To a Mouse: Learning From the Animals

I recently shared an article about an old Irish poem written by a scribe long ago. In it the scribe understands himself by comparing what he does to his cat. By relating his own work as a scribe to his cat’s work of catching mice, he explores the human condition and coveys a real sense of the Celtic connectedness to the natural world and all of God’s creatures. You can read that article by clicking HERE. In this article we will look at life from the perspective of a mouse instead and see what lessons we might be able to learn from such a humble little creature. The Poem is called To a Mouse on Turning up Her Nest with a Plow and was written by Robert Burns.

The scene is such: Burns is plowing his field after the harvest getting ready for the winter. As he turns up the soil he digs up a mouse nest. The mouse looks at him with terror and scurries off. Burns writes this poem in lament of what he has done to the poor mouse and what humanity has done to the natural order. He then proceeds to find spiritual meaning for himself in the unfortunate fate of his fellow mortal, the wee mousie. But I’ll let Burns tell the story himself and share with you his words from 230 years ago. The video below is a reading in Scots followed by an English translation.

I think Burns touches on a couple really great points here and manages to see himself in the life of another, even one so very different from him. To me, this poem is a shining example of spiritual awareness and depth. 

In the Gospel according to St Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that if they wish to enter the kingdom of heaven they must show kindness. In his words he said “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 

Jesus is trying to share with us a deep and powerful truth, that we are all one. That how we treat any member of the family of Christ is how we treat Christ himself. Burns understood this in a deep way. He did not only see his family to include his brothers and sisters, or his village, or his nation, or even those who are members of the Christian church, but he understood that even a mouse is a child of God and a member of his family. 

He comes to this conclusion by saying to the mouse that he is her poor earth born companion and fellow mortal. We are united in our condition, all are mortals born of this world, and all are struggling to make it through the winter. We share so much with even the least of the animals, even the mouse. And this becomes the main theme of Burns’ poem. That we can understand our own condition by understanding the condition of all life, with which we share so much.

The mouse had spent many weary nights building her home. She had made plans to get through the winter. She had thought she was settled and safe. Yet, conditions well beyond her control came and thwarted her plans. While resting quietly in her nest, the cruel plough passed right through her room. Burns then says his famous line, “the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.” Which essentially means that they often go wrong. He zooms out from the life of the mouse, to his own life. 

Just like the poor mousie, his plans often go wrong as well. He says to her, “you are a shining example of why foresight may be pointless.” We seem to be tossed in the tempest of life and at the mercy of fate. He laments that we are often left with grief and pain when we thought our plans had promised us joy. Yet, he still manages to find wisdom in the mouse. He says to her, “still, you are blessed compared with me, because only the present touches you. But I am stuck being miserable about the past and afraid of the future.”

This reminds me of another passage from the Gospel according to St Matthew. The part where Jesus reminds us to do just as Burns has done. To learn lessons from the animals and how they live. He tells us that the birds of air are not concerned with storing grains but trust in the presence of God in the present moment. Jesus reminds us not to worry about the future, but to live like the lilies of the field. Who are clothed by God in colours finer than even Solomon could wear. 

When I first read this passage years ago, I remember thinking that the animals do store up food. The squirrels have stores of nuts, the bears store up fat, and we store up grains, all of us trying to make it through the winter. But then I remembered that Jesus lived in a place where winter looks very different than it does here in Canada or in Scotland. I think the main point of what he is saying is that we need not allow the winter to frighten us. Because just like our poor wee mousie, we live at the mercy of God. We live and breathe in the same mystery which the birds of the air, and the lilies and the mice of the field do.

It’s not that we should not plan for tomorrow, but that we should not worry about tomorrow. It’s not that we shouldn’t learn from the past, but that we should not live in grief because of it. For the grace of God is found in the present moment. The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley, but God’s plan is bigger than ours. And our schemes are nothing compared to divine providence. So when your plans go wrong do not grieve, for they are in the past and do not fear the future, for it is in God’s hands.

Jesus does not command us to make good plans, but instead Jesus commands us to love all of God’s creatures, both great and small. And to learn from the natural world and live in harmony with it. Because Burns was right, man has broken nature’s social union, even more so today than in 1785. 

So, have compassion on the least of your fellow mortals, and strive to be part of nature’s social union, not something separate from creation but an interwoven part of Christ’s family. I encourage you to spend some time in nature. Come to know the animals who God has created, and maybe you will be blessed to meet such a wise teacher as a mouse in the field or a bird in the air, or even a flower clothed more beautifully than Solomon. 

Have compassion on all of your family, on all of creation. Show kindness to anyone and everyone because this is how we show kindness to Christ. And do not worry about the future, for tomorrow will bring troubles of its own. But live peacefully in the sacrament of the present moment. Make your plans, build your nest, but also accept that God may have different plans than you and trust in your maker to know what is best. The best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley but our Lord makes no mistakes. So let God worry about the future and just live your life today with gratitude for what you have. And with generosity to all.

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