Spiritual traditions world-over have taught the sacredness of animals.  E. F. Schumacher observed, “There have been no sages or holy men in our or anybody’s history who were cruel to animals or who looked upon them as ‘nothing but’ utilities, and innumerable are the legends and stories which link sanctity as well as happiness with a loving kindness towards” these creatures.   And of course, he is right.   

Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, on treatment of non-human animals. Originally posted to YouTube by Plum Village.

All know the story of how, when the monks would not allow him to stay overnight because he smelled too bad, Francis found many a friend among the wolves, dogs, birds, sheep, and creatures of the wilds.  How St. Anthony, whose congregation did not want to hear what he had to say, preached to the fishes and was also preached to by them.  How Buddha related openly to animals and how at home Jesus was in the animal world. 

Victor Watkins, Wildlife Advisor for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, with rescued Eurasian brown bears at the 160-acre Zarnesti Bear Sanctuary in Romania, funded by WSPA. Photo © Jiri Rezac 2012 on Flickr.

This should not be unexpected, namely that Jesus treated animals with respect, for the Jewish tradition which he represented so fully was itself very concerned with the way humans treated animals.  Relieving the suffering of an animal was a Biblical law according to Talmudic teaching, and so Jesus’ admonition to raise a fallen ox from the pit even on the Sabbath was not out of character for a good Jew. 

The dietary laws were meant to limit the eating of meat and keep it to a bare minimum, and hunting for sport was absolutely forbidden the Jews.  When they caught fish it was to be only by net and never by hook.  Says Rabbi Dessner, “Mercy was not only shown to one’s fellowman, be he Jew or Gentile, but to all living things: the beasts of the field, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air.  We are taught not to harm a single living thing, not a fly or an ant, not even a spider.  For they too are God’s creatures.  And these too suffer when they are hurt….Toward all of God’s creatures we are taught to show mercy.”  Moreover, according to Jewish Midrash, both Moses and David were chosen to lead Israel because of their compassion toward animals.  The sabbath was a day of rest for animals as well as humans.

Video showcasing ten of the fastest animals in the world. Originally posted to YouTube by ViralBe.

Jesus was evidently not a human chauvinist.   Instead of lording over animals, he observed them and learned from them.  So much did he learn from animals that he continually uses them as symbols for the reign of God. “The birds of the air,” the “sparrow falling from its nest,” the fish gathered and not wasted, the sheep and the goats, the one lost sheep–all Jesus’ parables that include animals reveal how humble he was toward them, recognizing the harmony and interdependence we share with all living things. 

They say Christ was born in a stable among animals–one might say he got a pretty good start in life.   And he died as a slain lamb of God.  Presumably the last lamb so slain.  

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion, pp. 162f.

Banner Image: A curious fox gazing. Photo by Scott Walsh on Unsplash.

Queries for Contemplation

The late Catholic monk Thomas Merton liked to say that “every non two-legged creature is a saint.”  Is that your experience also?

Recommended Reading

A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice

In A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox delivers a profound exploration of the meaning and practice of compassion. Establishing a spirituality for the future that promises personal, social, and global healing, Fox marries mysticism with social justice, leading the way toward a gentler and more ecological spirituality and an acceptance of our interdependence which is the substratum of all compassionate activity.
“Well worth our deepest consideration…Puts compassion into its proper focus after centuries of neglect.” –The Catholic Register

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4 thoughts on “Animals, Community, and Holiness”

  1. Avatar

    I started my day with this meditation with delight, it is a subject near and dear to my heart! Especially when you point out the lessons animals have to teach us.
    I have borne witness dozens of times to animals being trucked to slaughter( the SAVE Movement). It is life changing. I will keep working to bring awareness of the evil that is “ factory farming.” Bless you.

    1. Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Rev. Dr. Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Thank you so much Ellen for your support and for “working to bring awareness of the evil that is ‘ factory farming.’”

  2. Avatar

    I taught my parakeet (named Psyche) to say The Lords Prayer and other prayers. After the pandemic, I plan take it to spiritual services and put it in front of the microphone and have it lead different congregations in prayer and jokes.

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