Francis and the Animals
A Loving Partnership
Friday, October 8, 2021
If you wish to know the Creator, come to know his creatures. —St. Columban, Sermon 1
Scholar Edward Sellner has traced the influence of early Celtic spirituality to places throughout the world, including Francis of Assisi’s area of Italy.
This sense of kinship [with animals] was an intrinsic aspect of Celtic Christian spirituality that affected not only those living in Celtic lands, but also significantly influenced later saints who were raised in geographical areas on the Continent, ministered to by Irish missionaries. . . . The numerous animal stories associated with Francis and his attitude of compassion toward animals and birds as “sisters” and “brothers” reflect the spirituality of the Celtic saints. . . .
As the Irish scholar John Scotus Eriugena (c. 810–877 CE) states, “Every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany, that is, an appearance of the divine”. . . . Celts, both ancient and Christian, experienced an outright mystical connection with nature. This sense of spiritual kinship is reflected in their profound respect for the earth and the natural rhythms of body and soul, precisely because they did not see themselves as “lords” over creation, but spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually connected with it. . . .
Animals are portrayed as fellow-creatures of the earth, and once befriended, they become helpers to the saints. . . .
In telling the stories of their saints, [Celtic hagiographers] sought to teach lessons, reinforcing a perspective that humans and animals are all related to one another, and that we are meant to enjoy each other’s company as well as alleviate each other’s pain. . . .
Ciaran of Clonmacnoise had a fox who acted as a sort of mail carrier between him and another monk. . . . Ciaran of Saighir . . . had his monastery built with the help of animals “as if they had been his monks” . . . St. Colman’s monastic inhabitants—a rooster, a mouse, and a fly—ministered to him. . . . Otters ministered to Cuthbert when he spent a night in the cold ocean waters praying, by warming his cold feet with their breath, even drying them with their fur. A bear helped Gall build a fire when the saint had twisted his ankle in a fall; a white bird guided Brendan on his voyage to the Promised Land, and the whale, Jasconius, provided his back for Brendan’s boat to rest on. . . .
Kindness, compassion, loving respect on the part of the saints elicits from their creature-partners trust, caring, and love—which, in turn, increases the happiness of everyone. . . .
Above all, the stories show how much our fellow-creatures can contribute to our own lives without having to give up theirs, so that we can all experience, like Columban, the shared joy of partnership.
[Richard: Whether we read these stories literally or symbolically, the important question is only this: “What allowed story tellers or writers to think this way?”]
Edward C. Sellner, Celtic Saints and Animal Stories: A Spiritual Kinship (Paulist Press: 2020), 93, 94, 6, 7, 93, 95–96, 98.
Story from Our Community:
If all the plants and animals were no longer on Earth, humans could not survive. However, if humans were no longer on Earth, the animals and plants would thrive. Therefore, who needs who? I pray for all of God’s creation to live within their means and take no more than what they need. We are all connected and God has created us with purpose—to purposefully love. We don’t really need that much. Our lives could be simple and all the more beautiful because of it. —Colleen D.
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