Life’s Most Urgent Question

A tale of ancient Ireland relates that a chieftain had a fox who was “a frequent visitor” to his court, a gentle animal who was clever, docile, and in time was trained to perform tricks and play games. The fox had become a kind of mascot and entertainer for the tribe. One day a man saw the fox approaching the chief’s compound and, thinking it was a wild fox, killed it. Many of the chieftain’s retinue witnessed the event, and hauled the man before the chief who was understandably outraged. He decreed that the man should be imprisoned and killed if a fox just as clever as the other one were not given to him. He also ordered that the man’s wife and children be put into slavery. A rather severe punishment for an act of misunderstanding.

Brigid heard of this and found a wild fox and took it with her to the chief, and begged for mercy for the man and his family. When the chief refused, she presented the wild fox who performed the same tricks and behaved in the same docile way as the previous one. So the chief released the man and let him go back to his family. Brigid too left. Shortly thereafter, the fox, as the legend puts it, became “sad and tormented by the crowds” and fled safely through the forest and into the wild where it retreated leisurely into its den.

In the previous Rivercurrent I noted the Buddhist belief that in the fourth time, or when the interdependence of all things is realized, compassion and love spontaneously arise. What is reassuring about this is that it suggests that love and compassion are somehow the primal stuff of the universe or of existence, but that they can be blocked or over-shadowed by dualistic and separationist views of reality. When we can see the universe in its true state, in that moment of eternal nowness, we see that love and compassion are the appropriate responses. Or to put this in terms of the Golden Rule, when we can see ourselves in others, we can more easily treat them in ways that we would want to be treated. When we cannot see ourselves in others, we can more easily deny to them the help and support we would not want to be denied in similar situations. But of course we don’t have to wait for the fourth time or some grand awakening to the oneness of all things. We can start right now practicing love and compassion.

We just celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr.’s holiday, and I’m reminded of something he said about compassion: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others? And then within a fortnight or so we arrive at the feast of Brigid, the Goddess of Compassion. There are many tales about her sense of compassion, but I like this one about the fox for slightly skewed reasons beyond the obvious ones that Brigid showed compassion and the chief did not.

In European folklore Fox is a trickster figure, similar to Coyote, Rabbit, and Raven in Native America. However, Brigid comes off as something of a trickster herself. She knew the fox was wild, and just how it managed to perform the old tricks of the slain fox, we don’t know. The story lets us delight in its trickery even as we watch Brigid orchestrating the unjustly imprisoned man’s release. I also like to think that she knew the second fox would not hang out with the chief’s court, but make its getaway as soon as possible. She and the fox seem to have been in cahoots in this endeavor.

Another side of Martin Luther King’s question is: What are you doing to others? In the story of Brigid and the fox, I wonder about the chief and his court training the fox to perform tricks and deny its wild nature to become gentle and docile. What did they do to the fox? As we listen to this story, we may not even wonder about the plight of the fox. But I think the story resonates with me, and maybe others, because somewhere inside us, perhaps not totally conscious, is a desire to have a pet fox. I remember hiking along one of my favorite trails through a local forest preserve in the springtime a couple years ago when I stumbled on a fox’s den. There were four or five baby foxes tumbling over each other and playing in the leaves about 12 or 15 feet from me. The mother was nowhere around. They saw me and froze for a moment or so, sizing up the threat that I posed, and then returned to their frisking. Either they were too young to appreciate the danger of my presence, or, sad to think, I’m not a very dangerous looking fellow. They continued with their games pretty much ignoring me. And as I watched, the thought crossed my mind of how wonderful it would be to have a pet fox.

However. There are reports every so often of lion-tamers who get mauled for no apparent reason. The famous circus team of Siegfried and Roy was one of the most publicized examples of this when a tamed lion turned on Roy and badly injured him. There are also tales of people who raise wild animals from birth into maturity, and then at some point their wild character emerges from wherever it had been suppressed, and they become dangerous. Do these animals just one day become “sad and tormented by the crowds”?

The original fox in the story is said to have been a “frequent visitor” to the chief’s camp, suggesting that it was not tied up or totally tamed. It came and went as it pleased. Maybe the chief had not captured it or mistreated it in some cruel way denying its basic natural instincts. But we just don’t know. His punishment of the man who had killed the fox suggests he was not a very compassionate being, either to humans or foxes. We just don’t know. The story lets us wonder.

Perhaps the story has its origins in the “primal dreamtime” that we hear about from shamans when people and animals could talk to each other, and people could become animals, and animals could become people. If they wanted to. Wild animals could become docile if they wanted to. People living in these early times often thought of themselves as descended from a primal animal ancestor. There were Celtic noblemen on the European continent and in Britain with names that contained the Celtic word for fox, Lovern, their names meaning “Fox” or “Son of Fox.” And some of these men had special devotion to the Greek god Mercury, a trickster god, or to the Celtic god Lugos/Lugh, a figure similar to Mercury. So was there a fox-god or fox-tribe that this story may have originated in? Is it a story about animals and humans who shared a world that reflected mutual interests and compassionate understanding of each other’s needs? Again, we don’t know where this story came from.

Brigid as the Goddess of Compassion is present in that same primal dreamtime and she is still present today. She feels for those unfairly judged and mistreated, and those who need help in performing acts of love and compassion. Brigid is a woman of wisdom who reminds us of King’s challenge: What are you doing for others? In the prayer traditions of the Scottish Highland’s we hear voices that speak of her:

Brigid is my comrade-woman,
Brigid is my maker of song,
Brigid is my helping-woman,
My choicest of women, my guide.