For this roundtable discussion, Ashley the Editor wants us to answer the question, “Do animals have souls?”
Across the centuries, Christians have approached that question in a variety of ways. The historic consensus is that, yes, animals do have souls, but animal souls are not like human souls. We could go on from here to discuss the specific difference between animal souls and human souls, but that is quickly going to get pretty technical, and most folks aren’t at all interested in that kind of theological shop talk.
Because when we ask whether animals have souls, what we actually want to talk about is our connection with animals: Is it for real or is it something we just imagine?
In Holy Orthodoxy, we believe that connection is real. In fact, in the Church, we teach that not only are we connected to the animals, but that the animal world is going to be saved through us. For example, in chapter two of the Book of Genesis, the First Man, Adam, names all the animals, and, in Holy Scripture, when you name something, you are responsible for it.
Down through the ages, we’ve done a horrible job at following through on that responsibility, but, in chapter eight of his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes that, along with the rest of the creation, the animals “wait with eager longing” for us to get our act together.
And in Orthodox Christianity, we have lots and lots of saints who not only have had their act together, they have also had a redemptive connection with animals. Many people are familiar with Francis of Assisi, the Roman Catholic saint who preached to the birds and tamed a wolf, but, in Holy Orthodoxy, this bond with the animal world is just a regular part of what it means to be a holy person. I’ll share with you a few of the more famous examples.
-St. Sergius of Radonezh, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and St. Herman of Alaska were all Russian monks, and they each had close relationships with bears. In fact, when the monks in St. Sergius’ monastery complained that his bear was eating meat during Lent, the holy man replied, “Guys, get real—he’s a bear.”
- St. Melangell was an Irish nun who lived in Wales. Whenever rabbits were being hunted by packs of hounds, they would take refuge next to this holy woman, and she would protect them not only from the hounds but also from the nobles who owned the hounds.
- St. Mark the Ascetic lived in the deserts of Egypt, and he once healed a hyena pup that was blind. In gratitude, the mama hyena brought the holy man a sheepskin. St. Mark thanked the mama hyena, but then he instructed her not to take sheep from the flocks of poor people.
- St. Gerasimus was originally from what is today Turkey. He lived in a monastery by the Jordan River, and, at one point, he rescued an injured lion. The lion then followed him around the rest of his life, and, on the day St. Gerasimus died, the lion died, as well.
- St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne lived in Northern England. He once spent an entire night standing in the cold ocean surf in an effort to overcome temptation. When he came out of the water, sea otters wrapped themselves around his feet to help him get warm.
Of course, I realize that a lot of people are going to regard all of that as folklore and legend, but it’s important to understand that we’re not necessarily talking about ancient history. St. Seraphim of Sarov died in 1833; St. Herman of Alaska died in 1836, so both those holy men departed this life right about the time that Texas won its independence from Mexico.
What we are looking at, then, is an unbroken tradition of holiness that features an intimate and redemptive connection with the animal world. And probably the best summary of this whole tradition comes from a Syrian saint named Isaac. This is what he wrote back in the eighth century: The humble man approaches wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They scent as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming. It is this, which has sweetened the fragrance of humanity.
So if you really care about animals and about their souls, you can adopt a shelter pet or contribute to the SPCA or even volunteer at a wildlife refuge. But the very best thing that you can do for all animals is get as close as possible to the One Who created them and who gave us responsibility for them. Because the way our dogs and cats and fish and turtles and hamsters are going to be saved is through the grace and mercy of the Most Holy Trinity that flows through us. That’s also how all the deer and possums and skunks and mockingbirds and sloths and blue whales and gazelles and penguins are going to be saved.
That’s what Holy Orthodoxy teaches: When we become holy, the entire creation is sanctified. If you would like to learn more about how that works, just let me know.
Father Aidan Wilcoxson is the pastor of St John Orthodox parish in Cedar Park (www.theforerunner.org); he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.