By Robert Flanagan
Humans and Animals in the Kingdom
"(The saint's) consideration extends even to animals and to things, because in every creature he sees a gift of God's love, and does not wish to wound that love by treating His gifts with negligence or indifference." — Fr Dimitru Staniloae (Prayer and Holiness)
A story is told of a nineteenth century Orthodox nun in Russia. Her small garden had been ravaged by animals. "What should I be frightened of? Of wild beasts?...." She talked to (the) animals, and they began not to bother her vegetables". Similar stories are told of St Seraphim who made friends with a bear, and of other saints of the traditionally Orthodox lands. For this article we will be taking our stories from lands not thought of as traditionally Orthodox — Britain, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the countries of the Celtic peoples, which, until the 11th century were part of the unified Orthodox Catholic Church and whose saints and spiritual life have much to offer the contemporary world.
It is characteristic of the saints of the Celtic lands that they saw all of reality as a single unity, the wholeness of which had been torn asunder by the sin of Adam, and was restored by the saving act of Christ. In their lives they embodied the restoration of wholeness in creation, whether by communication with angels and spirits, or by kinship with all of the natural world.
This characteristic of the Celtic saints is fully Orthodox in character. In his great treatise On the Incarnation St Athanasius says: "(God) provided the work of creation also as a means by which the Maker might be known....Three ways thus lay open to them, by which they might obtain the knowledge of God. (First), they could look up to the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation come to know its Ruler, the Word of the Father."
St Athanasius goes on to say that this way was not sufficient, that "men, bowed down by the pleasures of the moment and by the frauds and illusions of the evil spirits, did not lift up their heads towards the truth." Even though this were the case, the natural world, seen in the light of Christ, remains a way to know God, that is, a way of salvation.
Included in the natural world, of course, is the animal kingdom. Animals are familiar to us as pets and in zoos, and can be provokers of fear when met in the wild. We have wildly different reactions to them depending on where we meet them. This is definitely a characteristic of "this world", the place where the evil one, the spirit of division, holds court. It is his victory when fear rises up in us when a mouse runs across the floor, when a bat flies low over our heads at night, or when a mosquito bites us.
There is a story told of St Kevin of Glendalough. Standing at prayer in a traditional Celtic monastic position with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross, a blackbird came and built a nest and laid her eggs in it. In order not to disturb the eggs, St Kevin stayed in the position until the eggs were hatched. At one point an angel came to Kevin and ordered him to stop the penance. The saint replied, "It is no great thing for me to bear this pain of holding my hand under the blackbird for the sake of heaven's king." It is this oneness with the created order, God's created order, that shines forth in many stories told of the Celtic saints. It is this same oneness that shines in the story of the Russian nun mentioned at the beginning of this essay.
There is more than this simple cooperation with creation however. There is also the harmony that the animals themselves bring to the human sphere. St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne engaged in another common Celtic monastic practice, that of praying in water up to the armpits, often for long periods of time. It is said that one day another monk went out to see exactly what St Cuthbert did. After watching him for a long time in the water, the monk saw St Cuthbert come out and lie on the shore, at which time two seals came out of the water and breathed on his feet and warmed his body with theirs.
We have a sign which marks the beginning of the restoration of unity in the entire fallen creation. This is the sojourn of Christ in the desert: "He was with the wild beasts, and the angels served Him" (Mk 1:13). The heavenly and earthly creatures destined to become the new creation in the God-Man Jesus Christ are assembled around Him. There is a pointed reference to this restoration in the life of St Isaac of Syria. He wrote that:
The humble man approaches wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They scent as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming. It is this which has sweetened the fragrance of humanity.
In other words, the state of likeness to God in Christ to which he had risen enabled him to be with the wild beasts just as Adam was in his naming of them.
This may be the reason why pets are so important to humans. It is a sign of the new creation, of the restoration of kinship between two different parts of creation. With one or two (or more!) animals in the household, it is an icon of both Paradise and of the kingdom of God as each of us are called to name our animals as Adam did, and live in communion with them without fear. This is a way in which it can be said that our pets smell in us the fragrance, or, one might say, the perfume, of Adam before the fall.
To paraphrase Isaiah, when the human can lie down with the cat, or the dog, or the guinea pig, or, God help us, the snake, we aid the advancement of the Kingdom just a little, work to recreate Paradise just a little, and so give new meaning to such menial tasks as cleaning out the litter box.
Robert Flanagan, head librarian at the Camden County Library, Voorhees, NJ, is a member of the Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross, Medford, NJ.