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A Publication of


From  The Ark No. 188 Summer 2001

Oxen at Prayer

Inspired by the carved oxen atop Laon cathedral, Edward Echlin
suggests that we include animals within our prayer-life. ‘The
integration of animals into our worshipping community makes our
community, our prayer, and our worship, more whole and complete.’

By Edward P. Echlin

Laon town, in The Aisne, France, is ‘the crowned mountain’.  The crown is the soaring gothic cathedral on the hilltop, with towers seeking the sky.  Like all ancient European settlements, Laon has enjoyed important residents during the Christian centuries, including John Scotus Erigena, Anselm of Laon and Abelard.  It is the birthplace of Jacques Marquette, whose collateral descendants, named Barbière, still live there.  When a millennium exhibition in Laon library commemorated Marquette, and his exploration of the Mississippi, the elder Barbière, as a patron, represented ‘the Marquette family’. As a ‘blackrobe’ (Jesuit) missionary in New France, Marquette, was one of the discoverers of the waterway later celebrated as ‘old man river’.  He was virtually the first Caucasian to see wild buffalo, born free, roaming the plains.  Marquette could not have known that the buffalo, the plains, and the Illinois to whom he ministered, would suffer almost terminally from settlers with muskets, technology, and a ‘manifest destiny’ to conquer, and destroy, the continent.

Marquette took notice of the buffalo.  Anyone familiar with Laon cathedral would have.  For at the very top of the towers are a host of stone oxen, splendid against the sky.  Their towering presence is their epitaph, a tribute by the medieval masons who built the cathedral.  The hill challenged the masons to get their massive stones to the top where the cathedral would rise. The oxen bore the stones in countless loads.   They, with the craftsmen, were called hilltoppers. Their depiction against the Aisne sky, forever integrating members of the cathedral community, was the medieval craftsmen’s way of expressing gratitude, and even admiration.

Two centuries after Père Jacques Marquette brought the gospel to the Illinois, settlers overstocked the plains.  The winter of 1886/7 was as extreme with snow and ice, as was last winter in the UK with rain and floods.  The stockmen got through the long freeze.  Their stock did not.  The cattle stumbled through high drifts, desperately seeking grass and water.  Some collapsed on their sides and died of cold and exhaustion. Others froze to the ground and died standing - like statues. In spring the plains were again covered with white, this time of bones.  A few entrepreneurs ground the bones into bonemeal for gardeners back east.

Learning from Laon

The behaviour of Americans today at climate conferences, and of all who indulge in climate-bashing air tourism, demonstrate that we have a lot to learn from people who integrated oxen into their cathedral which crowns the hill.  A cathedral, like a parish church, is a prayer in stone - and the worshippers consist of more than people. The Laon oxen, like the sheep and ox and ass in our own Nativity windows, the Good Samaritan’s donkey, and the wild biodiversity in the olive garden where Jesus liked to pray, prompt us to wonder, think, and pray about our animal companions as fellow worshippers.  How can we include animals in our personal prayers and common worship?   I pose this question because, just as it helps to love a person by praying for them, so it helps to love another when we pray with them.  As a royal priestly people, baptised into Christ our King and Priest, we long to be in harmony with the whole animal community from which we come, and of which, we, both laity and ordained, are a part.  The integration of animals into our worshipping community makes our community, our prayer, and our worship, more whole and complete.

The how of animal prayer is a mystery.  To integrate the animal community into our prayer is a great act.  And as Newman said, great acts take time.  We may begin with a few markers.  There is agreement that animals glorify God, disagreement about whether and how they consciously worship.  We also wonder whether, and to what extent, people lead animals and articulate their prayer when we worship.  There are pictures in the Bible of animals worshipping almost independently of ourselves, as, for example, Psalm 148, the Apocalypse, and perhaps in Paul’s Philippian hymn.   Other biblical texts emphasise human sovereignty, as for example, Psalm 8, and Genesis 1.  The Bible and the whole living Tradition leave the details of animal prayer open.  We need to balance some very high views of the human role, with more inclusive ones. We need, for example, to complement the very human-centred ‘social justice’ of the Bishops of England and Wales, with the earth-inclusive celebration of the whole creation of Pope John Paul II.  Contemplation of the stonemasons and the Laon oxen moves one to recall the Pope’s recent words to visitors.  ‘Faced with the glory of the Trinity in the creation, mankind must contemplate, sing, rediscover awe.’

Leading the earth community in prayer

I suggest that people make a special, even sovereign, contribution to the praise, reverence and service of our Creator, by the whole earth community.  We do lead our fellow sensate beings in prayer, but not as masters above them.  We pray, with animals, within the created community which people serve. Laity pray and lead the earth community in prayer every bit as much as ordained priests.  As Godfrey Dieckmann, OSB, a peritus at Vatican II, said, ‘The greatest achievement of Vatican II was the restoration of the baptismal dignity of the laity, an achievement even greater than episcopal collegiality.’  All of us, priests and laity, are sharers in Christ’s royal priesthood. Our share in Christ’s priesthood does not remove us from the circle of creation.  We and the animals are brethren; we are not foreigners above them.  We can reflect fruitfully on God’s permission to the Jews to appoint a king.  ‘You may indeed set as king over you him whom the Lord your God will choose.  One from among your brethren you shall set as king over you; you may not put a foreigner over you, who is not your brother’ (Deut. 17:15).

I conclude with two suggestions.  First, let us ‘open up’, as Edmund Fortmann, SJ, used to say in his lectures on grace, the holism in our offertory prayers. Bread ‘which earth has given’, and wine’ fruit of the vine’ include the active contributions of animals, as any organic gardener knows.  The offertory prayers should make us more conscious of the wider community with which we pray.   Animals contribute to our Eucharists.  Secondly, let us, therefore, often have animals around us when we pray, like the medieval craftsmen of Laon who beheld hilltopper-oxen every time they entered their cathedral. Isaiah says of God’s love, ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young’ (Is. 40:11).   May we not then pray, at certain times, holding or touching animals especially dear to us?

* Edward P. Echlin is author of Earth Spirituality, Jesus at the Centre, Arthur James, 1999; and Honorary Research Fellow, University College of Trinity & All Saints, Leeds. He is a life member of CSCAW.

Return to The Ark No. 188

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