasion I was going to see the gorillas, which the zoo still housed at that time. Standing in front of the cage of a large silver-back male, I felt the presence of the bars between us. The gorilla was sitting in the front corner of his cage, and I could see him only in profile. On occasion, however, as gorillas will do with zoo visitors, he would turn his head for a quick glance in my direction. His deeply set dark black eyes seemed like pools of time, and in those few brief moments of exchange I felt dizzy, as if I could swim through his eyes into another world. But the gorilla would just as quickly look away, and the spell would be broken.

The cage was so small, especially for so large an animal, and I wondered how he could bear it. His lethargy was inescapable, and I thought of the many hours of boredom he must daily endure, wondering, too, if I was reading my own sense of loneliness through him. But I had also been with animals in the wild, and the difference in behaviour, in gesture, and in that imaginal space between us was pronounced. Caught up in these reveries, I had absent-mindedly withdrawn an orange from my pocket and was tossing it in the air. The gorilla turned and began to watch me. Without thinking, I tossed the orange through the bars to him, momentarily oblivious to the prohibition about feeding the animals. The toss of the orange through the bars covered a distance of only a few feet in “real” space and took perhaps only a second in “real” time. But the gesture, and what unexpectedly followed, bridged an ocean of time and space. One would have expected the gorilla to take the orange and retreat to a far corner of the cage to eat it. But the gorilla of this day did not do that. On the contrary, he tossed it through the bars back to me. I caught it, and in my astonishment, I tossed it to him again. We continued like this for perhaps three exchanges, until this rhythm between us, this embrace of a game, was broken by the sound of a voice from the far end of the corridor. “Don’t feed the animals!” When I turned toward the voice, the gorilla turned away. He moved to the far end of the cage. He kept the orange.

I left the zoo and walked out into the city. The cold, bright, winter afternoon did little to cheer the sadness I felt at having left the gorilla inside. I was different, changed by that encounter, even more lonely in the midst of a crowded city. The gorilla had suspended his appetite for a moment. For the sake of an encounter, he had bridged an immense gap between our worlds. In his gesture of tossing the orange back to me, he had reached out his hand across an emptiness so vast as to be beyond measure. Together we had built a tremulous bridge of gestures, and for a brief time we stood on opposite sides of that bridge, connected in a way that seemed to acknowledge in each other a lost kinship. Even to this day, nearly twenty years later, I know that I shall never forget the eyes of my winter companion on that day. He remembered me, and as strange as it may sound, I felt so grateful for that recognition. But I also felt how far I had come, and I knew with a deep feeling of sadness that we would remain forevermore on opposite sides of this bridge, and that at the best moments of my life, I would be able to stop and linger and turn round to see, once again, what was left behind. I knew that, and I knew, too, that what I saw in his eyes before the spell was broken was his sadness for me.”

Revd. Andy Gore

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