When I lived in Washington, D.C. in my early- and mid-twenties, I remember distinctly my attitude toward pets, and I was not ashamed to share it if someone asked.
“I could go the rest of my life without having a pet and be perfectly content,” I would say. And I meant it. My urban life was busy enough with work, church, concerts, happy hours, movies, and weekend outings with friends. I didn’t need another creature in my life taking up my time, attention, and resources. I had plenty of human friends, and that was enough.
Now, however, a public recantation is in order: I was wrong to feel that way. Or to phrase it with less judgment toward myself, there was something in my heart that was cold and disconnected that has since started growing warmer and closer to the heartbeat of life itself.
I don’t remember any specific moment that marked a shift away from my dismissive attitude toward animals. Reading Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek probably had something to do with it. But in any case I’ve begun to change. I’m not at a point in life where having a pet makes sense logistically, but I am finding that there is value — much value — in being in relationship with animals. To live without connection to other living creatures, with their own wills, sensations, and even personalities, now seems like a rather impoverished way to go through life.
I’ve never taken the time to extensively study or develop a theology of animals. This is the first time I recall ever writing about the subject. But I believe there’s a spiritual, soul-level dimension to this. From what I know of the lives of saints and spiritual leaders across faith traditions, many were steeped in a loving, attuned relationship to the world of living things, especially animals.
St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most prominent example of this. He reportedly preached to birds and all manner of animals, blessing them and inviting them to praise their creator. One of the earliest accounts of Francis’ life, written by Thomas of Celano, who knew the saint personally, tells of a journey where the saint came upon a great multitude of birds.
“He greeted them in his usual way, as if they shared in reason. As the birds did not take flight, he went to them, going to and fro among them, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic,” Thomas writes. He goes on to describe how, in response to Francis’ preaching, “the birds gestured a great deal, in their own way. They stretched their necks, spread their wings, opened their beaks, and looked at him. They did not leave the place until, having made the sign of the cross, he blessed them and gave them permission.”
Today this legacy of St. Francis lives on; he is the patron saint of the environment and animals, and rightfully so.
In the Russian Orthodox church tradition, Saint Seraphim of Sarov was known to befriend a variety of woodland creatures near the cabin where he lived. One remarkable story describes his friendship with a bear:
Two nuns from a certain convent once came to visit Saint Seraphim. Suddenly a bear lumbered unexpectedly out of the woods and frightened the visitors with his appearance. “Misha,” said the saint, “why do you frighten the poor orphans! Go back and bring us a treat, otherwise I have nothing to offer to my guests.” Hearing these words, the bear went back into the woods, and two hours later he tumbled into the holy elder’s cell and gave him something covered with leaves. It was a fresh honeycomb of purest honey. Father Seraphim took a piece of bread from his bag, gave it to the bear, pointed to the door – and the bear left immediately.
These stories inspire me more and more every time I hear them. They stir my imagination for what is possible. Could a person really become so peaceful of spirit and attuned to the natural world that birds stop to listen to them preach or bears participate with them in the cocreative work of hospitality?
Assuming the natural world is an expression of a divine Creator’s love, creativity, and personality, I don’t see why not. My former priest from the Anglican Church, Fr. Daniel Rice, likes to imagine what happened when Jesus went out into the wilderness for 40 days of prayer and fasting. During this time, Mark’s gospel records, “he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”
“Why was he with the wild animals?” Fr. Dan asks. Every time he speaks of this moment his voice becomes pregnant with emotion. “Because he was comforting them.”
He was comforting them! Take a moment to picture the scene in your imagination. Jesus’ heart for the world knew no bounds, it was deep and wide enough for even the wild beasts. He went out to these creatures, animals that were hunted and living out of fear and scarcity, and he proclaimed peace and hope to them.
For my part, I’ve started paying more attention to the animals around me. I do so first to honor their innate beauty, value, and worth, but also to receive any wisdom they might hold, opening my heart and imagination to what they might be speaking to me.
I offer two anecdotes from my life to illustrate this new way of moving through the world. Both of these happened last month, during my final week in Seattle:
The first took place at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. As I drove up from the seaside town of Port Angeles, the clouds grew thicker and closer. With every twist and bend of the road I could feel the air getting thinner and the world turn more wild and holy. At last the road brought me up to the visitor’s center, which looked out over a great vista of golden grassy hillsides and thick, green groves of fir. There was something here for me, I trusted in my gut, but the deep peace and knowing that I had been seeking on the cusp of a major life transition — my impending departure from Seattle — was still eluding me.
I drove further past the visitor’s center to the Hurricane Hill trailhead. Here a paved path followed the hillside up through a smattering of trees into the mist. I began walking. After a few minutes I saw a deer maybe twenty yards ahead. It was standing just a few feet off the trail to the right.
I stopped. The deer was walking away with a cool, self-assured demeanor, one slow step at a time. It stopped and looked back at me.
“Hello my friend,” I said to the deer. “May I come up here? I don’t want to stay. I don’t want to take anything. I just want to be here for a while, to enjoy this place with you. Is that okay?”
I stood still, relaxed and strangely at peace, and waited. A minute or two passed, and the deer began to walk away further into the forest. I took a few steps forward, knelt, and kissed the ground, honoring the land that this beautiful creature called home.
“Thank you my friend,” I said. “It’s good to be here with you. Go in peace.”
Feeling summarily blessed, I went on my way up the trail, full of gratitude and anticipation for what was in store.
My second profound encounter with animals happened during my last evening in Seattle. I had one slice of bread remaining in my depleted pantry, so I decided to take it over to the water reservoir across the street and see if I could find a crow or two to feed it to. I went outside, crossed the street, and began walking along the first stretch of the reservoir.
At first I saw no birds out, then — a crow! And not just one, three of them! I walked over to the fence, tore off a piece of the bread, and threw it over towards them. One of them hopped towards me, snatched the bread in its beak, and took off.
I heard a few harsh caws overhead, and then suddenly dozens, hundreds of them! Both of the two trees above me were filled with a murder of crows. They flew out and around the trees then back in with a pattern or rhythm I could not discern.
The mystic in me came alive. I grinned like a little kid and looked up as the crows flew in and out, bidding me farewell. That was why they were here, after all, that was why they lingered above me. It must be! They were divine messengers, sent to let me know that providence had something up its sleeve for me as I turned the page into a new chapter of life. I couldn’t and wouldn’t know what would happen, but I knew it would be something beyond anything I could ask for or anticipate.
I began to walk back to the house. When I had gone a few yards a contingent of several dozen crows peeled off from the rest and flew into the next tree down, again directly overhead.
I could hardly believe it. It was one thing for my heart to imagine the birds bidding me farewell. Now I genuinely believed it was happening. They were following me.
“Be well my friends,” I said, and the big, happy grin returned to my face. I basked in the moment a few seconds longer then continued across the street.
Again, a group of crows broke off from the larger contingent, about a dozen this time, and glided over to the tallest tree in the backyard, a sizable fir. They perched near the top as I walked down the side of the house.
Now I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. Deep down in my heart and gut I felt that these crows knew I was leaving. They knew I longed for some sort of sign and they were here to offer it to me, to let me know that my leaving was meant to be, that the time was ripe, and that I wasn’t going to be alone.
“Be well! Thank you!” I said again, beaming with joy.
What is going on here? These moments are nothing less, I believe, than manifestations of the divine nature clearly seen in the world. The Native Americans knew this, with their rich and vibrant understanding of a Creator, along with many other Indigineous cultures. The Hebrew psalmist and sage of the Old Testament knew it too (see Psalm 104 and Proverbs 6, among others).
Today in the industrialized and digitized western world this wisdom doesn’t seem as common, but I find pockets of it here and there. When his 15-year-old black Lab Venus, was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and had to be put down, writer and Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr recalls with heartbreaking clarity the knowing and profoundly accepting look in his dog’s eyes.
“In those weeks before she died,” Rohr writes, “Venus somehow communicated to me that all sadness, whether cosmic, human, or canine, is one and the same. Somehow, her eyes were all eyes, even God’s eyes, and the sadness she expressed was a divine and universal sadness. I wondered if God might have an easier time using animals to communicate who God is, since they do not seem as willful and devious as we are.”
This story makes me think of a black Lab from my own life that I know named Katniss. When I arrived at Overgrow Farm, the organic farm where I’ve been volunteering through WWOOF for the past several weeks, Katniss ran up alongside my car as I pulled up the driveway. She was the first being to greet me, and her response at my arrival was utterly hospitable — nothing but enthusiastic joy, delight, and curiosity at my presence.
Sometimes in the evenings or during slow points in the day, Katniss will jump on her hind legs and hit the latch on the front door of the farmhouse to open it, just to come in and be with the people inside. When she does this her presence is almost always welcome.
This is especially meaningful because the farmer who owns and runs Overgrow is recently divorced. It’s clear he’s still in the grieving process and picking up the pieces of a shattered life. But when his dog comes through the door, his face lights up and his voice jumps up half an octave and becomes tender and caring. Suddenly he sounds like a delighted father rather than a cynical, hurting man. I haven’t seen anything else come close to bringing him that much joy.
I would dare to suggest, in fact, that Katniss is the greatest incarnate presence of Christ in his life right now — even more than I can be, in many ways. In a small but real way, she is a manifestation of God’s curiosity and delight and simple longing to be with us.
And I love her for it.