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~ The Leg Hold Trap ~

To write this Weekly Reflection, I bicycled to a favorite wooded area and sat amid the calling of the spring peeper frogs. Such tiny things are so loud! Deciding to break my habit of gravitating toward my usual spot, I followed a different trail, stepped off into a thick grove of oaks and briars, and settled in resting my back against a tree.

Nothing much grows through the briar thickets. Christ alluded to that as He explained how the thick and barb grabbing thorns in our hearts often suffocate the sprouting seeds of the truth. We called them “sticker bushes” when we were kids.

I spotted a rusted piece of metal just below my knee, sticking out of the forest floor. I knew at once what it was: A very old spring loaded animal leg trap. Pulling it out and tapping it free of dirt, I noted how fully intact but rust-frozen it was and wondered about many things. Pulling some paper and a pen from my jacket, I started writing the many thoughts this trap find triggered.

These traps were made illegal in many US States decades ago. My childhood friends used them. I hated those things. When invited to go “trapping” by a couple of friends, I told them if I knew where they set them I would return and trigger them off. They laughed and asked me to come anyway.

So I went and had a fun day in the woods. Of course, I went back before dark with my slingshot I liked to use for target practice. I enjoyed additional fun practicing hitting the traps’ trigger plates at varying distances. That’s how a slingshot can be used for sparing wildlife from pain.

My friends came by early the next morning to get me for the trap checking. I told them I did what I said I would do if I were invited to trap for just the “fun” of it. I don’t know if they ever continued trapping, but they never talked about it nor invited me again.

I’ve done my share of hunting for food as an adult. One friend was a butcher and I watched videos of commercial slaughterhouses. I find it ironic and disconnected to listen about the evils of hunting with someone who likes eating hamburgers and hotdogs. Leg hold traps, however, are truly cruel and painful. Like the nail through a wrist in a crucifixion, nerves between those steel jaws are on painful fire. Every time the animal moves in the struggle for freedom, the pain shoots unmercifully through the entire body. If the trap isn’t near water, the animal quickly dehydrates, and it cannot eat. Pain and fear are its only focus, and may remain that way for days since many trappers don’t check their traps daily.

The pain, fear and struggle for freedom to rejoin the animal’s family and care for its orphaned young induces the final solution: Chew off its own leg. Though free, the animal is critically injured, often dying from such self-amputation. Not always, however. I have observed three legged animals in the wild and one-legged sea gulls on the coast.

Self-amputation has been the course of action among humans as well. You may know of the hiker upon whom a tree somehow fell on his foot, securely trapping it. After a couple of days he knew to either free himself by cutting through his ankle or die of dehydration and cardiovascular shock. In another news story, a high altitude climber got his hand wedged in a rock crevice. He also opted to cut his wrist off after hours of losing strength and intermittent consciousness. He managed to rappel down to a trail and walk to a highway.

Then I’m reminded of a different mentality, that of a species of monkeys whose traps are simply narrow neck jars with food inside, the jars secured to trees as with the leg hold traps. The monkeys could slip their open hands in and out of the jars easily, but couldn’t pull out a closed hand clutching food. They required no amputation for freedom, just a foregoing of food...a little fast of self-denial. Many were caught because they seem to value quenching their hunger for the moment over freedom and life.

All spiritual realities have their shadows and counterparts in the physical realm. The animal and human self-amputations being to mind Jesus’ hyperbolic asserting of amputating a part of ourselves that has us hopelessly trapped in life-destroying states of being and living. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell...” (Mark 9:43). In this context the original Greek references what is translated as “sin” as “losing faith.” And it is “by faith you are saved.” Jesus’ remarks about plucking your eye out or cutting off your hand were probably accompanied by gestures, as any good teacher or storyteller would use. His imagery no doubt repulsed His listeners. He was a master at driving truths into the heart.

Peter wrote something very interesting along those lines: “You have not yet resisted sin to the point of shedding blood.” Is this not an echo of Christ’s words about the absolute necessity of disengaging from sin or whatever hampers our full submission to and union with God? To “partake in His death and thereby in His resurrection” is no little, part time, a few minutes a day commitment. It is as serious as the decision of amputating your own hand or plucking out your eye.

It doesn’t seem that way, though. Like Thomas and all the other disciples who doubted Christ’s resurrection, we want tangibility. Unless we can see and feel for ourselves through our physical senses, we won’t believe it. The predicament of a trapped animal or human facing painful death is quite tangible. Our spiritual and psychic traps are not as evident, like addiction, belief systems, immoral and violent practices, hate, malicious gossip, false testimony and making deals with the devil in return for self-promotion, vindication or reward. These require amputations, decisive and courageous ones. “What good is it for a person to gain the world in exchange for his soul?” Such is the legacy of Dr. Faust and his deal with the devil. Like many fictional stories, it’s a true one.

Many psalms pray for God to “release me from the snares that they have hidden for me.” The releasing from some requires much grace, prayer and trust with faith in our liberating Christ. However, in my contemplative prayer, I realize that many snares don’t require the shedding of blood to escape. Many require only that we forego that grasping stupidity of the monkeys who just won’t let go of their acquisitions that keep their hands trapped, that fatal attitude of “I can get out of this predicament and still have my banana.”

Thank our God it doesn’t always come down to self-amputation. Often it is just a matter of letting go what we think are treasures for what really are, like freedom, life and union in Christ.

I took that old rusted trap and hung it in my backyard. The political groups who advocate for animal rights would misunderstand and be repulsed by it. You know the kind of which I speak...Those who maliciously spray paint the fur coats of women on their walks in our cities and who buy lobsters from supermarkets to release them back into the ocean, just to be caught again...The kind of people who would have set up a beach front protest after learning Jesus provided His apostles a haul of 153 fish...Who would applaud Jesus’ multiplication of 12,000 soy bean burgers instead of fish to feed the hungry. They would be repulsed, as were all those who left Christ alone with only the 12 apostles, at hearing Him acclaim that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have life.

We all view reality (and thus distort it) through our self-created paradigms. We need to be like smart monkeys and let those belief systems of ours free from the tenacious grasp of our hands and minds. Otherwise, we just don’t get what Christ is saying and doing. We have better ideas of how to run the world, unfortunately.

That leg hold trap isn’t about glorifying the game and pursuit of cruelty to animals, but rather a powerful reminder of far we are willing to go into the practice of spiritual and psychic amputation.

What eclipses the trap hanging in my yard is the number of crosses scattered about. To many, these are also offensive symbols. Christianity is indeed unique in being the only “religion” with an execution device as its central symbol. St. Paul glorifies in the cross, however. The leg hold trap is also a symbol of the snares of violence and sin. Though it hangs in my yard, I don’t glorify it at all. It’s a symbol of what the cross answers. That answer merits glorification. I also have many narrow necked vases around my home to remind me of the stupidity of the monkeys.

Maybe I’ll hang a copy of this Reflection on the trap. If a neighbor asks about it, I can just give him or her what you are reading now and say, “Here’s what’s that’s about.”

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
~ Education, Research and Advocacy
   in the Christian Faith ~

Spiritual Resource Services  © May 7, 2004

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