Thursday, 21 November 2013

God's gift and Man's best friend

Last month I sadly lost one of my best friends. We'd been inseparable since I was 16, regularly going for walks in the parks and on the beaches around Swansea, playing in the garden after school or work, staying up late to watch Match of the Day or to pray the rosary. He was often the first to greet me in the morning and the last to say good night before I went to bed. When I was sad, he cheered me up. When I was stressed he helped me to relax. When I was in pain, he helped me bear the burden. When I was happy, he shared my joy. When he passed away, I sobbed for a good hour and though I have nothing but happy memories of our time together, I feel the loss most acutely in the little things. I can no longer expect to see him strolling up the drive to meet me after work or to literally chew the bacon on a Saturday morning nor can I pay him a visit when I'm troubled and can't sleep. His name was Buzz and he was the best of buddies.

Buzz in his prime
I get an immense amount of spiritual consolation from the natural world, be it in marvelling at the grandeur of the cosmos, the intricacies of the laws of physics, a beautiful panorama or amazing animal. This appreciation is so strong that for me, it is an irrefutable proof of God's existence. It is a grace which is not given to all but without which I may have struggled in my Faith. "Credo ut intelligam",  "I believe that I may understand", as St Anselm says.

Some of my favourite stories about the saints include their interaction with animals. St Francis is well known for his great love for nature and this love was expressed most beautifully in his Canticle of Creation, Brother Sun and Sister Moon. Saint Francis' inspiration for the canticle was undoubtedly Daniel 3:57-88, one of my favourite bible passages, where creation itself is called upon to worship the creator:

And you, sun and moon, O bless The Lord,
And you, the stars of the heavens, O bless The Lord,
And you, showers and rain, O bless The Lord.
To him be highest glory and praise forever.

The "Fioretti" or "little flowers" of Saint Francis, a collection of hagiographical stories on the life of the saint, are filled with anecdotes of his interaction with creation. My  favourite tales include the story of the Wolf of Gubbio who Francis convinced to protect rather than terrorise the local village by shaking its paw, a dance to music supplied by crickets and a sermon to the birds. The Franciscans have retained Francis' fascination with nature in their art and culture and I am reminded of a beautiful Franciscan Church in Rome (the name escapes me, as do the pictures I took of it) which has frescoes of the Stations of the Cross which depict animals tending to the wounds of Christ as he moves towards Cavalry. I like to think that we were originally designed to have a far deeper relationship with nature and creation but that bond has been damaged by the spiritual turmoil which ensued after The Fall. Saints like Francis offer us a glimpse of how we might have been, better able to interpret the natural world and act accordingly.

Buzz and Brother Snarf
One of the first things I remember studying as part of my Theology & Philosophy A-Level was St Thomas Aquinas' teachings on matter and form. We looked at the difference between anima or spirit and a rational soul and marvelled at the vagarious implications for the created order. For example, plants have spirits (which maybe why my father talks to his tomatoes and why children play with food) and each angel is effectively its own species. Contrary to received wisdom and with great concern, we learned that according to Aquinas, All Dogs Do Not Go to Heaven as this was the dwelling place of rational souls worthy of the beatific vision.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that "the seventh commandment enjoins respect for the integrity of creation. Animals, like plants and inanimate beings, are by nature destined for the common good of past, present, and future humanity." [1] To put it briefly, the whole of creation is designed to give glory to God and serve mankind in its earthly existence. Man's dominion over nature is evidenced in the Genesis creation stories where each animal is brought forth to be named by Adam but this dominion is not inalienable - creation belongs first and foremost to God and Man's dominion therefore includes a duty of stewardship. The Catechism tells us that "God surrounds animals with his providential care" and that by their mere existence, they are able to bless and give Him glory. A dog can be no more or less a dog; it fulfills its nature of doginess perfectly. We therefore "owe animals our kindness" and it is "contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly". [2] It is however possible to anthropomorphise animals to such a degree that it undermines both human dignity and the dignity of animals within the created order. It is truly exasperating to see people treating animals like human babies or children. It is certainly possible to love animals without directing the kind of affection which is properly due to people.

So where does this leave Buzz? We do not know what the New Heaven and the New Earth will look like but we do know that the bodily resurrection applies only to those rational souls who have died in Christ. I like to think however that in the resurrection, we shall take with us all that is good in this life, having shed all that is bad. This would certainly include my memories of Buzz and the "good" of creation itself. Perhaps there is hope too from the Book of Revelation which describes the heavenly liturgy where "every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea...", cries out: "To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour, glory and power, forever and ever"[3] Maybe Buzz is sharing a truce with the glorious postmen of heaven, praising God before his throne. Failing that, I'll just imagine he is happy chasing squirrels in Elysium. I wonder what he will do if he ever catches one?

Buzz enjoying the snow

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Catholic Church, 2415
[2] ibid, 2416-2417
[3] Revelation 5:13


  1. The loss of a good dog is substantially poignant. Without wishing to appear crass, I have nominated you for a Sunshine Award. God bless.