According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, there are over one thousand different breeds of sheep known to man. There are types known for their wool (such as the Merino, Corriedale, and Columbia), others domesticated for their dairy production, still others developed for their meat. Mobs of ewes and and rams (also known as drifts when they are drove) are husbanded around the world, especially in much of the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the countries of Patagonia. It is estimated that there are over one billion sheep on the planet currently. Such information suggests the possibility of great diversity amongst the ovis populations scattered in fields and pastures, and yet the average person sees…sheep.
Hence the context when one Elf declares to Bilbo, “To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different. Or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study.” One suspects sheep can distinguish one another, and a person who dedicates one’s life and energy to the study and care of sheep may also come to comprehend such differences. Yet most humans, with larger perspectives and longer time spans of consideration, would be hard press to note a Dolly from a Shrek. So the Elves toward mortal hobbits and men: for the Elves has never considered men a worthy subject for deep pondering, and amongst the wise only Gandalf has had dealings with the hobbits of the Shire.
That such a description is given to the difficulty for the Elves in parsing lines of mortal poetry suggests a humorous undertone, yet the insight is well-considered. Higher things have trouble recognizing the uniqueness those things below them. Even mortal men are but flashes in the cosmic pan, living relatively short lifespans when the scale is shifted to centuries and eras. The Elves offer a critique on mortal self-important.
And yet, the wisest of the great – Gandalf, Elrond, Tom Bombadil – have many dealings with mortals, know much of their past, hold some promise in their doings. It is the unique attributes and wills of the small – hobbits, rangers, innkeepers – that have brought the Ring safely to Rivendell. Christ is called the Good Shepherd not only because He cares for His helpless sheep, but also because He knows each by name. The Divine omniscience sees not in patterns but in particularities: the radical heart of Christianity beats forth the promise that each is uniquely made in God’s image and loved by God distinctly.
In considering sheep and other sheep, we are considering our own selves. We can recognize that we are both same and unique: human and individual, all breathing and thinking and loving, though all gifted with different strengths and talents. As we turn towards God and reflect on the Divine, it is easy to be tempted to consider all the world as merely sheep behind us. Instead, the imitation of Christ requires us to know and care ever more deeply for each distinction, and love each of our fellow sheep by name.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Last Homely House East of the Sea”