These words echoed my own thoughts when I first heard about the book Shardik by Richard Adams. How can a book about bear worship be taken seriously? Maybe I thought I was too sophisticated. Then one day a friend told me about a photographer he’d read about. The man was taking pictures of a bear when the bear suddenly reared up and started charging him. The photographer barely escaped. That shocking image of the rearing bear struck me. I could just imagine the competent, calm photographer, thinking he’s in control of the situation, when suddenly he realizes the true nature of things. My friend had said, “That’s like the holiness of God. We are taken by surprise!” We presume so much about God, that we know God, have God tamed. So I decided to take a chance and read Shardik. Like the photographer, I was in for a surprise.
At first the story really is just about a bear, breaking through the underbrush of a forest, escaping a fire. When a hunter disturbs the sleeping form of the injured bear, I felt pity for it, and even a bit of awe at the size. But it was still a creature; at least to me the reader. But something happened to the hunter when he saw the bear. He won’t talk about it to anyone but the high priestess, whom he must arrange to meet. Richard Adams cleverly draws us in. The hunter must visit the island of the high priestess by night, and as he journeys in trepidation, we too start to feel a sense of otherness. Strange, robed women appear as they approach the island, with lights that seem suspended in air. The hunter walks in a trance state, climbing high up beautiful hills trellised with waterfalls accompanied by ethereal singing. Like the hunter we have travelled into another world. Only then, after being prepared, do we hear the hunter’s vision: the bear was a revelation from God.
The priestesses have been waiting a long time for this revelation, what they call Shardik, the Power of God. Generations of priestesses have learned ancient arts to receive and channel God’s word. They have dedicated their whole lives to this discipline. When they follow the hunter back to the forest and see the bear close to death, all their training is challenged to revive him. And the hunter now sees the bear through their eyes. His fear is transmuted to awe as the hunter suddenly knows the mind of the bear, and mysteriously is allowed to be close to him. He bows down in utter worship and prays: “Lord Shardik accept my life.”
illustration by kelsey heinrichs
click on picture to enlarge
So begins the transformation of Kelderek the hunter to Crendrik the priest king. The prophesy told that Shardik would call forth a vessel to use as a messenger, and the vessel would be shattered and reformed for God’s purpose. Kelderek knows he is that vessel, and assumes he knows how the legend will play out. But in a moment of vanity, Kelderek allows his devotion to the bear to be subsumed to military ambition. The tribe interprets Shardik’s return as a sanction for war, to reclaim lands the tribe had once ruled. Kelderek does not want to appear a coward, and consents to this ambition; a chain of events unfolds that shatter him beyond imagining. Ambition spawns war, Kelderek is crowned Crendrik the priest king, and the bear and the people suffer much. Instead of admitting his betrayal, to himself, the high priestess and to Shardik, Crendrik defends his response as a search for the ultimate revelation from God, turning his spiritual experience into religiosity. His purity of heart morphs into haunting visions and desperate political measures, including re-opening the child slave trade. The bear is caged and subjugated; its majesty draped in futility. When the bear escapes into the wild plains, Crendrik follows, not out of devotion, but compulsion.
Engrossed by this story, I was drawn to the sense of power that Kelderek felt in his first shamanic vision with the bear and the priestesses. Adams has tapped into something here, how we are drawn to the divine out of fear and awe, and a desire to overcome our smallness. At one level I wished that the purity Kelderek experienced in his communion with the bear could continue. But this is naive because it doesn’t recognize the desire for power. As Richard Rohr says, we can’t develop spiritually unless we’ve relinquished this desire. This is indeed the sad, archetypal story of a faith gone bad. When we first encounter God, we are awed by the beauty and the power of God. In our blindness we see only the purity of our intent to honor God, unaware of how that secretly makes us feel powerful. But our mixed motives rise up at opportune moments to tempt us, to give us the option for humility. They show us we are never as pure as we think we are. At the time we don’t know how necessary this lesson is to learn, how we can’t really honor God until we know in our core we are not God. It is only in recognizing the inflation of “walking on holy ground” and owning it, that one can move from awe towards responsibility, towards love.
Shardik escapes into a deep ravine and Crendrik loses sight of him as he arrives at the edge. He is met by a mysterious shepherd. Later Crendrik awakes to the mauled body of the shepherd beside a broken spear. When he finally catches up with the fleeing Shardik, Crendrik sees the bear is gravely injured. Only later does Crendrik learn the legend of the Streels with its secret shepherd priests, self-appointed executioners of men who are unconsciously drawn there by their own crimes. Those who enter the ravines rarely return. And if they escape, they are marked by God for death. Shardik escaped the Streels and is therefore marked for death for sins he never committed.
The legend of the Streels reflect the simultaneous revulsion and attraction we feel at facing the unconscious, that place that knows all the secrets we hide from ourselves as individuals and a people. This legend also reflects a law of compensation or karma, that you sow what you reap. The universe always balances itself out. Crendrik must pay for all the death and sorrow he has caused by his vanity, and he knows it even if he won’t admit it. But there is another principle at work here, that of redemption. For it is Shardik, not Crendrik, who enters the depths. The unconscious conspires towards our redemption. Adams may have been building on the “King Must Die” motif in many ancient religions. But in this story it is the representative of the king’s power that willingly enters the judgement. Shardik is also the power of God so perhaps Adams is innovating another tradition as well where an innocent man goes willingly towards a gruesome death. Perhaps the universe doesn’t just want a reckoning, but healing.
As the dying bear continues to flee towards his home forests, Crendrik loses the layers of defense against his betrayal. The gravity of the burden for which Shardik is dying sinks in. Crendrik witnesses the bear emaciated by the relentless fleeing from captivity. He encounters the wrath of bereaved parents for children taken in the slave trade. He faces the high priestess he betrayed when he succumbed to military ambition. He even loses his faith in Shardik, blaming the bear for his delusions. At one level there is an injustice in Crendrik blaming the bear for his own vanity. But this is also the process of Crendrik learning to relate to the divine as an individual. Crendrik’s spirituality is maturing.
Through all of this, Shardik is still portrayed as just a bear. But we can’t help also see him with a certain awe, a patina of God that shimmers through his ferocity. He appears at significant moments in Crendrik's journey. Shardik is never portrayed as God in the story, but as the Power of God. This suggests a God behind the image. We all know from our lives, if we are honest, that coincidences often point to a deeper sense of meaning. And like Crendrik, we can become inflated with these experiences, making them idols in a sense. It is hard to take responsibility for your desires and actions, to recognize a debt you can’t repay. How can Crendrik bring back the children who have died in slavey? How can he restore Shardik? Redemption is hard because it only works when you acknowledge the debt. Crendrik, like us, resists to the bitter end.
Ultimately, it is love that allows Crendrik to face the truth. Forgiving love is a powerful force, and Crendrik first encounters it when reunited with the high priestess. But it is only in witnessing Shardik’s final sacrifice that Crendrik and the slave children are saved from death, that Crendrik’s resistance is trumped. Crendrik is himself in slave chains when Shardik makes a final appearance. “Sin” is not a popular word, but the condition of being chained by your nature is all too familiar. He cannot deny his debt, he cannot repay it, he cannot deny he has been deliberately spared. And as his body slowly heals, he cannot deny that Shardik was the Power of God, saving him from himself. He finds in Shardik’s final act of saving himself and the children, the ultimate revelation he was looking for.
There is an evolution in the story from raw experience to personal relationship. In a sense this echoes the evolution of the biblical story from God as pillar of fire to a carpenter from Galilee. There is a rawness of experience in the O.T. that is echoed by the descriptions of Shardik and the priestesses singing. God is holy and just and God’s presence must be mediated by prophets. Through the experience of exile and return, the Israelites come to understand God as the suffering servant. Jesus picks up this theme and shapes his ministry around it. The persecution of his first followers after his crucifixion refine the suffering servant motif. God’s power is revealed most in the willingness for sacrificial love, the human face of God.
Crendrik is no longer the priest king. But he is now more able to act morally than when he was in his shaman state. He understands that his vocation is to care for displaced children. He now “follows” the bear in the sense that he gives his life in service of this vocation. What started as a story of power has become a disciple’s story, a story of service in love. I was drawn to the holiness of Shardik as power to overcome weakness. But the story talks about how in order to relate to that power, you must be stripped of egoism. Real power comes from humility and forgiveness, not in overcoming weakness, but from an acceptance of forgiving love in the acknowledgement of weakness. It is an empowerment to serve, to act morally in service of God’s love.
This was just a story about a bear. And yet so much more. Adam’s knowledge of the natural world never lets you forget Shardik is a bear. But his understanding of humanity’s grappling with the divine shows how creation reveals God, even while it is not God. And to my mind, there were distinct Christ-like echoes in the story. While a revealed faith in Christ is different than nature religion, I found my own desire to follow Christ in loving service encouraged by Crendrik learning to be a disciple. Like the photographer at the beginning, we don’t really know anything about God. But my hope is that we are transformed by encounters with a living God who reveals himself in suffering love. This God is worth trusting in.