Spiritual Lessons Animals Teach Us

Today is St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day so it seems fitting to continue our meditations on spirituality and animals.  I wrote this list of spiritual lessons animals teach us over 40 years ago for my book on Compassion, but I don’t think they have grown stale.  Spirituality does not readily go out of date.

A pit bull enjoys being sprinkled with holy water at the Blessing of the Animals, Siena College, 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

Francis’ feast day is often celebrated by a “Blessing of animals” when people are invited to bring their pets to church for a blessing.  Ministers have told me that very often more people come to church on that day than any other day in the year!  I once attended such an event at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in New York City (Thomas Berry preached) and the array of animals that paraded with their keepers down the aisle was memorable—ranging from snakes to hawks to hamsters—and even an elephant (who was not living in someone’s apartment however).

What are some spiritual lessons animals teach us? 

That it is good to be.  And good to be an animal. Some of the happiest creatures I know are animals and they do not hesitate to demonstrate their joy at living.

Ecstasy without guilt. Animals can truly let go and let be and even celebrate without guilt feelings as “wasted time” or at letting their masks down. Indeed, they instruct us in realizing that intensity of living is more important than duration.

Woman Gives Toys to a Wild Magpie — and He Invites His Friends Over to Play. The Dodo

Play is an adult thing to do and needs no justification.  In his study Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez tells the story of observing a wolf spend over an hour playing with a piece of dry caribou hide, tossing it in the air as we do frisbees. He saw wolves chase ducks amidst splashing of wings and water—all in fun.

My dog once caught a squirrel—not to eat it—but to play with it. Though the squirrel was quite traumatized by my dog’s invitation, he nevertheless went away completely unharmed.

Non-verbal communication. Animals are experts at the non-verbal—their language is mime, tone of voice and dance. And a truthful language it can be, also. Max Scheler comments on the meaning of a dog expressing “its joy by barking and wagging its tail, or a bird by twittering.” We have here “a universal grammar, valid for all languages of expression, and the ultimate basis of understanding for all forms of mime and pantomime among living creatures.”

To be continued

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion, pp. 166-167.

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

Banner Image: Stained glass image of St. Francis of Assisi. Photo by Jim McIntosh on Wikimedia Commons.

Queries for Contemplation

What are your experiences with learning spirituality from animals?

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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8 thoughts on “Spiritual Lessons Animals Teach Us”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you have brought to our attention that it is St. Francis of Assisi’s feast day. Francis’ feast day is often celebrated by a “Blessing of animals” when people are invited to bring their pets to church for a blessing. I remember you telling us in a class that your dog, Tristan, was your spiritual director. In honor of your relationship with Tristan, I posted a picture of you and and Tristan on your Facebook site. Today you also tell us that you wrote a list of spiritual lessons that animals teach us in your book on Compassion. Here are a few that you list: (1) It is good to be. (2) Ecstasy without guilt. (3) Play is an adult thing to do and needs no justification. (4) Non-verbal communication. (With more to come…)
    Then you ask us: “What are your experiences with learning spirituality from animals?” I see visceral passion with ascetic resignation to the world they exist in. Its like a friend’s dog who can sleep outside on the porch, while it is snowing and showing no discomfort. And birds don’t seem to mind being rained on.

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    4 baby chicks 3 white, one brown. I watch them as they watch me. No discrimination only community. Conative (will/spirit) styles emerging. One in the community is an explorer taking the lead in the morning and returning the flock to the hen house at sunset. Another leads in food and water as I feed and water them with the organic grains. One first flew to the hedge perches I put up 4 feet above the ground and the others followed. One first sat in the nests recently as they will begin laying soon. They watched my 15-year-old dog, Lydia, who gently watches them as I plant a triad of birch trees to protect them from the hot sun just before sunset last night. I have a stereo playing repeatedly my favorite positive music. They recognize when I turn it on and off. I am conducting an experiment. Music on for a day. Then off for a day to see if they lay more eggs with music. I will string LED green lights around their nesting area to see if they are calmer and lay more eggs that way. They also love to eat green prairie and bugs around their large fenced in exploration area to protect them from coyotes etc. As I am planting, the neighbor’s younger dog arrives, and Lydia goes to play with him. The chickens and dogs often get along better than people. I will not slaughter them but will accept their eggs for Lydia and my nourishment and to share with my neighbor friends who also share their bounty with me. https://drdarrylpokea.com/dr-pokea-relaxes-with-his-chicks/

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    From early spring, throughout the summer and into the fall, I had the blessing of a doe with her two fawns coming daily to our property, usually at dawn and then again at dusk. At times they were as close as 5 feet away from me. I would silently watch and observe them. I learnt alot about the does maternal instincts, the various ways she communicated with her fawns, teaching them different things. I also learnt alot from the fawns as they explored their new world with curiosity, wonder, delight and such joyful playfulness. Many times I found myself laughing out loud at their antics. I wrote in my journal, the many insights that came to me, from these sacred encounters, which I am truly grateful to have experienced.

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    Joy of living in the moment, lack of pretentiousness , love of simple moments shared with loved ones, ability to read between the lines and extend comfort, adaptability, resting when tired , excitement for new adventures -yes- precious spiritual teachers for us. I am grateful for my seven Old English Sheepdog mentors .

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    Thank you for your wonderful St Francis Day Meditation on animals, Matthew.

    A gray tabby cat named K who was my good friend and mentor when I was in my teens and early twenties,
    would often quietly get up on my bed at dawn, when I was still asleep, and very gently put one of her paws
    ( no claws out- a just velvet paw) on one of my closed eyes for a second, and then she’d put her paw on
    my other closed eye for a second. She’d do this until she knew she had pretty thoroughly awakened me. Then
    I’d get up and pat her and she’d nudge me with her big gray head. K taught me the importance of being
    gentle with myself and others in any awakening process.

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    Pets show unconditional love. Many animals show that to their families and “associates” as well. Richard Rohr dedicated his book, “The Universal Christ” to his late and beloved dog, Venus, and noted that he saw the Christ in her. Even when animals in the wild are aggressive and fight for dominance, they are only being true to their own nature and the need for a strong leader to protect the group and pass on the best genes so that the species will survive and grow. We animals too often use that model when it is not needed in these modern times. We have no excuse.

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    Fateah Alice Saunders

    These lessons from my dog might perhaps be regarded as psychological/spiritual.
    One day, at the bend of the stairs in my home, I saw a dark wet patch on the carpet. This had never happened before, and I felt I had to let Danny know I’d seen and was not pleased. But as he wasn’t allowed up the stairs, how could I get him to understand I’d seen it?

    I called him as I usually used called him, my voice light, welcoming. He bounded up, wagging his tail. Pointing to the wet patch I spoke in a gruff, cross voice. He immediately crouched low on the floor, growling deeply and showing his teeth. I felt utterly shaken. After a few moments of staring at each other we both went quietly downstairs, my heart beating and brain racing. I was aghast at what I’d done.

    This episode taught me the seriousness of giving mixed messages to others, not just dogs. It also helped me understand the intensity of hurt I had experienced as a child recipient of such messages. It enabled me, to feel more compassion for the child I once was – what a unexpected gift from an animal.

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