An exciting bonus feature of honeymooning in Costa Rica is the number of sloths and monkeys you encounter each day. They were everywhere. And we never got tired of them.
The monkeys are loud and rambunctious and hard to miss. We’d walk the sandy paths and glimpse one monkey after the other leaping about in the trees above. They’d call to each other as they swung through the trees, and we’d point and yelp and giggle with glee. I mean, monkeys.
But the sloths – you had to be a bit more perceptive. Those things don’t move fast, and so if you’re relying on the blur of moving tree limbs and the clatter of falling branches and leaves to spot one, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But our eyes adapted: We saw plenty of slow, ponderous sloths.
There’s one sloth sighting in particular that readily comes to mind. My wife and I were at the beach – obviously – and I was on drink refill duty. As I’m heading to the cabana, I spy a small gathering of people around this lagoon that has formed from a stream flowing from the ocean. The group is studying a vine dangling from the high trees above and swinging slightly back and forth, back and forth just above the water.
And heading down the vine – slowly, steadily, taking its good ol’ time – is a sloth.
Now, sloths are surprisingly strong swimmers. Or, so I’d heard. So, I’m pumped – I’d wanted to see one in action. What would a swimming sloth even look like? And how fast would it move? Are we talking doggy-paddle or Olympic training? I retrieve and deliver the drinks and then return to watch the one-clawed-hand-over-the-other action of this juvenile sloth as it makes its ponderous descendent to the water below.
I’m going to see a sloth swim, I thought excitedly.
But sloths being sloths, this was a tedious endeavor. The crowd thinned, I got another round of drinks and a dozen or so monkeys came and went, and that sloth was barely a foot closer to the water.
It’s going to be worth the wait.
Slowly, slowly, painfully slowly, the little guy moves down this vine. And then, all of sudden, that sloth is right there, fur grazing the top of the water, and you know what that cheeky critter does? He barely looks at the water and starts that same slow ponderous climb back up the vine.
What a waste of time! I’m disappointed, to say the least. I rejoin my wife, and we head back to our bed and breakfast. There were plenty of monkeys along the way to cheer me up.
This scene unfolded nearly nine years ago, but it was recently stirred from the recesses of my memory. And this is what I’ve come up with: That sloth’s descent down a Costa Rican vine is very much like the spiritual life. Not in that it was slow and ponderous – though our spiritual growth and development and gradual unfurling can certainly be exactly those things: slow and ponderous.
Rather, I think of myself on the banks of that lagoon watching in anticipation. I’m going to see something great, if only I wait long enough. It was a linear hope; the payoff would be worth the tedious waiting. And then: disappointment. This isn’t what I wanted at all; this isn’t what I expected. This was a waste of time.
The spiritual life – and what is spiritual about us humans runs through every aspect of our humanity, I believe – isn’t about some great payoff. We aren’t meant to wait around until the end, watching, anticipating all while missing the joy and beauty of the moment.
A pilgrimage may have a destination, but the journey is just as important.
“The Kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus says (Mk 1:15). Right here; right now. Always and not yet.
It’s significant, I think, that I remember that sloth slowly making its way down that vine. Why? Because it didn’t do what I wanted it to do; it didn’t achieve the ends I expected. And yet, the contemplation of that slow, ponderous, beautiful moment has lasted in my memory despite the apparent disappointment.
Because we’re called to delight in the wonder of our world, here, now. And we’re invited to walk with others as they do the same. The destination doesn’t change – we’re headed to God, right? – but the walking does, the journey, what we see and how we see it and what we do in response.
We giggle with glee at the monkeys, and we pause to smile at the sloth. And we surrender our expectations and make ourselves available to the pregnancy of the present moment.
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Eric Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Follow Eric’s writing at ericclaytonwrites.com.