Theology and Ecology:

English Saints and the Animal World

Stories of how the Saints befriended wild animals are well-known. The cases of martyrs whom wild beasts refused to maul to death in the stadia of the pagan world have been catalogued. There are also many cases of hermits in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine who befriended crocodiles, hyenas, lions and wolves. One may think of St Anthony the Great and the wild asses, St. Macarius of Egypt, St Pachomius the Great, Blessed Jerome and the Lion, St. Gerasimus, St. Simeon the Stylite and more recently, in the forests of Russia, St. Seraphim and the bear. Less well-known are the stories from the Lives of the Irish Saints: St Columba and the Crane, St. Columban, St. Brendan, St. Kenneth, St. Kieran, St. Colman, St. Kevin and a host of wild animals.

Some object that the sources of these stories may have been corrupted. True, some were made into myth and folk-legend by an imported mediæval ideology that wished to corrupt the shining holiness of the Pre-Schism Irish Church, but it is impossible to deny all of these stories. However, even less known than these stories are those concerning English Saints and animals. It is of these that we would now speak. There is no better place to start than St. Cuthbert, the great ascetic of England's Holy Island, whom even the elements obeyed. In his Life, which even the most godless of academics cannot cast aside, there are no fewer than five stories that connect the Saint to the animal world.

The best-known story is that of how the Saint used to go out at night, keeping vigil in holy prayer, and return to his monastery for common service. One night a brother saw the Saint leaving the monastery of Coldingham and followed him. The Saint bent down to the sea and, wading into the cold water up to his neck, began his service with holy chanting and prayer. As dawn came, the Saint came out onto the strand and again prayed. He was followed by two otters who came and dried his feet with their fur, breathing on them to bring back the circulation. This done, they awaited his blessing and then returned to their sea-homes.

Another story concerns how the Saint, still untonsured, refusing to eat until the ninth hour, it being a Friday, was alone in the hills of the North. As dusk fell and still not having eaten, the Saint came on a sheiling or shepherd's hut, where he began chanting the Psalms for the evening office. At this moment he saw his horse, pulling down the thatch from the roof of the shieling, uncover a linen-wrapped bundle. The Saint, his prayer finished, went to unwrap the cloth. Inside he found a piece of loaf, still hot, and food for a meal. The Saint prayed thus: 'I thank God, Who has stooped to make a feast for me who was fasting for the love of His Suffering, and for my comrade'. The Saint then divided the loaf into two and gave half to his 'comrade', his horse.

Another time, preaching in the hills of the North, he was brought a fish by an eagle. 'He who serves God shall never die of hunger', the Saint said on this occasion. Characteristically, having taken the fish, he cut it in two and returned half of it to the God-sent eagle.

A fourth story concerns the end of St. Cuthbert's earthly life, when he went out to live on Inner Farne as a hermit. Living in his tiny, enclosed oratory, open only to the heavens, the Saint had sowed some barley to feed himself. When the barley had sprung up, birds came to eat it and the Saint spoke to them thus: 'And why are you touching a crop that you did not sow? Or perhaps you need it more than I? If you have God's leave, do what he allows you; but if not, be gone and harm no more what is not your own'. At his command, the birds left and troubled him no more. On another occasion on the island, the Saint saw two ravens tearing at the thatched roof of the guest-room that the Saint had built. He asked them to stop with the words: 'In the name of Jesus Christ, be gone with you as quick as you can and never return to this place that you have come to spoil'. At once the ravens flew away. Two days after this one of the birds returned and trailing his wings and bowing his head, with a low voice asked forgiveness and permission to return. The Saint relented and at once the raven flew away, returning with his mate and a lump of lard as a gift for the Saint. For many years after the Saint would show the birds with whom he lived at peace as an example of obedience and humility to all men, for 'the very birds hasten to wash away their faults by prayers, tears and gifts'.

Another great hermit figure whom the birds and beasts loved and obeyed was the fen-dweller, St. Guthlac who reached a point of great empathy with the natural world: 'Even the birds of the untamed wilderness and the wandering fish of the muddy marshes would come flying or swimming swiftly to his call, as to a shepherd. They were even accustomed to taking from his hand the food as the nature of each required'. On one occasion, when he was pondering on the spiritual life with the holy hermit Wilfred, two swallows came flying to Guthlac and, 'lo, they lifted up their song in gladness and settled without fear on his breast and arms and knees'. The hermit Wilfrid asked how this could be so and received the answer: 'Have you not heard in the Holy Scriptures that the wild beasts and birds come closer to him who has led his life according to God's will?'
We cannot fail to mention either our holy mother Werburgh of Chester who shone with goodness. Close by her convent she had fields which were continually plundered by wild geese. Now the steward of those fields, failing to drive the geese away, came to his lady and complained. St. Werburgh replied: 'Go and shut them all into a house'. Though the steward was amazed at this reply, being obedient, he nevertheless went out and, in a loud and clear voice, commanded them to obey his lady. With one accord, they gathered together and with bent necks, trooped into one of the farm buildings. But the steward, however obedient, was a man of greed, and he took one of the geese to eat. At dawn the next day the holy Werburgh came, scolded the geese and released them. The geese, with great clamour, refused to move. Understanding that all was not well, the Saint divined the act of the steward. She ordered him to gather all the bones of the purloined goose and straightaway, at a sign from her hand, skin and flesh appeared on the bones, feathers fledged and the living bird appeared, at once to soar away into the sky. The other geese followed, having first bowed their heads to the holy lady. In this way the goose became the symbol of the Saint.

What is remarkable about all these stories is their lack of sentimentality. For in the sentimentality which is so often found in the accounts of mediæval monks, we see only the man-centred, humanistic relationship to animals which can daily be seen in our zoos, pet shops, parks and streets. According to this ideology, animals are merely annexes to man, useful for decoration or entertainment, entirely dependant on human whim, not beings created by God. They are simply animals of a lower order to man. Since they are of a lower order, i.e. more stupid, man may go to any extreme he wishes with them, on the one hand pampering them and dressing them in human clothes, on the other hand slaughtering them by the million.

Since humanism, which puts man at the centre of the universe, sees man as independent of God, all other things are therefore subject to him. It is this man-centred attitude which is also responsible for man's selfish and arrogant rape of the natural world and his gluttonous meat-eating. This is man's exploitation of Creation. In the Lives of the Saints, however, we see that all Creation, though in a hierarchical relationship, is in fact God-centred. The Saints, aware of their position in Creation, have compassion for all Creation. All beings are fallen through the Sin of Adam; hence the compassion, the co-suffering of the repentant and the Saints with all created things. And God's creatures also recognise the dominion of men and women who recognise the dominion of God: and this is Orthodox Christian Ecology.

More details of the book "The Lighted Way" and where to buy it, can be found on The English Orthodox Trust page of this site.

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