A hagiography is the biography of holy person, saint or church leader.
Tales of the lives of saints have for centuries been a source of spiritual inspiration for countless generations of Christians of all denominations.
Many of the accounts spring from Middle age legend however as read as poetry or medieval parable, they provide much food for thought for a modern-day audience.
These accounts, as read today, symbolically evidence how, as individual people grow in their relationship to God, they experience an overflowing of grace and love which extends outwards, not just to humans, but all of God’s creatures.
St. Francis of Assisi
The saint most commonly associated with animals is Francis Bernardone, or St. Francis of Assisi.
Born in c1181, he was well known for his persistent preaching to any creature who should come his way.
For St. Francis, “preaching” the good news was not merely something to be proclaimed from the pulpit, but could also be performed through actions which extended peace and love to all creation.
In one tale about St. Francis, he negotiated peace between a hungry wolf and the frightened people of a local village.
He commanded the wolf to leave the people in peace but also that the people exercise hospitality by offering food to the hungry animal.
This arrangement went on harmoniously for years with wolf going door to door for food and the villagers grew attached to their new friend and neighbour.
In today’s turbulent 21st century, do we really have the luxury to dismiss such accounts as mere myth?
Rather this might be seen as a paradigm example of how to deal with human/animal encounters and conflict of interest.
Rather than impose our will upon it, how might we work with God’s creation and all its inhabitants?
Saint Martin de Porres
St. Martin was born in Peru 1579 and was known to distribute food to the poor.
In going about his ministry, he asked God to bless and increase the food he had so that also the local dogs and cats might eat and be contented.
A proactive and dedicated animal lover, St. Martin also established an animal shelter in his sister’s home where he kept the stray and often abused cats and dogs he encountered in Lima.
In the following account, we can see why St. Martin, quite fittingly became known as the St. Francis of the Americas.
At the feet of St. Martin were a dog and a cat eating peacefully from the same bowl of soup. The friar was about to call the rest of the monks to witness this marvellous sight when a mouse stuck his head out from a little hole in the wall. St. Martin without hesitation addressed the mouse as if he were an old friend. “Don’t be afraid, little one. If you are hungry come and eat with the others.” The little mouse hesitated but then scampered to the bowl of soup. The friar could not speak. At the feet of the servant St. Martin, a dog, a cat, and mouse were eating from the same bowl of soup.
In a world of factory farming, cruel experimentation and blood sports, St. Martin’s spirit of kindness and graciousness to all creatures stands against the terrible hardness and abandon amongst many in our present age.
This eschatological window into the completion of Christ’s work is a light of hope and encouragement in beckoning forward the Kingdom Come.
How could peering through this window influence our choices of what we eat, wear or buy?
St. Kentigern, also known as St. Mungo, is the patron saint of Glasgow and was raised by a hermit by the name of Servan.
Servan loved animals, especially his dear companion, a robin.
Servan would delight in telling tell Kentigern and other young boys of the traditional legend that robins, bear a sacred stain of red blood of their chests because they tried to stop the flow of blood when Jesus was pierced with a spear on the cross.
One day sadly the robin had an accident and died. Kentigern, holding the limp body in his hands prayed that God would restore life to his beloved little companion.
It is said that the small head quivered and its eyes opened, as life again entered into the tiny creature which was found to be worthy of the healing power of God.
The significance of individual animal lives can easily be forgotten in a world which assumes humans to be everything and animals nothing.
Indeed where millions of birds suffer miserable lives of torment at the hands of humans, who would care for the life for a single creature?
Yet if not a not a single sparrow falls without God’s knowing then are we really too important not to notice ourselves?
Prayer is a wonderful gift from God. Should we, more often, remember to hold up the animals in prayer?
- Alison Covey. Christianity and Animal Rights. Lecture at Regis College, University of Toronto. March 2014.
- Laura Hobgood-Oster. The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd. 2010.
- Lawrence S. Cunningham. Francis of Assisi: Performing the Gospel Life. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2004.
- The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals by Laura Hobgood-Oster.