Big cats—lions, tigers, leopards and jaguars—are admired for their strength, their speed, their agility. They figure prominently in heraldry, in folk tales and in children’s stories. They inhabit our imaginations all the more because they are elusive. We see signs but not the cats. We catch a glimpse, and then they are gone. Their elusiveness sometimes makes them stand-ins for the divine presence.
Peter Matthiesen spun an unforgettable tale of the mysterious snow leopard in his travelogue of the same name. As he trekked with the naturalist George Schaller in the Nepalese Himalayas, the story of spotting a snow leopard at high altitude became intertwined with Matthiesen’s search for a legendary lama and ultimately the Buddha himself. He met the lama, but mistook him for the monastery caretaker. At the end of the trip, he wondered whether his Sherpa guide might have been the Buddha; but like the snow leopard, the man had vanished from sight.
In June, New York’s Central Park Zoo announced its latest guests: three snow leopards—born and bred in captivity. Most snow leopards now living were bred in captivity. The survival of the species depends on it. The day I went to meet our new neighbors, the 12-year-old was not to be seen and a 3- year-old twice came close to the glass partition only to disappear in the blink of an eye.
In the western United States I have had a couple of encounters with mountain lions. On a hike in Point Reyes National Seashore, we spotted one running across the trail below us. Just as we crested a small rise, it dashed into the underbrush.
When we had descended a little, I suggested to the group that we stop, quietly turn around and see whether we could spot the cat. Sure enough, there it was looking out at us from underneath the manzanita. We stared back at one another for several minutes as it twice moved its lookout along the ridge. Finally, another group of hikers came along and the cat fled deeper into the woods.
Some years later I was doing my annual backpacking retreat near Glen Aulin in the northern region of Yosemite National Park. I had begun hiking along the Tuolomne River, where I have had some vivid prayer experiences in past years. Before I had gone very far I was forced back by the threat of thunderstorms. I turned around and my eye fell on a peak that towered over the valley. On a promontory, I saw the silhouette of a large mountain lion. I looked a long time to be sure of what I was seeing. The long tail was the giveaway.
The sighting stretched out to 15 or 20 minutes, and I was filled with an enormous sense of grace. The encounter was so unusual I took it as a blessing.
A couple of months later I used the story in a retreat homily to illustrate the elusiveness of our experience of God. One of the retreatants, Jim Weber, a rugged outdoorsman, was wearing a T-shirt with a mountain lion silhouetted in black on the chest. When I told my story, Jim wept. Jim’s wife, Marjorie, had died some months before. As it turned out, she had chosen the mountain lion as her own totem; and her sister had made the T-shirt as a remembrance of her.
The elusiveness of the big cats makes their appearance a special revelation. My own encounters make me long for the wild lands where the elusive appearance of the big cats comes as a joyful surprise, filling one with a sense of unity in creation and blessedness before God. As George Schaller wrote, “When the last snow leopard has stalked among the crags...a spark of life will have gone, turning the mountains into stones of silence.”