January 17, 1787

January 17, 1787 April 19, 2010

While in Italy, Goethe wrote, “It is a matter of historical observation that all religions, as their ritual or the theological speculation expands, must sooner or later reach the point of allowing the animals to share to some extent in their spiritual patronage.”[1] He is certainly onto something with this rather lucid statement; while not all theological traditions within every religion will go as far as suggested by this passage, nonetheless, within the major religious faiths, such ideas do develop. For many, animals might play no significance; for others, they have an important place in the cosmos and that place must be properly established. We can easily see such roles being given to animals in those religions which believe in reincarnation, such as in Hinduism and Buddhism. In them, animals are seen to have their own particular dharma. If they do what good is possible in their lives, they are seen to create positive karma, while those who fail to achieve such good, and actually turn away from it, are seen to create negative karma. What happens to them after they die will depend upon, at least in part, how they lived out the lot of life given to them.  In the three main monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, animals, seen as creations of God, will lead theologians to reflect upon the good that God intended through their creation. Such thinkers will consider the ethical expectations God has placed upon us in our relationship with animals (even in the time of Jesus, we see a common agreement that helping one’s animals on the sabbath did not violate the law). God created animals, perhaps with a goal that we do not know, perhaps giving them intimate knowledge about himself which we do not know (camels, Islam suggests, have been given a name for God which we do not have). There have been theologians from all three traditions who believed that animals would end up having a share in eternal life.[2]

What is interesting is the circumstance which immediately led to Goethe’s observation: he saw the truth of it being manifested in Christendom on the 17th of January, 1787.

It was the feast of St. Anthony of Egypt, and Goethe saw on it a celebration of animals and their lives. “St Anthony, abbot or bishop, is the patron of all four-footed creatures and his feast is a saturnalia for these otherwise oppressed animals and for their keepers and drivers as well.”[3]

While he might be obscure to many Christians today, St. Anthony was a very popular figure in medieval piety. He was understood as the founder of Christian monasticism. His fight against temptation became a popular theme not only in iconography but in medieval dramas. In the West, he was also to become known as a friend to animals, which eventually led to his feast day being a day where they were celebrated and given a blessing. Interestingly enough, there is historical precedent for the blessing: St Anthony himself is seen giving a blessing to a pair of lions after they helped him bury St Paul of Thebese:

Then having wrapped up the body and carried it forth, all the while chanting hymns and psalms according to the Christian tradition, Antony began to lament that he had no implement for digging the ground. So in a surging sea of thought and pondering many plans he said: “If I return to the monastery, there is a four days’ journey: if I stay here I shall do no good. I will die then, as is fitting, beside Thy warrior, O Christ, and will quickly breathe my last breath. While he turned these things over in his mind, behold, two lions from the recesses of the desert with manes flying on their necks came rushing along. At first he was horrified at the sight, but again turning his thoughts to God, he waited without alarm, as though they were doves that he saw. They came straight to the corpse of the blessed old man and there stopped, fawned upon it and lay down at its feet, roaring aloud as if to make it known that they were mourning in the only way possible to them. Then they began to paw the ground close by, and vie with one another in excavating the sand, until they dug out a place just large enough to hold a man. And immediately, as if demanding a reward for their work, pricking up their ears while they lowered their heads, they came to Antony and began to lick his hands and feet. He perceived that they were begging a blessing from him, and at once with an outburst of praise to Christ that even dumb animals felt His divinity, he said, “Lord, without whose command not a leaf drops from the tree, not a sparrow falls to the ground, grant them what thou knowest to be best.” Then he waved his hand and bade them depart.[4]

The West would, soon afterward, associate St Anthony with other animals. Typical Western iconography showed him next to a pig, which was seen as his constant companion. Since earlier writings on the life of St. Anthony, like St. Athanasius’ biography of him, do not indicate this, many scholars have tried to explain why St. Anthony became associated with swine.

One theory is that St. Anthony was understood as a healing saint, and was invoked by people with skin diseases. Ancient medicine used pig fat as a means of dealing with skin ailments, leading to an association between St. Anthony with pigs. However, once iconography presented this association by having a pig on it, those who did not know the source of the association believed it indicated something about his life, that he had a pig as his companion. Swineherds soon took him on as their patron saint. Eventually others who raised or worked with animals did so as well, making him a universal patron of animal.

Even if this theory is correct, we cannot overlook the myth which was used to explain St. Anthony’s association with pigs. In it, it is said that St. Anthony healed a sick pig who then was thankful to the saint and became his constant friend and companion. Myth, because it points out aspects of truth which transcends fact, tells us about truth that history cannot. Even if there is no historical veracity to the story, the myth tells us that the transfigured St. Anthony has indeed taken animals into his spiritual patronage. We can look at them as indicating that Anthony continues to work with animals, and has become their advocate.

But if we think this through, it is quite possible that the myth has actually caught on to something about the actual St Antony which history did not record. In his life written by St. Athanasius, we are shown various desert animals at first terrified the saint as he entered into their homeland. The devil, it is suggested, either took on their shape to frighten him, or used them to try to turn him away from his vocation. Instead of fleeing in fear, he turned to them and said they can do as they wish, that his trust was in God and that God’s will would be done.

While we know he was to overcome his own fear, perhaps there is more to the story than what initially meets the eye. New, mysterious animals, especially large ones, often present themselves as strange others to us when we first meet them. Many of them appear savage, capable of killing us if they found the need. But there is another side to animals. They can be quite compassionate and friendly. Once they know us and we know them, things change; the fear and dread we felt for them, and they for us, disappears. It does not mean we can instantly become each other’s friends, but such a possibility exists. We can find a way to establish a harmonious, trusting relationship with each other. And in the records of Christian history, we find that such relationships with animals are common in the lives of saints, especially those who took on a religious vocation. While Sts. Francis of Assisi, Anthony of Padua, and Seraphim of Sarov have become the most commonly celebrated examples of this phenomenon, there are scores of such examples found within the lives of the saints. Moreover, we find theologians, such as St Symeon the New Theologian, who suggest such friendships are expected where holiness resides, because humans originally were meant to be benevolent benefactors to animalkind. It is for this reason, I tend to believe that, in his solitude in the desert, it would not be surprising that he was not only to overcome the hostility he originally felt from animals, a hostility representing the demonic forces of sin, but that he was able to find many of them to be his friends and companions, and that they would routinely accept his blessings even as he would learn to accept their friendship. The myth presents to us that which history could not record, but which human experience could know. Countless hermits, knowing St Anthony as their archetype, could only believe that their own experiences with animals met his own.

Indeed, though the holiness of one like St Anthony, someone who lived life entirely as a life of love which avoided fear, would allow for an easier bond to form between a human and an animal, such bonds do not require extraordinary forms of holiness from us to be established. The experience of many field researches, such as Marc Bekoff, shows that as long as one attempts a compassionate, harmonious relationship with animals, if one takes it slow, animals will respond to us in ways which can and will amaze us. Indeed, it becomes clear that they, like us, take time to trust, and they have rules of engagement which must be met if we want to gain that trust; if those rules are not followed, the trust is not established, and if they are broken, the trust is broken, often leading to all kinds of negative consequences. Indeed, animals, according to Marc Bekoff, have a sense of fair play which can, at times, appear quite rough, and yet because of various non-verbal cues, they will be able to relate to each other and know what is and is not fair. As long as those rules are followed, trust is kept.[5] Indeed, those who have pets know this.

Marc Bekoff also suggests that not only can we develop such bonds with animals, but there is something within us, given to us from evolution, which has led us to find joy in it:

It feels good to interact with animals because it’s in our evolutionary heritage. Our old, reptilian brains get a bad rap, but having them means we are tightly tied to other animals and to nature. However, modern culture pulls us away from having close relationships with our animal kin. Our lifestyles and jobs and cities disconnects us from the natural world, forcing us to deny the innate pull we feel toward animals and nature.[6]

One of the things which monasticism desired to do was to remove all such cultural accretions in the life of the religious. They understood society as establishing within us all kinds of sinful habits, that society has its own structures of sin which are hard to overcome as long as we remain a part of it (not that it was impossible, but that it is more difficult than if we take on the religious life). These habits prevent us from coming to terms to our original, pure nature. St Maximus the Confessor, for example, made it clear that asceticism is a tool by which we come to terms with who we are meant to be.[7] Uniting our own work with grace, we can be restored to our natural purity, a purity which must never be seen as closed into itself, but rather, a purity which must be described as an openness to that which is not ourselves, to a proper interdependent relationship with all things in and through a proper communion with God. In this way, while Marc Bekoff suggests that our bonding with animals is a natural aspect to who we are from evolution, theology affirms that we were indeed made for such openness to creation.  It appears, even in evolution, we can see that this inclination remains and has not been entirely stamped out from us.  But we can, through sin, deafen ourselves to them. And what Bekoff notes indicates those structures of sin associated with urbanity which have caused us to become closed off to our own nature, which can make it very difficult for us to have a proper relationship with the rest of animalkind.

And yet, it does not have to end here. What Goethe noted with the Feast of St. Anthony of Egypt shows how humanity, even in the cities, still has a deep rooted desire to make its relationship with animals right. As one who represented the path of holiness, as one who specifically went out into the desert to overcome the structures of social sin, it is quite right that St. Anthony has become a patron of animals. In 18th century Italy, his feast day was one filled with great joy. What was a deserted church one day found the rewards of the saint of the desert the next, filled with people and their animals. “Horses and mules, their manes and tails gorgeously braided with ribbons, are led up to a small chapel, detached from the church proper, and a priest, armed with an enormous brush, sprinkles them with holy water from tubs and buckets in front of him.”[8] Of course, it is understood, as Western icons show, St. Anthony is there in spirit, helping to bring about these blessings to everyone who shows up to the church, human or animal.  What better way is there to show the interdependent nature between humanity and nature than this, the blessing of St. Anthony falls upon all who honor him?

This brings us back to Goethe’s original observation: given time, religions will find a way to include animals in their festivities and share with them the benefits of their respective faith traditions. The natural inclination that we have for animals explains why this is so. The more we come to know animals, the more we know they cannot be seen as mere objects, but as subjects in their own right. For the Christian, it is because God made them as expressions of his love. The proper response to love is love. We can recognize this in our head, but we must do more; we must find a way to recognize this in fact. Once we do, our interaction with the world will never be the same.


[1] Johann Wolfgan von Goethe, Italian Journey in Selected Works. Intr. Nicholas Boyle (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1999), 538.

[2] Scripture is rather suggestive, indicating that Christ’s work is for the whole of creation, for every creature, and not just humanity. One can turn to Romans 8:22 and Col 1:15-20; 23, among many others, to defend their belief.

[3] Goethe, Italian Journey 538. It is clear, from many sources that Goethe knew about St. Anthony of Egypt, especially those elements which were known by popular culture. But it is clear that at least by this point in his life, he didn’t know the whole of Anthony’s life story, for he was only an abbot, not a bishop, a monk, not a priest.

[4] St Jerome, “The Life of Paulus the First Hermit” in NPNF2(6):302.

[5] See Marc Beckoff, The Emotional Lives of Animals (Novato, California: New World Library, 2007), 96-103.

[6] Marc Meckoff, The Animal Manifesto (Novato, California: New World Library, 2010), 106.

[7] See Maximus the Confessor, The Disputation with Pyrrhus. Trans. Joseph P. Farrell (St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press. South Canan, Pennsylvania. 1990), 32-4.

[8] Goethe, Italian Journey, 538-9.

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