Silence with a Sloth: On Meeting the Divine in Costa Rica

I had heard about the Sloth-man a few days before meeting him in a Quaker house in the mystical cloudforest of Monteverde, Costa Rica. My friends Scott and Becca had a year earlier uprooted their church ministry jobs and two young children to move to this small mountain community that drew thousands of tourists each year and where the rain forest is the most dense in the country, and enchanted with hundreds of varieties of spiders, birds, butterflies, monkeys, iguanas and of course, sloths.

Scott, knowing I crave contemplative experiences, suggested I join him at the local Quaker meeting on Sunday where he and his family would often worship. (The Quakers “founded” Monteverde in the 1950s, being drawn as they were to a pacifist country during America’s involvement in the Korean war.) Quaker worship is mostly sitting in a room full of people in complete silence for an hour. Every now and then, if someone is so moved, they will speak, but mostly, it’s quiet, very quiet. I jumped at the chance. I’ve always loved the practice of silence within community; there is a palpable experience of the Holy Spirit for me in such settings. And I was curious what a Quaker meeting in a cloudforest in Central America might look like. But honestly, most of all I really wanted to see the baby sloth Scott assured me would be there, as he was every week.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that an orphaned baby sloth — and his eccentric care-taker — would be an integral part of this community of prayer. All week, it had been crystal clear that there was a sacred relationship between the Ticos (the local name for Costa Ricans) and their animals, plants, rain and clouds. Everywhere we went, strangers would stop us and point out some new wonder we may not have noticed – a rare bird in a tree, a boa constrictor curled on a branch above, a leaf-cutter ant community crossing a dirt road, an iguana motionless on a tree trunk. The Ticos have such reverence and pride in their natural resources and are so eager to share it with visitors, it astounded me. Sure, I know the names of a few birds and wildflowers here in Colorado, but nothing like these people know their tropical jungle. My American friends too, I noticed, had become intensely attuned and connected with the natural world since arriving, moving more slowly through their days so as not to miss a sighting of even the teeniest of creatures that co-habitated with them (quite literally sometimes…).

In the lush silence of that spare wooden meeting room with glass windows for walls at what seemed like the top of the world, the outside world became one with the inside. There I was, sitting thousands of miles from home in total silence with Spanish-speaking locals, ex-pat gringos, young, old — and a furry, wild, baby creature from the forest. All of a sudden, it was completely obvious that a sloth would be present in holy communion with us. When I approached the man after the service and asked if his sloth liked to be petted (after I had been petting him for about a solid minute), he said “Not really. He’s a wild animal and a bit afraid of humans.” And yet there he was – or the next rescued baby sloth – week after week, being cared for and fed and nurtured by this gentle human creature.

This reverence of the Ticos for their land and its abundant creatures extends from deep within the lush rainforests to the wild oceans and the muddy rivers filled with crocodiles — and even to the city streets where runaway taxi drivers graciously swerve to avoid the local stray dogs running happily about. The sleepy sloth, wrapped as he was in a red worn sweatshirt in his owner’s arms (a man whom people regularly delivered abandoned baby sloths to for rehabilitation and release), embodied the holy relationship between nature and human in Costa Rica. Wild, yet full of love. What at first seemed comical to me (really, a grown man who adopts and cares for baby sloths?), became absolutely revelatory of the Divine. “God is like a gentle and patient father, swaddling his baby sloth in his arms…” (That’s in the Bible, right? If not, it should be.)

As the service came to a close and we gathered humans found our voices to begin a lively time of fellowship, an exquisite Orange-Bellied Trogan flew up to the glass window, and began pecking and chirping insistently. He was demanding to be seen and heard — and he was. We all turned, as if it were completely natural that an exotic bird would show up as a guest in this place, and welcomed him with our smiles and laughter (and cameras). It was as if he longed to be in communion with us too.

And not for the first or last time during that wild and grace-filled journey through Costa Rica, the Divine Untamed came close enough to touch, and the Trogan and I made a joyful noise together, no longer silent, but ecstatic to be alive and one.


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One response to “Silence with a Sloth: On Meeting the Divine in Costa Rica”

  1. I recall my first sloth sighting en route to Cahuita, Costa Rica, in 1986 or so. In our busy world, we can learn a thing or two from a sloth–or a Quaker, for that matter. Thanks for these reflections.