"There was once a holy man in India who lived in a prayerful state – so much so that everyone thought he was nuts. One day, having begged for food in the village, he sat by the roadside and began to eat, when a dog came up and looked at him hungrily. The holy man then began to feed the dog; he himself would take a morsel, and then give a morsel to the dog as though he and dog were old friends. This was an extraordinary sight in this part of India at the time. People with nothing didn't share their food with dogs! Soon a crowd gathered to watch.
One of the men in the crowd jeered at the holy man. He said to the others, "What can you expect from someone so insane that he is not able to distinguish between a human being and a dog?"
The holy man replied, "Why do you laugh? Do you not see Jesus seated with Jesus? Jesus is being fed and Jesus is doing the feeding. So why do you laugh, oh Jesus?"
This is a story about vision, about what we see. We could see just an old man foolishly giving what he cannot afford to give to a dog. This way of seeing invites us to either deride or reprove the old man. On the other hand, we could see that God or Jesus is in everyone – the man, the dog, the spectators, and even you and I. This way of seeing invites one to treat every living creature as holy and worthy of respect and dignity.
Our second ‘reading’ today, courtesy of the great Bob Dylan, is about naming animals. Of course, the naming is for the benefit of humans rather than the animals. The biblical story this originates from is Genesis 2:19-20, which is something of a comedy. The supposedly all-knowing God is trying to work out who would be a good mate for the human, and thus creates buffalo and orangutan and butterflies… whereas in the first creation story the animals are made before humanity.
The naming story in Genesis 2 also becomes a blaming story. The all-knowing and supposedly benevolent deity sets up an apple trap and blames the woman, the snake, and indeed the man for falling into it. Today we need to question the deity in that story. As a myth the story has been used to portray women as weak, and snakes as evil. It has been very destructive. Surely if you have an all-knowing and all-powerful deity, and you want to apportion blame, then the blame should rest with this God.
What is in these myth-of-origin stories, hidden away at the margins, is the interdependence of humans, animals and the environment, and how the persistent desire by humans for the power to control, to name and blame, has led to the breakdown in that interdependence. Animals have much to teach us, but we must give up our self-righteous claims to be superior in order to learn. And also we must confront the fears that feed our perceived need to be superior.
The first reading today is called the story of Balaam’s ass – though our text uses the word ‘donkey’. The story points to the intuitiveness and wisdom of animals, and in this case affirms this intuitiveness as knowing the will of God better than the human, Balaam.
Further the story is a critique of violence towards animals. 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 to learn, 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.
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 tongue [like Mr Ed!] that reproves Balaam, the story-teller is critiquing the abuse [verbal and physical] that animals suffer from. The ‘voice’ of God, the wisdom of God, 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.
Matthew Fox, who by way of advance advertising will be the keynote speaker at our Common Dreams Conference in Sydney in 2019, once talked about his dog being his spiritual director – and he was only partly being facetious – for animals are teachers in compassionate and spiritual living. Here are nine lessons Fox learnt from his dog:
It’s good to be an animal. Some of the happiest creatures I know are animals and they do not hesitate to demonstrate their joy of living.
Ecstasy without guilt. Animals can truly let go and let be and even celebrate without guilt feelings of ‘wasted time’ or at letting their masks down. Indeed they instruct us in realizing that the intensity of living is more important than the duration.
Play is an adult thing to do and needs no justifications.
The power and frequency of non-verbal communications. Animals are experts at the non-verbal – their language is mime, tone of voice, and dance.
Openness and sensitivity. There can be little doubt that animals have developed, or always had, powers of identification and sensitivity that we humans are often in awe of. Many a dog, for example, on entering a room will know if someone is depressed or sad and act to do something about it. Animals remind us how limited our sense awareness often is.
Beauty. Who can’t be caught up in the form of a seagull in flight, in the straight back of a proud dog, or by the graceful movement of a cat? Beauty is not an appendage to human and spiritual living but of its very essence.
Sensuousness. Animals teach us that one can be spiritual and sensual at the same time. They know that abstractions by themselves, money for example, are not what living and ecstasy are about.
Humour. Animals bring humour into our lives – a radical, celebrative awareness of dialectic and paradox. Animals, says Fox, I am convinced, love to make us humans laugh.
Silent dignity. Animals have a sense of their own worth and dignity – a pride at their own unique existence that subtly suggests that no one ever preached to them about original sin. As such they appear at home with silence, with themselves, and with solitude.
Fox concludes: what is clear is that God has blessed the animals and blessed us through the animals. And God requests of us that we in turn bless God through blessing the animals.[i]
I conclude with some humour. I have a friend in England, Celia, who writes for The Daily Telegraph an ‘agony aunt’ column for cats having trouble with their humans. I used to be the minister of her local Anglican church.
Celia writes as ‘George the cat’:
If God was a Cat, things would be different. For one thing, She'd make it clear that some of the human activities had got to stop - trapping and killing cats, shooting cats with air guns, kicking cats, etc. Instead churches would open their doors not just to church mice but to church cats. They'd take collections and go and buy cat food for strays. And all the starving little strays that scrounge a living in busy towns would know there was a sanctuary for them - a dry sheltered place with lots of room and cat food given out free.
There'd be less church ritual (what's the point of it?), less standing up and kneeling, less human music (though some caterwauling would be lovely at Midnight Mass), and more practical charity.
Humans would be allowed in to serve others (cats) and, if they persisted with their 'services" (which aren't really anything of the kind in practical terms) we could sit on their warm laps for the duration.
Some churches already have their resident felines. At the Tower of London chapel there is Teufel, a black tom who is known for enjoying weddings. He often sits down for a nap on the bride's train. Rupert was assistant organist at St Lawrence, Ludlow. And Lucky is a convent cat. She joins in as the nuns sing Alma Redemptoris Mater. As humans no longer go to church, perhaps we could take over?
Of course, it is pretty bad news for mice if She is a Cat.
And even worse news for us cats, if God was a Mouse.[ii]
[i] Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion, pp. 166-168.