This prayer is commonly attributed to Saint Basil, the Bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century, though this is somewhat contested. Irrespective of it’s origins I think we can benefit from it.
O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, even our brothers, the animals, to whom Thou gave the earth as their home in common with us. We must remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song, has been a groan of pain. May we realise that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life
Talk of animal guides is common enough in Pagan traditions, especially Shamanism, but not so much within Christianity or Judaism. Nevertheless, the story of Balaam and his donkey, found within the Old Testament book of Numbers, provides a striking example of the will of the Creator being communicated to humanity through a creature. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from this? The author narrates the incident as follows:
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey and went with the Moabite officials.But God was very angry when he went, and the angel of YHWH stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him.When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road.
Then the angel of YHWH stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides.When the donkey saw the angel of YHWH, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again.
Then the angel of YHWH moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of YHWH, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff.Then YHWH opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?”
Balaam answered the donkey, “You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”
The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?”
“No,” he said.
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of YHWHstanding in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown.
The angel of YHWH asked him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? I have come here to oppose you because your path is a reckless one before me.The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If it had not turned away, I would certainly have killed you by now, but I would have spared it.”
Balaam said to the angel of YHWH, “I have sinned. I did not realise you were standing in the road to oppose me. Now if you are displeased, I will go back.”
The angel of YHWH said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but speak only what I tell you.” So Balaam went with Balak’s officials.
But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath of all mankind.
The following prayer is attributed to Basil of Caesarea, also called Saint Basil the Great, who lived from 330AD-379AD. It is a prayer of confession, for the ways we’ve fallen short in our treatment of animals, and of request, for a more God aligned awareness.
The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of kinship with all living things, our brothers and sisters the animals to whom You have given the Earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the Earth, which should have gone up to you in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for you, and that they have the sweetness of life.
If you are a visual person like me, you’ll find the impact of the prayer will be greatly enhanced if you visualise both the beauty of your local wildlife and the cruelty it has suffered whilst reading through the prayer slowly three times.
I found this image of Behemoth and Leviathan on DeviantArt by a person calling themselves PutridusCor, which seems to be the moniker for a guy named Aidan in Canada.
Behemoth and Leviathan are two enigmatic animals mentioned in the Old Testament book of Job. Some equate Behemoth and Leviathan with a hippopotamus and a crocodile respectively, others have compared them to primeval monsters of pagan mythology. This artist seems to have taken the latter approach.
In case anyone was wondering, no I wasn’t blogging during Earth Hour last night. That last post was pre-written and pre-programmed to launch while I was otherwise occupied.
What I was actually doing was having a relaxing chat with my wife and elder son by candlelight in our dining area after our younger son went to bed. Very civilized.
My son was old enough to actually appreciate a bit of what was going on this year and I took the opportunity to join some of the dots for him between our actions and our sacred stories. As a four year old, the story of Noah is one he already knows fairly well and we explained, “Just as Noah took care of the animals when they were in danger, we’re doing this to take care of the animals too.” He got the point, we should care for all life. God gave us this beautiful world God to live in – we should respect his gifts.
John Smulo has been writing on God’s love for animals over at Smulo Space. I have often found it disturbing how little regard some of my fellow Christians have for God’s creatures. I don’t see how it’s so hard to join the dots, I mean, haven’t they ever read about Noah? Hello! But that’s the unfortunate reality.
Yet there is a growing body of writings by Christian theologians who have risen to the challenge. John’s essay at Sacred Tribes is a helpful summary of some of the issues.
My own personal view is, to whatever degree it is possible, go cruelty free. I don’t buy into vegetarianism, but I don’t buy into battery hen eggs either. I think the growing awareness that global warming is a moral issue needs to be matched by some ethical inquiries into factory farming and animal testing, particularly where alternatives are available.
A poem that often gets me thinking is this:
God in his wisdom made the fly
And then forgot to tell us why.
The reason why is, while I do not know why there are flies, I know there is a reason, I know they are part of the ecological cycles that sustain our existance. I choose to talk about flies simply because typically we have so little regard. But if God created and called them good, should we not at least pause to think about it? Maybe we should listen to the Jains just a wee bit – I may disagree with their extremism but I think some listening would not go astray.
Here’s another fly poem by William Blake:
Thy summers play,
My thoughtless hand
Has brush’d away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink and sing
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath;
And the want
of thought is death;
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
Why not sit and meditate on it for a minute? I don’t know all the answers but I do think the ethical responsibility of Christians should be recognized as encompassing care for endangered animals, tortured animals and exploited animals. There are many areas where ethical clarity is still elusive, and I admit I myself have been far from perfect, but ethical issues there are a plenty.
Earth Ministry: A response to the need felt by many Christians to recognise the riches of God’s creation and to address from a Christian perspective the environmental problems of our society. An Aussie Uniting Church initiative.
Eco Congregation: An ecumenical programme helping churches make the link between environmental issues and Christian faith, and respond in practical action in the church, in the lives of individuals, and in the local and global community. Includes an environmental audit toolkit and award scheme for churches.
TREES: Theological Roundtable on Ecological Ethics and Spirituality. A student-based, inter-religious organization at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, seeks to raise awareness of the issues that surround the ecological demise of the earth.
JRI: The John Ray Initiative is an educational charity with a vision to bring together scientific and Christian understandings of the environment in a way that can be widely communicated and lead to effective action.
I recently came across various references to a book on Animal Theology by Andrew Linzey. The reviews caught my interest:
ANIMAL RIGHTS is animal theology, in Andrew Linzey’s view. He argues that historical theology, creatively defined, must reject humanocentricity. He questions the assumption that if theology is to speak on this issue, “it must only do so on the side of the oppressors.” Linzey’s theological query investigates not only the abstractions of theory, but also the realities of hunting, animal experimentation, and genetic engineering. He is an important, pioneering, Christian voice speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves.
ANDREW LINZEY holds the world’s first fellowship in theology and animal welfare–the International Fund for Animal Welfare Senior Research Fellowship at Mansfield College, Oxford University, and is a Special Professor of Theology at the University of Nottingham. He has written fourteen books on theology and ethics, including Animal Rights, Christianity and the Rights of Animals and Political Theory and Animal Rights. At the 1989 Annual Conference of The Humane Society of the United States he was named official chaplain to the animal welfare movement in recognition of his outstanding work in the field of theology and animals. In 1990 he was awarded the Peaceable Kingdom Medal for outstanding work in the field of theology and animals.
I also note there’s a draft study guide at one site which contains useful bible references for anyone interested in animal welfare issues as they relate to Christian theology.
I’m wondering if ECer’s have read this book? It would be good to hear some commentary.
Richard Wade has posted a critique that’s worth reading on the Australian E-Journal of Theology. It raises as many questions for me as it answers but he himself acknowledges “The debate over a theology and ethics of animals is in its early stages. And the world in which we live encourages its growth.“