Message 84, “The Gathering Goes to the Movies: ‘War Horse’ – Spiritual Lessons from Animals”, 2-5-12

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, All Rights Reserved

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Before he wrote the children’s book War Horse back in 1982, Michael Morpurgo found his inspiration to tell a story about the horrors of war through the eyes of a horse.  He had known a young boy of about twelve who was essentially mute.  The boy stammered terribly and thus refused to speak – so debilitating was his shame and fear at the reaction of others.  The boy became withdrawn and isolated and others were asked not to directly address him because that put him on the spot to respond.

One day, during a school trip to a farm, Morpurgo found the young boy standing in the barn gently talking to a horse named Heebee.  With convoluted speech and strangled words, the boy pressed on by soothing and befriending the animal.  What amazed Morpurgo was the response of the horse.  With its ears pricked up and attentively listening, the horse moved to the boy and stood quietly by – wanting to listen and knowing that patient listening was important.  The horse knew, as Morpurgo knew, that the boy wanted to talk and that he was reaching out to connect with another creature.  The boy found instant acceptance, love and open tolerance of his handicap not from fellow humans – but from a horse.

Morpurgo says that an intimacy developed between boy and horse over the coming weeks and months.  The boy spoke his struggled words and the horse understood, reached out and loved unconditionally.  The boy’s stammering got better as he was literally cured not by human connection but by that of an animal friend.  From this inspiration, Morpurgo knew he could frame an entire novel around the insights and experiences of a horse caught in the tumult of war.

He wrote his children’s story War Horse which went on to become a highly popular stage production and, just recently, an epic movie directed and produced by Steven Spielberg.

Like many of Spielberg’s other movies, War Horse is not without its seemingly contrived tugs at emotion and tears.  But, like many great movies, this one is inspirational because it calls us to be our better selves in ways that are beautiful and touching.  Unlike most movies, though, War Horse teaches us about selfless love, loyalty, courage and decency NOT through human actions, but through those of animals.  It is a movie that takes many of the ideals we talk about in here and embodies them in the life of a horse – by whom we are deeply moved to change and grow.

And that is precisely why I continue to annually take the month of February – Academy Awards month – to look at some great recent movies to find spiritual truths from which we can learn.  Movies are simply modern versions of myths, fables and parables.  Jesus almost always used a parable to teach a lesson – knowing that by casting a wondrous story with creative characters and events, an idea is better remembered and taken to heart.   And so, over the coming weeks, we’ll look at War Horse, The Artist – a pioneering silent movie about love, and Red Tails – a George Lucas film (of Star Wars fame) about World War Two African-American fighter pilots.

For today, though, my hope is to follow in Steven Spielberg’s footsteps and explore how animals often teach us more about ethics of gentleness, forgiveness, love, and loyalty than any human.

It is a part of our human nature to consider ourselves greater than we really are.  We read our own press, so to speak, and grandiosely think of ourselves as individuals, nations and even as a species to be superior to others.  Towards animals, humans err in believing they are greater.  With intellect and brain power considered more evolved, we believe we better understand life, truth and ethics more than other creatures whom we assume rely on simple, hard wired instinct.  We devalue the highly developed senses in animals that offer them a form of insight and intelligence humans do not comprehend.  Indeed, it was Mark Twain who once said, “I have studied the traits and dispositions of animals and contrasted them with the traits and dispositions of humans.  I find the results humiliating to me.”  The movie War Horse gently tell us that humans are, in reality, not as spiritually evolved as many animals.

In this regard, War Horse is a  worthy movie to consider.   Joey, a horse, is the main character of the film.  He understands the world and human nature with knowing insight.  He intuitively knows who his friends are – those who are caring, decent and non-exploitave.   Any pet owner knows this to be true of many animals.  Dogs, cats and other creatures immediately sense those who are not just loving towards them but those who are loving in general.

Joey sees the folly of humans in their warfare, to which he is forcibly conscripted, but he does not act belligerently or with anger against his situation.  Rather, through his quiet strength and courage, he shows another way.  He, and other horses, are mistreated and used as disposable cogs in the war effort.  But Joey persists, endures and exemplifies the kind of gentle strength under control that I spoke about in my last message series.

Joey develops a close friendship with another horse – Topthorn – which some reviewers believe is a nod to same sex romantic relationships.  It is clear that Joey and Topthorn, both males, care deeply for one another.  From this relationship, we see Joey’s loyalty, love and concern for another being.  He also shows this loyalty to his many human masters and, in particular, to the boy who raised him.  Even as he and other horses are brutally employed as beasts of burden – hauling huge artillery pieces to the front – Joey stoically perseveres, pulls more than his share to help other horses and still does not become hardened toward his human masters.  It is an often overlooked side note of war statistics that over 8 million horses were killed in World War One – the last great war in which they were used in quantity.

In the climactic scene of the movie, Joey amazes and touches hundreds of soldiers who watch him charge across a no-man’s land of barbed wire and trenches while gunfire and bombs explode around him.  He finally gets helplessly ensnared in multiple strands of barbed wire.  His courage and tenacity in the face of great danger embolden an English and German soldier to stop their fighting and cross into this hellish place to rescue Joey.  The gentle strength under calm control that Joey exemplifies inspires the humans he encounters and thus provides the emotional center of the story.

(As a quick aside, despite the awful situations in which Joey finds himself in the movie, no harm was done to any actor animal.  Through the art of computer animation, horses in distress are depicted digitally.  This new art form, and the movie itself, is highly praised by PETA and other animal rights organizations.   To tell a story where harm comes to animals, use of computer animation insures no actual animal is hurt for the purpose of art.)

We might explain away the spiritual behavior of Joey.  Skeptics assert that animals and horses act in ways that seem spiritual but which are really due to simple brains.  They are gentle not by choice, some say, but because of lower brain function governed by hard wired instinct, as opposed to genuine feeling and thought.  The opposite is instead likely the truth.  Animals offer us spiritual lessons we would be wise to copy.  Indeed, War Horse and its depiction of Joey is a perfect illustration of the ideas of gentleness, forgiveness and unconditional love which I have discussed in past messages.  Joey practices calm strength held in control.  He forgives in a way that maintains peace and calm.  He loves his friend Topthorn and his several human masters in ways that are sacrificial and deep.  Joey is humble despite his power and beauty.  It is to our discredit and our intellectual myopia if we assume it is unrealistic to ascribe spiritual wisdom to animals.

Michael Morpurgo and Steven Spielberg have not crafted a fable that lends anthropomorphic – human – qualities to animals.  Instead, they have created an instructive tale about animal wisdom and integrity in their own right.  Animals know.  They understand.  They sense a unifying order to all life – one of peace, humility, and unconditional love.

Many humans judge intelligence only by our own standard of thinking.  Most animals, however, think and act in different ways from our own – using their enhanced senses.  They taste, hear, smell, touch and communicate in ways far more powerful than humans.  This offers them an intelligence and insight that is different from our brain based cognitive approach – and it is often much wiser.  Joey the horse perceives danger, he intuitively knows love, he communicates loyalty, and he understands and remembers his long lost boy owner named Albert.  He possesses a spiritual grace that any pet, horse or animal human friend has often seen.   Animal intelligence and spirituality are not the same as that of humans.  They operate on another – and frequently greater – level of intuition.

Experts point to the ability of animals to be sharply attuned to their environment – something which humans can only minimally do.  Animals feel and sense seismic waves and sounds humans can detect only with highly precise machines.  Animals are attuned to the earth’s magnetic field and use it for their own navigation purposes.  Animals have highly acute senses of smell which enable them to detect fear, anger or aggression in other animals……. and in humans.  Our bodies release pheromones unique to the situation we are in – and these are smelled and understood by animals.  Finally, several experts believe animals employ a type of fuzzy logic that processes external stimuli in non-human ways.  We use linear logic to systematically analyze the external input we receive about our world.  Animals use an amalgam of of thinking processes that is not linear but which combines many senses, forms of intuition and deeply ingrained memories to think and act.

What such a level of thinking gives to animals is a spirituality that is very advanced by our standards.  There is a purpose to all of their actions which are not guided by anger, vengeance or selfishness.  Their animal logic – or fuzzy logic as humans call it – seems to understand the zero sum game of anger and retribution.  There is no purpose to it so they simply forgive and forget.  They intuitively understand that the rewards of life come only in the present and so they love and experience others without guile or manipulation.   This enables them to love unconditionally.  Further, they understand their simple needs and thus do not act in selfish ways – acquiring vast amounts of resources which they cannot consume or use.

There is a story about a cat named Oscar who was adopted by the Steere House Hospice in Providence, Rhode Island.  Unfortunately, Oscar proved to be aloof and not especially friendly – for most of the time.  After a while, though, it became clear to the doctors and nurses that while Oscar is usually aloof and distant, when a patient is near death, he jumps on the bed, purrs and softly cuddles next to the patient – offering comfort until the person passes.  His behavior is a noticeable predictor of death – often foretelling it long before doctors or nurses expect someone to pass.  Oscar is not only attuned to death but he exhibits the kind of compassion for the dying he does not regularly show.  While experts again say Oscar must smell pheromones given off by a dying patient, the doctors and nurses indicate that he also shows a type of intuition and spiritual sense that is deeply compassionate.  Oscar is attuned to his surroundings and sees as his purpose to lovingly comfort a dying person’s journey.

There is also a story of a German shepherd found abandoned with a broken leg beside a busy highway and a box of puppies near its side.   This mother dog was terribly malnourished and had scars and cuts that appeared to be from abuse.  After its rescue, the mother dog was understandably wary of human contact.  Just before it was about to be euthanized, the dog began licking the hand of a shelter volunteer in a calm and soothing manner.  The dog was adopted by this volunteer and she was soon found to be sweet and loving.   The dog would sit by the front door of her new home and watch outside the window for hours upon hours each day waiting for her new owner.  When together, the dog never left the side of the owner and slept at the foot of the bed.  Until the dog died of natural causes, it was totally devoted to its new owner.

While the actions of Oscar and the German shepherd are common in many pets and animals, it is clear these animals have profound things to teach us.  The shepherd had forgiven its past abuse and was not brutalized by her experiences.  The dog had not given up on humans.  Oscar the cat shows us unconditional love and compassion.  We learn forgiveness, faithfulness, love, resilience and patience by their actions – types of behavior we would be wise to emulate after we have been hurt or when others need our care.

We in the Gathering assert that there are many paths to understanding ultimate Truth.  Jesus is not the only way to the Divine and we often look to him as well as other prophets of history to find multiple  sources of spiritual insight.  What I found so inspiring in the movie War Horse is its assertion that animals are prophets too.  Many who love animals know this.  Native-Americans knew this.  Such thinking, as I said earlier, does not naively explain away animal behavior as instinct.  We can learn about ethics, integrity, love and selflessness from animals in the same way we do from Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  As the Biblical book of Job tell us, “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or ask the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea tell you. Every one of these knows that the hand of the Divine guides us…”  What the movie War Horse tells us is that animals are prophets too.

For myself, for all of us, we might heed the message of War Horse – and I recommend it as a movie to see.  As part of the larger web of creation, we are not spiritually isolated from, or superior to, other creatures.  Animals are spiritual beings with profound and beautiful values.  We should learn from them.

I wish you all peace and much joy.