There was an old woman I knew. She had fostered and cared for countless numbers of animals. Although she was a gentle soul the words her son said at her funeral have stayed with me: ‘She cared enough to be angry’.
There is an anger that destroys the soul and there is an anger that fuels it. There is a consuming hungry anger that eats away at you and often leads to violence and destruction, and there is an energy anger laced with compassion that feeds the engine of change.
The old woman didn’t just pick up society’s rejects; she sought to challenge and change the causes of rejection. She was angry when the priorities of convenience took precedence over the priorities of commitment; and she did something about it.
Someone else at the funeral called her an angel. By her actions she held out to us all a way of being good and spiritual and challenging.
Another accolade that struck me at that funeral was that “she was humble enough not to give in”. Sometimes it is tempting to acquiesce; to let cynicism and disillusion creep in; and to believe that you can’t make a difference. The need is a huge mountain and your strength to climb anything has waned.
Louise Penny, a Canadian crime fiction authoress, writes wonderful acknowledgements in each of her books. Her latest book she dedicated to her dog called Bishop, a golden retriever. She writes:
“Bishop who shared our lives for many years, died while I was writing this book. He is the last in a long line of golden retrievers who have shared, and improved, our lives. Who taught us to be more generous, more kind, way more forgiving. More patient. More human.
Our first golden was Bonnie. I’d wanted a dog for a long time. Michael (my late husband) did not. Just before we got married I somehow convinced him that a puppy would be the perfect wedding gift to each other. It was, for Michael, the same as giving each other razor-sharp teeth, pee, poop, and tumbleweeds of hair. He was not enthusiastic. After our honeymoon we picked up Bonnie, all 8 weeks of her and brought her home. She immediately peed; then cried all night. In the morning I came down to find Michael cradling her, and Bonnie curled, asleep, in his arms. She was forever his. And he was hers.
Each successive dog, over twenty years, tolerated me and bonded to Michael. Which, I must say, was fine with me. I loved seeing the joy in both their eyes when they spotted each other.
Not long after Michael was diagnosed with dementia, our last golden passed away. Michael came with me to the vet, and watched, befuddled by what was happening. Upset that I was upset, but not quite grasping why. For weeks after Michael looked for her and asked where she was. It broke my already fragile heart.
A month or so later, a friend offered us a dog whose family could no longer care for him. Would we like to meet him? The day Bishop arrived he took one look at Michael, walked over, placed his chew toy on Michael’s lap, sat down, and barely left his side until the day Michael died.
Bishop was an angel sent from a loving Higher Power.” [i]
Edward Burne-Jones the artist once wrote: “The more discoveries science makes the more angels I shall paint.” Burne-Jones mission was to offset the negative influences of technology through the positive power of art. Of course science also can be creative and life-giving, and art can be destructive and life-sapping. But artists often don’t like to acknowledge that.
As a theological thinker I find his angels more interesting. In the popular imagination angels are white-winged creatures, carrying bows or messages, well supported by the Christmas card industry. The Bible dispenses with the wings and has them purely as messengers. Note that a messenger of the Divine can also be a human being, or even an animal. They don’t need to be invisible human-shaped demigods.
Burne-Jones uses angels as symbolic of transcendent goodness. When a piece of art is so outrageously attractive it eclipses a nearby machine that is the work of an angel. When a piece of music penetrates into the recesses of our soul it is the work of an angel. When a graceful action touches the mediocrity of our day and lifts our spirit that is the work of an angel. When a dog or cat befriends a person or family and accompanies them of their journey of grief and sadness that is the work of an angel.
When an animal invites us care for their needs, or cares for ours; or we are distracted by their insatiable desire to play; or we mutually benefit from the magic of touch… these too are the works of angels: bringing spiritual lightness and joy into the serious cracks and gaps of our lives, inviting us to see differently.
The story of Balaam’s donkey – the good ass – is one of my favourites in the Bible. It disturbs, disrupts, the assumptions not just of Balaam but of human’s generally, inviting us to see differently. The story points to the intuitiveness and wisdom of animals.
Further the story is a critique of violence. One of the sad, and horrific, facts about humankind is that we often take our anger out on animals. Ask the SPCA! And there is a strong link between how animals in a household are treated and how less powerful humans [like children] in that household are treated.
On the positive side, if a child has an animal they are responsible for, not only do they receive the love and loyalty of that animal, if the child is taught and is willing the child can start to learn the art of effective and non-violent parenting.
In our story, Balaam hasn’t learnt this. He wants to enforce his will upon the donkey, and when the donkey disobeys, his anger flares up and he beats the donkey. Being in control is very important for Balaam. He interprets the donkey’s disobedience as the ass deliberately making an ‘ass’ of him. I suspect Balaam fears not being in control, fears not being seen as powerful, and these fears fuel his anger. This scenario is so common in animal abuse, and in the abuse of children and women.
Balaam’s response to a creature that doesn’t do what it’s told is to think the creature is being deliberately rebellious and to hit it. This is what many parents, many fathers, have done – interpreted children’s actions as rebelling against their authority and responded with violence. The story invites fathers and those with the power to hit to instead listen – listen to children, animals, the ‘weaker’, and to their own fears.
The wonderful thing about our story – and remember it is from an ancient time – is that by the make-believe means of giving the donkey a human voice [like Mr Ed!] that reproves Balaam, the story-teller is critiquing the abuse [verbal and physical] that animals suffer from. The ‘voice’ of wisdom challenges the self-righteous actions of Balaam and implicitly challenges the audience of this story [us] to listen to the ‘voice’, the wisdom, of the less powerful, and for the men [like Balaam] to question their own need for control and power.
There is also another layer to this story. The bigger context is that the people of Moab are fearful of the people of Israel who have wandered into their lands from Egypt. The Israelites are more numerous and so the Moabite king has sought to consult with the wise seer, Balaam. Yes, our donkey-hitting Balaam has a reputation as a wise man across the Mesopotamian world. After the Moabites implore him to visit their king, and Balaam’s God has approved this visit, he sets off only to run into an invisible warrior-looking angel (sent by Balaam’s God) that only his donkey can see. Balaam’s God is not only ambiguous in his instructions but this God has a clear favourite (the colonising Israelites). So the context is fear, favourites, and those who do the ethnically-biased god’s bidding.
Which begs the question: where is transcendent goodness in this story? I don’t think any of the story’s characters (including Balaam’s God and the sword-wielding angel) come out of it well; save the donkey. Indeed it is the donkey that in my book is the angel – the symbol of transcendent goodness. It is the donkey that is loyal, that senses danger and wants to protect, and it is the donkey that absorbs the anger and violence and stays true to his or her caring nature. The donkey represents transcendent goodness.
‘Goodness’ can be used to describe some pleasures. A meal nicely cooked, served on the veranda, with the company of old friends and a slow sunset fits this accolade.
Goodness is also trust in friends, in family, in a beloved one.
Goodness is helping someone out, a stranger or friend, and helping keep our soul healthy in the process.
Goodness is letting the beauty of earth penetrate through to nurture that soul. Goodness affects our being. It is all around us and it is spiritual, or should we say ‘angelic’.
Animals too, domestic or wild, offer a goodness that affects our wellbeing, our soul. Whether it’s the beauty of a bird taking flight, the grace of a horse running across the paddock, a dolphin playing, or a dog or cat companioning us… these things affect us spiritually.
There is also a goodness that transcends these sensuous and often spiritual moments of pleasure, friendship, helping, beauty, movement, and companionship. There is a goodness that seems to be just beyond us, offering a bigger all-encompassing horizon. Occasionally we catch a glimpse of this among us. Like a light that comes on only for a few seconds, it leaves us with the sense of potential. In those glimpses we sense a bigger, more generous world where everything might still be possible. This is goodness that lifts our vision as we imagine what society could be.
[i] P.435-6 Louise Penny A Better Man 2019.