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Catholic Concern for Animals


Selections From The Ark Number 211 - Spring 2009


The influence exercised by St Basil (c.330-379), Metropolitan of Caesarea, on the Church is immense. His Rule is particularly influential in the development of monasticism, and in the Eastern Christian liturgy. Like St Augustine of Hippo, he sees the natural world as revealing something of the beauty and power of God, and each created thing within it existing through the power of the Holy Spirit. But he goes far beyond Augustine in his empathetic appreciation of the animal creation—predating St Francis of Assisi in his language of kinship with animals—as is demonstrated in this prayer from the Russian Orthodox liturgy, ‘for a deeper sense of fellowship with all living things’, the first recorded expression of shame for human cruelty to animals:

‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou hast given the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth. which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for thee, and that they have the sweetness of life.’

His liturgy, still in use today in the Orthodox tradition, contains another prayer which speaks of God having saved both man and beast:

‘We pray thee, O Lord, for the humble beasts …and for the wild animals, whom thou hast made, strong and beautiful; we supplicate for them thy great tenderness of heart, for thou hast promised to save both man and beast...’

Yet another, in the same liturgy, expresses inclusion of all creation and brackets humans with animals:

‘Remember O Lord, the air of heaven and the fruits of the earth, bless them. Remember, O Lord, the water of the rivers, bless them, raise them to their measure according to your grace. Remember, O Lord, the seeds, the herbs and the plants of the field, bless them. Remember, O Lord, the safety of the people and the beasts.’

Basil’s homilies often express a sympathetic treatment of animals and the natural world in an unprecedented and systematic way. His appreciation of animals leads him beyond the focus of the classical philosophers’ obsession with rationality to consider animals’ other qualities and attributes. He recognizes that they lack reason—although ‘the conduct of storks comes very near intelligent reason’ —yet they are none the less capable of emotion and feeling:

‘How many affections of the soul each one of them expresses by the voice of nature! They express by cries their joy and sadness, recognition of what is familiar to them, the need of food, regret at being separated from their companions, and numberless emotions.’

Rather than despising animals for their lack of reason, Basil considers that their Creator has fully made up for that want in other ways which equal those of the wisdom even of ‘the sages of the world’, and also suggests that the virtues of dogs surpass those of many people:

‘The dog is not gifted with a share of reason; but with him instinct has the power of reason. The dog has learnt by nature the secret of elaborate inferences, which sages of the world, after long years of study, have hardly been able to disentangle. … Does not the gratitude of the dog shame all who are ungrateful to their benefactors?’

Animals better than people

In other respects too he contrasts the natural instincts of animals with the wilful weaknesses of human behaviour; for example, he compares the strong family bonds displayed by lions and wolves with human sons insulting their parents, or the father ‘whose second marriage has made him forget his first children’. In his ninth Homily, ‘The Creation of Terrestrial Animals’, he explains that, ‘Virtues exist in us also by nature, and the soul has affinity with them not by education, but by nature herself … Paul teaches us nothing new; he only tightens the links of nature’.

While avoiding the prevalent contemporary use of allegory, as ‘self-serving and fanciful’, he does attribute anthropomorphic attitudes to animals, such as the cock being ‘proud’, the peacock ‘vain’, doves ‘amorous’, the partridge ‘deceitful’, and so on. Yet this attribution is as a result of observation, not imagination. Homilies Eight and Nine are works of natural history as well as being spiritually didactic. It is in the natural world that God’s power is revealed, particularly in the creation of animals:

It is not in great animals only that we see unapproachable wisdom; no less wonders are seen in the smallest … in the constitution of animals I am not more astonished at the size of the elephant, than at the mouse, who is feared by the elephant, or at the scorpion’s delicate sting, which has been hollowed like a pipe by the supreme artificer to throw venom into the wounds it makes.

At this point he answers the question: Why did God ever create predators and harmful creatures? by suggesting that their purpose is much the same as a schoolmaster’s rod and whip, used to discipline ‘the restlessness of youth’.

St Basil can empathize with and appreciate animal creation in ways far beyond most of his Christian predecessors, or even successors. Yet he is still heir to the dualist superiority of soul over body, and of human over animal. In Homily Nine, in discussing the act of the creation of the human being, he suggests that the form—shape or outline—of animals indicates their status compared with the form of the human person: ‘Cattle are terrestrial and bent towards the earth. Man, a celestial growth, rises superior to them as much by the mould of his bodily conformation as by the dignity of his soul’. Quadrupeds, he maintains, have heads facing the earth and their stomachs, and are interested only in providing for their stomachs, whereas the human person is upright, with eyes that look towards heaven. Therefore, he maintains, if a person degrades himself ‘by the passions of the flesh, slave of the belly, and the lowest parts’ then he approaches the condition of a reasonless animal and becomes as they are. Human persons, however, are ‘to more noble cares’, [to] ‘look for things that are in heaven, where Christ is’,’ —which is the heavenly Jerusalem, ‘thy true country’.

Oriental Rite Catholic Churches

While St Basil’s positive approach to the natural world is reflected in the Orthodox liturgy, the Oriental-rite Catholic Churches have responded to the subject in a variety of ways. In the Armenian liturgy, used by Catholic and Monophysite Churches, the choir at one point (during clergy vesting) sings a hymn, attributed to Vartapet Khatchandour (c.1205), in which the whole of creation is explicitly assumed to enjoy renewal:

‘O eternal, unfathomable Mystery … you created Adam in a most remarkable way, and made him lord over all your creatures, and in the garden of Eden you dressed him in glorious splendour. Through the sufferings of your only Son, all creation has been renewed and man has regained his lost heritage, which cannot be taken away from him now.’

Later, at the Prothesis, while the priest or bishop is kneeling at the altar and prays with extended arms, he says this prayer, attributed to St Gregory of Narek:

‘… Every creature which was created by you will be renewed at the resurrection, that day which is the last day of earthly existence and the beginning of our heavenly life … .’ Later again, at the pouring of wine into the chalice (bashak) the priest says: ‘In memory of the life-giving Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whose side blood flowed, which regenerated all creation and redeemed mankind’.

A prayer of St Basil is recited in the Ethiopian liturgy as the priest enters the sanctuary and prostrates himself. In it, human dominion over animals is specified as being a reflection of God’s rule over the world: ‘O Lord, our God and Creator … who made man through your wisdom and who made him prince over all creatures to rule them in righteousness and truth ...’ (my italics). The prayer of absolution, at the end of the liturgy, includes the phrase: ‘O good Lover of man and Lord of all creation’, while the prayer of Benediction includes a blessing on ‘the winds of the sky’ — while the priest gestures a blessing in the direction of the sky — as well as on ‘the rains and fruits of the earth…’.

The Antiochene Syrian liturgy includes these phrases during the censing: ‘O Creator of the world and Architect of the universe, we adore and praise you…Mary has given every creature a taste of his wonderful sweetness …’ Later a priest prays to God, ‘Lord of every created thing …’ and later again in the liturgy, ‘O Lord God of spirits and of flesh …’.

There is much we can learn from St Basil about the inclusiveness of his vision of creation - for however different the species might be (and for whatever reason and significance) we are all creatures together, loved and sustained in being by the Creator. Let all flesh bless the Lord!.

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