Animals as Spiritual Teachers in Christianity

Yesterday we considered some teachings from the Jewish tradition about how animals are teachers of spirituality.  We need wisdom and spiritual teachings today as individuals and as communities.  So we continue to search such wisdom from our spiritual traditions and today we consider some Christian teachings.

Felix Douglas Maynard aka Dougie, the rescued animal companion of DM Team Member, Rev. Jerry Maynard

First of all, Jesus, was very much a person of the earth and a keen observer of animals—birds and animals, sheep and goats, an ox that needs help on the day of Sabbath, along with wolves, doves, sparrows, snakes and fish (and fishermen) and so much more show up in his teachings.   

Indeed, Jesus most likely spent his adolescence with his mentor John the Baptist in the wilderness where, in his day, lions dwelled!  Jesus learned to co-exist with lions–a pretty good preparation for what was to follow later in his public life.

Hildegard of Bingen tells us that “it is God whom humankind knows in every living thing.”  Every being is another Christ, an expression of the Cosmic Christ therefore.

Meister Eckhart says that “every creature is a word of God and a book about God.”  He says if he spent enough time with a caterpillar, he would never have to prepare a sermon because one caterpillar is so full of God. 

He praises horses loose in a meadow this way: If you were to let a horse run about in a green meadow, the horse would want to pour forth its whole strength in leaping about the meadow.  So too it is a joy to God to have purse out the divine nature and being completely into us who are divine images.

Icon of Julian of Norwich, with her cat. Icon by Br. Robert Lentz OFM.

And he declares that if he were alone and feeling afraid in a desert, he would want to have an animal with him such as a dog.  Let those who bring about great wonders in big, black books take an animal—perhaps a dog—to help them.  The life within the animal will give them strength.  For equality gives strength in all things. 

Why is this so?  Because so noble, so full of pleasure and so powerful is life itself….The life within the animal will give one strength.  For equality gives strength in all things. 

Indeed “God loves all creatures equally and fills them with his being.  And we should lovingly meet all creatures in the same way.” 

Animals are among the many original blessings in our lives and with whom we share this blessed planet, itself amazingly original as we are scouring the universe looking for a parallel planet. 

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meditations with Meister Eckhart, p. 29.  See Fox, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint For Our Times, pp. 11-24.

To read a transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: “Seabirds in flight” Photo by Eder Pozo Pérez on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

What stories do you have to tell about animals as original blessings and/or as your spiritual director?

Recommended Reading

Meditations with Meister Eckhart: A Centering Book

A centering book by Matthew Fox. This book of simple but rich meditations exemplifies the deep yet playful creation-centered spirituality of Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart was a 13th-century Dominican preacher who was a mystic, prophet, feminist, activist, defender of the poor, and advocate of creation-centered spirituality, who was condemned shortly after he died.
“These quiet presentations of spirituality are remarkable for their immediacy and clarity.” –Publishers Weekly.  

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14 thoughts on “Animals as Spiritual Teachers in Christianity”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you ask us if we have animals which are our spiritual directors? Yesterday, in my comment on our weekend DM, I quoted the same passage by Eckhart that you did about the caterpillar–and I said that it was one of my favorites! And of course, as you say, “Jesus, was very much a person of the earth and a keen observer of animals—birds and animals, sheep and goats, oxen, along with wolves, doves, sparrows, snakes and fish and so much more show up in his teachings. Meister Eckhart also writes of horses, dogs, and other animals. And we even see a icon of Julian of Norwich with her cat! But who is my spiritual director, or rather my philosophical or existential director? Why do I say that? It is because the animal I have been dealing with for the last few years are moths–Jesus said to put your treasures where MOTHS can’t eat and rust can’t corrode. I can’t see any reason why moths are on the earth–at least flies and cockroaches consume waste, but moths eat clothes and paper in books. Their existence seems totally unhelpful and therefore meaningless–and that causes me to ask if my life is meaningless and why are we ALL here together–with all of our species?

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      My little dog was a true companion for the 8 years she lived with me. At the same time I became aware of the suffering of pigs cows and chickens in the industrial animal ag industry. I loved my dog and looked on her as every animal in the world to me. And tried to treat her as such.
      They are our teachers and friends for sure and representatives of God in our lives.

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    Our pets have also been loyal and faithful assistants for the handicapped and blind. They intuit disturbance and danger and both guide and protect. They have remarkable attunement to our bodies and deepest inner needs. They have been brought into hospitals and nursing homes to have healing touch exchanges with our sick and elderly. They generously offer their vital restorative connections to everyone from adults to children.
    They have profound perceptions, “tuning in” to the microcosmic world, our feelings and even the state of health in our bodies. Many dogs can sense changes in our bodies with their sense of smell perceiving as few as two or three atoms. They have been known in this sensitivity to smell cancer cell atoms from a person’s body long before it has even been diagnosed. They can follow a person’s trace atoms even three weeks after that person was there or find people covered by rubble so rescue teams may save their lives.
    Our pets have an amazing clarity and sensitivity towards the microcosmic and they sense the deepest rhythms within our hidden inner world. They are our teachers in awakening us again to the full rhythmic dance of life and healing. They teach us to be tuned in, to trust our intuition, and have lucid discovery and understanding of ourselves. Our deepest inner workings are the same as theirs and though we may appear at times to be leading them as their master, they may be leading us back to our own healing mastery within.

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    I’ve had touching and meaningful experience with cows as creatures of sensitivity and compassion. One time in a barn a cow reached out with its head to me and nuzzled me in a manner similar to my cat. Another time I saw a photo of a cow with a fearful tear running down her face as she knew she was being led to the slaughterhouse. I have a hard time understanding how our culture turns a blind eye to the abysmal conditions in which cows (and other livestock animals) live and die to provide us with food. When people buy meat in the supermarket, we are all too willing to sanitize our experience by only looking at a package without thinking about the whole animal and how it suffered for that package to get there. Most of the world’s population eats way more animal flesh than is necessary and the pain that is inflicted touches me deep in my heart.

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    Thank you Matthew for reminding us that the saints and mystics, especially St. Francis, experienced the sacredness/Spirit of Divine Love in All Creation, including the smallest creatures, plants, and All living things (mystical panentheism)… This is why it’s so tragic and ironic that humanity, the culmination of God’s creative evolution/consciousness/Love for us, has for the most part lost that connection, intimacy, communion with Divine Love~Wisdom~Creativity~Compassion within us that interconnects us within All ongoing Creation because of our historical egocentricity and consequent sinful/destructive behavior… We’ve lost our God-centered/Cosmic Consciousness of Divine Loving Oneness, that is still within us, but we are now existentially reckoning with what we have done to Mother Nature and the source/sustenance of Life of all living creatures, including our own human species, in our Beloved Sacred Mother Earth….

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    Thank you, Irene. So often it’s asked “what can one person do, as an individual, in the face of climate change”. One thing we can all do is stop purchasing meat (beef in particular, but also pork and poultry) from supermarkets and fast food establishments – or instead seek out locally sourced, humanely raised alternatives. Industrial meat production (factory farms) not only inflict incredible suffering on animals, but these operations are responsible for much environmental damage – much of the Amazon deforestation is driven by cattle farming. We have to care enough, to change our habits and lifestyles.

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      I agree completely, but I also have had a close affinity to the plant world for most of my life and taking plants for food usually makes me uncomfortable.
      I can only assume that, given we are created such that we must eat to continue life—a life that includes animal husbandry and gardening–that there is some unknown solace for the foods whose life we must take to sustain our own.
      But to your point, industrial beef production cannot in any sense be seen as moral, honorable, or sustainable. If we must put meat on our table, let it be from local small interests whose impact is highly limited and who provide the healthiest types of meat. This meat is usually more expensive than grocery store meat, much better for our own bodies, and far less environmental impact. The fact it’s more expensive usually means people use much less of it!
      I try to honor the vegetables I produce by spreading their seed randomly throughout my journeys.

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    My experience with our dogs over decades reveals their boundless love . They are loyal , eager to have an adventure, curious, follow their own natural rhythm don’t gossip and just want to be by your side . What a gift to have a dog look into your eyes with love saying “ Please pet me.”

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    I very much enjoyed today’s DM, and especially the quote from Isaac the Syrian about the strong sympathy felt in the heart. It expresses how I respond to animals. The earliest memory of my life was an encounter with a snail on a rock at the bottom of the slide in our backyard. I don’t know why this moment was imprinted in my memory with extraordinary vividness, but somehow I suddenly felt a presence so deep and so intense and so wonderful that I can never forget it. All my life I have sought to live in sympathy with animals and only in their company do I feel free to be my real self. Perhaps it’s possible that by real self I mean spiritual self. Animals have taught me about love, forgiveness and beauty. Each one of my dogs has been a shining example of a noble spirit full of virtue. I try to follow their example.

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    Susan alice Mufson

    Growing up as an only child, my “siblings “ were my pet birds, mostly parakeets. I would tune into them and know that there was some mystery there that I longed to penetrate. I think of this as the beginnings of my spiritual life. They also provided my earliest experiences of pure love and, inevitably, profound grief. I became a vegetarian at age 16 and a vegan 50 years later, after visiting a farmed animal sanctuary and learning about the reality of dairy animals’ lives. Thank you Matthew for acknowledging animals as equals in this and the previous DM, and St. Francis.

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    We also need to look at our reactions to creatures that are not “cute” or “cuddly” such as spiders, snakes, bats, etc. We love our pets and can empathize with livestock and poultry, but many people swat spiders without a second thought, even if they’re harmless, because we don’t like spiders’ weirdness. We told ourselves (conveniently) that fish had no “feelings” so we were free to do whatever we wanted to them. Our list of the species that we care to protect is often overshadowed by the calculation of which ones are “attractive” or “relatable to us.” (The same, of course, goes for our reaction to other people: we like “attractive” people who look like our preferred ideal of “us”).
    My dad taught me to rescue bats that flew into the house when I was young, and now I do the same. I rescued a young bat that flew into the shop where I worked, even while everyone else was cringing away. They thought i was “brave” (they clapped! ) I thought I was just being a friend to the poor, exhausted, frightened little bat.

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    Richard, I offer you my little moth story. She had cream colored wings, that looked as if they had been woven of fine lace. She spoke to me, of the delicate threads of the weave and the weft of the Sacred Mantle. She spoke of the mantle of Gaia, our Mother Earth, which is fragilly woven together with interconnected and interdependent eco-systems. She also spoke of the importance of reclaiming the Sacred Mantle of the Divine Feminine and of the need to discard the cloak of disguises, through the descent of Ianana into the Underworld, the souls journey into the shadows of the unconscious. She spoke of the transformational kenotic process and the vulnerabilities of being exposed, to the raw nakedness of our flesh and bones; the frailties and weaknesses of our humanity. She showed me the truth of our original blessing and taught me how to weave this inherent goodness into a beautiful Sacred Mantle, from the threads of light, which reflected the radiant colors of love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. She spoke to me of how to rest in, carry, and give of myself; through the ancient mysteries of this Sacred Mantle; as a Beloved Bride, made ready for the Sacred union with her Beloved Bridegroom, that sacred marriage of the Divine Feminine and Masculine within, as well as that Oneing of my Divinity within my Humanity, unfolding, evolving and emerging; into the webb and weft of wholeness and holiness.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, Thank you for your story of your moth that “had cream colored wings, that looked as if they had been woven of fine lace. She spoke to me, of the delicate threads of the weave and the weft of the Sacred Mantle.” Now, don’t get me wrong, but I do know that moths are part of creation and are therefore original blessing and goodness, and yet though the book of Proverbs speaks of many insects–and their good qualities, every reference in the Bible concerning moths are negative and there are references :
      1. “houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed before the moth!” (Job 4:19)
      2. “While I am decaying like a rotten thing, like a garment that is moth-eaten.” (Job: 13:28)
      3. “you consume as a moth what is precious to him.” (Psalm 39:11)
      4. “Behold, they will all wear out like a garment; the moth will eat them.” (Isaiah 50:9)
      5. “For the moth will eat them like a garment, and the grub will eat them like wool.” (Isaiah 51:8)
      6. “But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys.” (Matthew 6:20)
      7. “treasure in heaven where no thief comes near nor moth destroys.” (Luke 12:33) Help me Cosmic Christ !!!

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