Saturday night I saw a leopard about 10 km outside of Mussoorie, on the road from Dehra Dun.
I know that people see leopards all the time. I have watched them on the nature channel, closely enough to see their pupils dilate, but for the time and space between us. I have seen them in zoos, just as close, but they are fake leopards in zoos, elaborate products of sophisticated taxedermy, big tabby cats born in other zoos. In nature reserves, there are wild leopards, but the wild freedom which we perceive in them diminishes when we hear that they have names and regular veterinary appointments.
For that reason, I think that seeing one in nature carried a sort of surreal sensation of unanticipated familiarity. I knew right away that it was a leopard. The real thing was, in many respects, an exact replica of its artificial counterparts that had already been introduced to me. Yet that is backwards... the artificial leopards are replicas of the real thing.
The reality of the leopard, its authenticity, somehow made it undeniably more special than any other leopard that I have seen. I will probably always be able to see that imperfect picture, in sweeping headlights, of an enormous cat flowing across the dirty concrete barricades on the side of a twisting mountain road before gracefully and casually cutting off down the hill into the immense darkness. It was not an amazing picture, even if we had been given enough time to snap it on a camera. It was dark and the car was bumping and the situation was not altogether ideal for watching wildlife. The authenticity, though fleeting and poorly resolved, made it a priceless moment.
I have been reacting to this sensation, not to the leopard only, but to the feeling of being in awe of something so wild and true. I have thought, in my endless considerations of the properties of analogy and metaphor, of God's Love.
Love is a favorite concept of this world that we live in. The love of God is often intimated, sometimes imitated, but never perfectly and completely duplicated in the people around us. And yet we catch glimpses of it, so familiar and thrilling that we do not doubt it is love, but revel in the perfection and warmth of it. We know it because it is the ideal that we have heard so much about. When we see it, we do not spend a moment wondering if it is love, but rather, we spend the entire wild-eyed experience recognizing it.