Ninety years ago Paramhansa Yogananda inspired three thousand New Yorkers in Carnegie Hall to chant “O God Beautiful” for one hour and twenty-five minutes. Recently we gathered to follow our Master’s example — to celebrate the presence of God in nature, in the human heart, in service and devotion. To Arjuna, Krishna proclaims, “I am the true Self dwelling in the heart of all creatures.” Krishna goes on to name some of the most dramatic forms of his endless manifestations: as Swamiji remembers Master’s explanation, “whatever is brightest, best, strongest, most glorious, or most intelligent is the clearest manifestation of God.”
Meditating on these words — and inwardly still hearing strains from our chanting the evening before: “O God beautiful, at Thy feet I do bow” — I heard outside a flock of sandhill cranes bugling as they headed north. When I looked up, there they were, now circling just above. Soon I could hear the calls of an approaching second flock, spread out in a wide V-shape. The second flock, bugling excitedly in greeting, began circling just below the first flock and in the opposite direction. As they circled, one flock above the other, I could hear their calls blending and harmonizing. Each revolution brought the flocks closer together, until they seemed to be flying through each other, gracefully, effortlessly, forming a double helix spinning higher and higher until, from one moment to the next, the two flocks became one great flock. In the lead was a small V of five cranes, the point of the V to the north: the five Pandavas leading the army of the righteous to liberation.
Into my mind came Swamiji’s song of a hermit’s divine joy in nature: “He gazed at the flowers, and he smiled at the sun — Then he clapped with delight: ‘Lord,’ he cried, ‘Oh, well done!’” Surely the hermit would have seen God’s presence in the cranes soaring in the sky: “All life seems to leap like a dancer / When, gazing, I see only Thee!”
A forest ranger in Yellowstone National Park carefully observed the daily life of what he called “the perfect wolf.” Reading his story, I felt both moved and grateful, as in the presence of something sacred, a divine gift, a window onto the underlying goodness of life. The wolf was named Twenty-One. Krishna could have included him in his catalogue of heavenly perfections:
“Among wolves, I am Twenty-One!” Born into the first litter in Yellowstone in 70 years, the pup never knew his father, shot before his birth. The mother, struggling with the desperate task of caring for her pups alone, found in this pup a protector who fearlessly placed his little body between his family and danger.
When it was time for Twenty-One to leave his birth family, he walked gracefully and without violence into the role of alpha male of the Druid pack, a pack whose lead wolf had just been killed by a hunter. He at once took on feeding and training the orphaned pups of his new family. The little ones he trained by allowing them to defeat him in mock battle. When a pup would seize his fur, Twenty-One would fall to the ground, legs in the air in token submission. Though the pack would turn away from any sickly pup, Twenty-One would seek the little one out, bringing food, wagging his tail affectionately, making it clear to the pack that the struggling pup was under his protection and was to be accepted.
Enormous, shaggy and black, in battle Twenty-One was unconquerable. Twice attacked by six wolves at once, he defeated them all. When the rest of the pack would close in to kill the defeated wolves, Twenty-One stepped back. At once the pack followed his lead and stopped their attack. The six were allowed to depart unharmed. He was a true Kshatriya: fearless in righteous battle; magnanimous in victory; gentle, kind, even self-effacing in peacetime.
At nine years of age, Twenty-One turned his footsteps away from the pack’s way home to the den. He crossed the valley and climbed to the top of a high mountain, where, under a favorite old tree, surrounded by the high grass of summer and mountain wildflowers, he curled up in the shade and left his body.
Each week we hear the words of Swamiji’s Festival of Light: “from the hearts of mankind, and of creatures everywhere, / Goes up in wordless yearning a prayer for redemption.” And the compassionate Lord answers: through a flock of cranes, through a wolf of noble spirit, through the gratitude that wells up in our hearts when we sense even for a moment that through our every experience His hand is reaching down to touch us, to raise us up, to show us the way to be free.
In divine friendship,