a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

companion animals

by Michael J. Gilmour

Elegant Whale by <a href='' target='_blank'>Scott DeBie</a>
Elegant Whale by Scott DeBie

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves – goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” (1877)

Though writing a generation later, the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins invokes a Romantic enthusiasm for the natural world, finding there not only artistic and intellectual stimulation but also a resource informing theological contemplation. Hopkins’s art stands out in this respect, for though there are remarkable exceptions, it is generally the case that Christian thinking is anthropocentric in orientation. Perhaps fascination with post-mortem destinations (heaven, hell, purgatory) in much Christian discourse minimizes perceived value in the material world. Alternatively, maybe it is the tendency to stress the unique status of humans as made in the image of God (see Genesis 1:26), and the fallen state of the post-Edenic universe that is to blame. Whatever the reason, many Christian thinkers seem reluctant to recognize anything of spiritual import in the ecological wonders that surround us. To my mind, this is a missed theological opportunity. Hopkins’s willingness to see the divine purpose in each thing—What I do is me: for that I came—and his awareness that all creation is “charged with the grandeur of God,” as he says elsewhere, inspires a worldview that refuses to put self, and humanity as a whole, at the centre of all things.

Hopkins’s complex poetry gestures toward a spirituality, a communion of individuals with the world around, including animals. And I suspect I am not alone in saying experience resonates with this insight. Such was the case for me a few years back when we lost our spirited greyhound named Tiger after a short illness. It was a heartbreaking diagnosis. Osteosarcoma is a bone cancer that leaves few viable treatment options, apart from pain management. The brief time between diagnosis and our final goodbyes was not easy. There were frequent trips to the animal hospital, and the financial costs of palliative care, including an expensive routine of medications. Far worse was the emotional toll as we waited the inevitable but gradual progress of the disease. We wondered constantly when the quality of life ends for an animal, and whether the decision to delay euthanizing was for our own benefit or hers.

Companion animals inspire much behaviour well described as spiritual in the broadest sense of the word. These creatures have a remarkable capacity to disrupt self-centeredness and inspire affection and appreciation for something completely “other.” Though with Hopkins I contemplate and define spirituality in light of both Christian theology and the wonders and mysteries of the natural world, there is inevitable dissonance that results from each attempt to link the two, particularly when animals are involved. The church’s history boasts many teachers finding religious meaning in encounters with other sentient beings, and yet many more reflect the deeply entrenched view that the natural world does not matter. As early as the writings of St. Paul in the mid-first century, we find language appearing to minimize the significance of animals: “it is written in the law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Or does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was indeed written for our sake” (1 Corinthians 9:9-10). At least on the surface, Paul appears to undermine the force of a Torah regulation clearly intended to protect labouring animals in favour of an anthropocentric remark. No doubt influenced by Paul’s thinking, the church has a sorry history of neglecting the importance of animals in the religious life, not to mention its tendency to overlook moral responsibilities toward them. Despite Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 25:4, biblical literature provides plenty of evidence to suggest that animals are more than ornaments in the world God made. This is not the context to develop a biblical theology of nonhuman creation but suffice it to say that just as the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), so too animals reveal something of their maker. This God declares them “very good” along with everything else he made (Genesis 1:31). One striking account of the religious consequence of animals in the context of biblical literature is a scene in the Book of Job.

“Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?” (Job 39:26). This is but one of a litany of questions God puts to Job once he responds to this man’s complaints from the whirlwind. Job lost everything and understandably, he voices despair, sorrow, and anger over his sorry plight. Yet God does not explain the man’s losses and torments but instead directs Job to observe the world around him, including a wide array of nonhuman species (Job 38-41). Lions, mountain goats, wild asses, eagles, deer, oxen, ostriches, horses, and the mysterious but mighty Behemoth and Leviathan appear among the wonders of the natural world God describes, and the effect on Job is striking and perhaps predictable. “I am of small account,” he says to God, “what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further” (40:4-5). The experience transforms Job. His worldview no longer centres on his own predicament. He gains perspective, acknowledging his minuteness (which is not to say insignificance) in relation to God and the world around him. This ancient Jewish text offers another obvious yet profound lesson. Our interactions with the divine occur within a richly diverse and majestic world populated with seemingly endless species, and these nonhuman animals are every bit as dependent on God for life and wellbeing as human beings (see e.g., Psalms 78:23-25; 145:15; 104:21; 147:9).

Caring for and grieving the loss of my dog turned my thoughts away from myself and toward God, the ultimate “Other.” My relatively short time with Tiger in life awakened compassion and celebration of God’s good world, and my journey with her through the valley of the shadow of death evoked a longing to find meaning and solace in loss. Much to my surprise, this animal-human relationship reminded me I am not at the centre of a God-ordered universe. For the nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, all living things reveal the creator God, with each kingfisher and dragonfly—and let us add each companion animal—offering a glimpse of the divine.