The Revd John Ryder reflects upon his lifelong love of animals, biblical understanding of God’s purposes for the world and commitment to a vegan diet.
Michael Gilmour, Professor of New Testament and English Literature at Providence University College, outlines his three central, faith-based reasons for going vegan.
A pangolin. These delightfully curious ant-eating scaled mammals are sometimes called ‘walking artichokes.’ Any animal that’s armoured, timid, nocturnal and lives in burrows, strikes me as one that is content to mind its own business.
Yet, tragically, pangolins are the most sought-after mammal for trafficking. Supposed magical properties drive demand for their foetuses, organs and scales in traditional medicines treating conditions as mundane as acne to the more bizarre of possession by ogres! Atop that, the elite show off their status and wealth by dining on such ‘delicacies’ as whole pangolin pickled in rice wine, foot-long tongue soup, and – to vouch for authenticity – pangolins are brought to restaurant customers’ tables alive, their throats cut and their blood drained to be drunk as an aphrodisiac.
No surprise then, that as an elusive species with a slow reproductive cycle, the humble pangolin is on the critically endangered list.
Beelzebub. Or, a literal translation, ‘Lord of the Flies’; the name of a post-war novel about a group of British boys stranded on an island.
The dark tale emerges as a pessimistic commentary on the human condition and civilisation, exploring tensions between order and savagery, society and individualism, power and peace. The boys – all well off, educated, gifted – start well. They appoint leaders, agree to have fun, to survive and to keep a fire alight to signal their presence to passing ships. Eventually, however, their crisis overwhelms them. Group order is overturned by factions, survival becomes warped by paranoia, and the fire goes out. They descend into chaos and savagery.
The story reflects much about a post-war culture reeling in the wake of Nazism; a cultural soul-searching which sought to answer the question of whether the ideologies and associated atrocities of WW2 were an historic anomaly, never to be a witnessed again, or if, given certain conditions, history could repeat itself.
This social-psychological introspection wasn’t just focused on society at large, but on the individual. Could we – even we the assumed-to-be-civilised British and American people – ever do the same? Lord of the Flies serves as a mirror to the self; forcing us to squint at the ‘potential savage’ in our reflections.
St Benedict. ‘Listen carefully… to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.’ So begins The Rule of Saint Benedict. Listening, he says, brings us back to the God from whom we’ve drifted. Listening wakes us up to ‘the light that comes from God’ and the ‘voice that comes from heaven’; softening our hearts and showing us the way to life.
In Benedictine spirituality, listening is obedience. For a culture which elevates the self and personal freedom to the highest reference point of identity and value, an ethic of obedience seems at best countercultural and at worst dangerously outmoded. But as Wil Derske notes in his book Spirituality for Daily Life, Benedictine obedience isn’t ‘the end of personal freedom, but a beginning point of liberation: the cracking of the think crust around my “I” and the orienting of myself to who or what has something to say to me.’
Obedience is being attentive to that which is other-than-me; the yielding of conceit and the openness that something or someone may be saying something to me which requires both my attention and my loving response. That someone, or something, may be speaking in a voice that comes from heaven; from the very heart of God.
The question tying these three things together is: who are we in a crisis?
Because who we are in a crisis, may reveal who we truly are. As Martin Luther King Jr. is credited as saying:
The ultimate measure of a (wo)man is not where (s)he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where (s)he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
Crisis exposes our defaults. The Covid-19 crisis is a bit-part in the bigger drama of how we have lived in God’s creation. And part of that unfolding drama is the story of our relationship with animals. This has come into sharp focus on pangolins because of speculation they could be the source of this particular coronavirus.
If we’re all ‘potential savages’ as Lord of the Flies suggests, then our default setting in a crisis would be ‘each one for themself.’ We respond to a crisis by dismissing, blaming or eliminating the ‘other’, asserting our own needs above the group, and denying our personal and shared responsibility and culpability.
The alternative is to listen; to recognise humbly that this crisis didn’t just ‘happen’ at the point it hit the headlines. Human activity has facilitated it. Such a deeply unsettling reality is of tremendous spiritual value if we open ourselves up to truly listening and responding to what this moment is saying to us.
We are being drawn to a new attentiveness in our relationship with all ‘others’ in creation, particularly animals. We are being woken up to our defaults, having a mirror held up to how we have been in the world that has led to the unnecessary suffering and death of countless animals: air and water pollution, ocean plastics, hunting for sport, wildlife habitat encroachment, deforestation, pesticides, over-consumption, experimentation and industrialised farming. And so on and on – for as long as we close the ears of our hearts to the groans of creation.
We are being called to a more loving response – to relate to animals and the wider creation within an evolved ethical framework that has at its heart the reality that we are of the same beloved creation as all ‘others’. This crisis isn’t a time to be ‘everyone for themselves’, but an opportunity to be woken by ‘the light that comes from God’ and to listen to the ‘voice of heaven’ leading us to life – a life of mutual flourishing for all.
The Revd Janey Hiller is an Ordained Minister and Pioneer Activist in the Anglican Diocese of Bristol.
Deb Olin Unferth, American short-story writer, novelist, and memoirist is interviewed on her latest novel Barn 8, the enthralling story of a band of animal activists who plan a heist to free 900,00 chickens.
Dr Christina Nellist, Eastern Orthodox theologian and author, reflects upon her embracing of Orthodoxy and explores how its ancient traditions can provide important insights for contemporary animal advocates.
Fr John Chryssavgis explores the rich tradition of the Desert Monastics and their relationship to animals and the natural world.
In the early third to the late fourth centuries, the dry desert of Egypt became a testing ground for exploring hidden truths not only about heaven but also about earth. More precisely, it served as a forging ground for drawing connections between the two. The hermits who lived in that harsh spiritual laboratory analyzed what it means to be human in a natural world—with all the tensions and temptations, all the struggle and survival, all the contacts with good and conflicts with evil. These men and women dared to push the limits, to challenge the norms.
Their questions and responses are found in collections of aphorisms—or apophthegmata (“sayings”)—preserved in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Listening to their words, meditating on them in silence and subsequently transmitting them to others, help us to live humanely, to be more human, to be truly alive. Their stories were ways in which the desert elders maintained a sense of continuity with their past, while fostering a sense of connection with future generations. These stories from the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Sinai are more than just a part of the Christian past. They are a part of our human heritage; they communicate eternal values, spiritual truths.
It may be surprising to find that such ancient texts are so fresh and accessible in our age. It was a strange way of life, strange even to secular society in the fourth century and perhaps for many Christians of the time. These were men and women who chose to live outside towns and villages, as far as possible from civilization, often entirely alone. They had very few possessions, choosing to do without them in order to be free for God. They lived in simple huts or rough caves, eating and drinking a sparse diet of bread or herbs with water. Their clothing entailed a simple garment, with a sheepskin that could be used as a blanket or rug. They were neither scholars nor preachers, neither teachers nor clerics, and they came from all kinds of backgrounds. They learned how to be still and silent, to know themselves and to know God, themselves ultimately becoming part of God’s redeeming work for the whole world.
So did these early desert hermits recognize or overlook the natural and aesthetic beauty of creation through their austere life and harsh discipline? What is the relationship of the desert dwellers who filled this region with their environment and with animals? In renouncing the world, did the Desert Fathers and Mothers overlook the world, or did they enjoy a new awareness of everything in the world—human, animal, and natural?
In the Life of Anthony, we are told by Athanasius of Alexandria that Abba Anthony saw the desert for the first time “fell in love with it” (Chapter 50). The desert was home for Antony and the other elders who lived there. It was there that they experienced a sense of connection with the earth as well as their communion with heaven. It is there that they also experienced a sense of continuity with the entire creation.
Abba John said: “Let us imitate our Fathers. For they lived in this place with much austerity and peace.” (John, Saying 4)
In the desert, holiness was part and parcel of wholeness. If at-one-ment with their neighbor was of the essence in the spirituality of the desert, so too was at-tune-ment to their environment, to the world, and to God.
Abba John said: “My children, let us not pollute this place, since our Fathers have previously cleansed it.” (Saying 5)
The same worldview and conviction informs the attitude of the desert hermits to animals. In fact, when it comes to respecting or relating to animals, there is an abundance of stories describing the connection that the desert dwellers enjoyed with their untamed “co-inhabitants.”
One of the Fathers used to talk about Abba Paul, from lower Egypt. He used to take various kinds of snakes in his bare hands. The brothers admired him, saying: “Tell us what you have done to receive this grace.” He replied: “Forgive me, but if someone acquires purity, then everything cooperates with that person, just as it was for Adam and Eve in paradise.” (Paul, Saying 1)
Abba Antony also said: “Reverence with moderation allows people to become stewards even over wild animals.” (Anthony, Saying 1)
Anthony certainly grasped the truth of this statement. He had, after all, persuaded the animals of his region to live at peace with him without disturbing him. In fact, the notion of resembling Adam and Eve before their Fall from the condition of grace, is the ideal to which the desert hermits aspired.
They said of Abba Pambo that his face was like that of Moses, who received the image of the glory of Adam when his face shone. Pambo’s face likewise shone like fire. It was the same with Abba Silvanus and Abba Sisoes. (Pambo, Saying 12)
Of course, we find such a relationship with nature and animals in later mystics as well. It is a relationship that transcends place; we see it in the writing of Isaac the Syrian (in the seventh century) as well as in the life of Francis of Assisi (1181–1226). And it is a relationship that transcends time; we observe it in the lives of the early hermits as well as in the nineteenth-century life of Seraphim of Sarov (1759–1833).
However, what is at stake here is much more than mere emotional attachment to animals. The connection of the early monks and of the later mystics with their natural surroundings as well as with the native animals is neither superficial nor sentimental; it is, in fact, deeply sacred and spiritual. It stems from an inner conviction that God created this world out of love, which further implies that God cares for the world and for all that exists in the world, both animate and inanimate.
Through this lens, then, the desert hermits are revealed to be—in a most intense and most intimate manner—“materialists.” In the desert, everything—including the smallest form of life and the slightest speck of dust—really mattered! In God’s eyes, the wild animals and the sand dunes are of sacred importance and have their unique place alongside humanity. In their understanding of heaven, birds and trees could never be eliminated or excluded.
For the early fathers and mothers of Egypt, the purpose of fleeing to the desert was precisely in order to restore a lost order, to reestablish a reconciliation with all creation, to reaffirm a connection between the natural world and God. The world becomes a wasteland unless it comes alive in an authentic human being, who in turn becomes the eyes, the conscience, and the heart of the world. So if we miss the story of the desert, we create an alienation between the world and ourselves, ultimately causing a division within ourselves. When we neglect the world of the spirit, we also neglect the spirit of the world. And when we disregard the world of the soul, we definitely overlook the living mystery of all God’s creation.
 For one of the most popular anthologies, see Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, Mowbrays, 1975. Revised edition: Liturgical Press, 1984.
The Revd Dr John Chryssavgis is a Greek Orthodox theologian and author of numerous books on the Church Fathers and Orthodox Spirituality, most recently Creation as Sacrament: Reflections on Ecology and Spirituality
Dr Philip J. Sampson FOCAE, writer and lecturer on animals and animal ethics explores the impact of climate change, the benefits of plant-based diets in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and why Christians should be concerned about species extinction.
Dr Joe Wills, lecturer in Law at the University of Leicester, explores the historic status of animals in law, contemporary efforts to advance the position of animals through legislation and how we can all play our part in animal advocacy.
Finnish fine artist, theologian and animal rights activist Limppu Witick explores how God’s love for animals can be expressed through art.
The Revd Janey Hiller, an ordained Anglican minister, recounts her journey towards veganism and how studying Christian perspectives on animals at theological college proved to be a life changing experience.