“Mom, what’s your spirit animal?” my daughter asked, as we were driving together one morning.
I didn’t know what a spirit animal was, but I replied, “A dolphin, I guess.”
“Huh!” My daughter sounded surprised. “I wouldn’t have thought that. Are you sure?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “That’s just my go-to animal for online password clues.”
She pulled out her phone. “Mom. Your spirit animal isn’t the same as your favorite animal. You’re going to have to take the quiz. Right now.”
Oh, good grief, I thought. But I answered the series of questions honestly.
The results? “Your spirit animal is the tortoise,” she announced.
“You know, that sort of fits,” I said. “Whenever I’m driving in a snowstorm, I say to myself, ‘Slow and steady wins the race,’ over and over.”
My daughter cracked up. “Mom! You’re such a tortoise!”
She then had to explain to me that, in some cultures, your spirit animal is the creature that protects you and guides you on your life’s journey. You also tend to exhibit the skills and characteristics of your spirit animal. Which means that, rather than the sleek, smart, graceful dolphin, I am the plodding, pondering, stubby-legged tortoise.
Spirit animals were not part of my upbringing, but as an animal-lover, I am drawn to the concept. A similar tradition for Catholics might be our guardian angels, heavenly beings we cannot see, but who watch over us and protect us from harm. We also look to our patron saints, holy men and women whose lives speak to us in our particular circumstances. We often pray for their intercession in times of trouble. And the Holy Spirit, of course, appears in the Bible as a dove. Although we may not all grow up with spirit animals, I believe all religions share a reverence for God’s creation, for the many animals that enrich our planet and our lives. Perhaps followers of all faiths can deepen their own spirituality by honoring the holy practices of others’ religions.
The spirit animal reminds me of the fictional patronus, the spirit guardian in the world of Harry Potter. The patronus is a defensive charm, a unique, mystical, silvery animal that is conjured by a witch or wizard needing help in a crisis. Harry’s patronus is a stag. Maybe, if I were a witch — and I know what some of you are thinking: "If?" — mine would be a tortoise.
Granted, a tortoise is not exactly my self-image, but I wanted to explore the idea further. According to Google, the tortoise spirit animal is the teacher of waiting and of vision. One who seeks the treasure of wisdom must be patient and full of peaceful endurance. The tortoise, in the quest for true meaning, ignores the illusion of instant gratification. It is the symbol of the ability to trust one’s inner vision, which can best be accessed through meditation. While known for pacing itself comfortably, the tortoise remains open to new terrain and new ideas.
I’m thinking I must frustrate my spirit animal, because I am actually known for rushing through things, and for getting things done as easily and speedily as possible. I belong to the “good enough” school of chores and tasks. I imagine I will have to do a lot of meditating to arrive at the wisdom of patient pacing.
Further gifts of the tortoise spirit animal are longevity and aging gracefully, both of which would be nice to claim. Finally, the tortoise is able to protect itself and its family, as symbolized by the ability to retreat into its shell. As an avowed introvert, I know all about the sweet safety of the shell.
I am learning to embrace my inner tortoise, listening for God to speak through my spirit animal, tuning into another way of finding God in all things. Slow and steady is my mantra. Secretly, though, I’d still like to be a dolphin.