Every creature is a word of God. (Meister Eckhart)
Like most American kids, I grew up with animals. We always had a cat or a dog or a hamster or other furry creature running through the house or safely tucked away in its cage. We would always promise to feed it and water it and play with it as a condition to our parents bringing it into the house — a promise forgotten a few days into the new creature’s residency.
I was always a dog person. My brother always wanted cats. I hated cats. What worthless creatures, I thought, when I was a kid. They’d never look you in the eye and only paid attention to you when they wanted to. Dogs were much more fun. They’d chase you around the yard or bring back sticks and balls you had thrown. They were more personable and certainly more cuddly and loveable. Cats were too aloof, too independent for my tastes. I never felt a connection with them despite the clichÈ about lesbians being cat lovers!
To this day my brother is still a cat person. He and his wife play host to a half dozen or more felines at their country home. I am still a dog person with three populating my home and yard. However, it was cats that taught me what Eckhart already knew — “every creature is a word of God,” even cats.
My Pet Peeve
She was so gray she looked like she was a very dark shade of blue. She came into my life when my first girlfriend decided we needed a pet. We were in an apartment so a dog was not feasible — nor discussed. She was set on having a cat, so it was a cat we got.
My girlfriend dubbed her “Peeve.” She was our “pet peeve.” It was a fitting name since cats had peeved me most of my life and this little gray fur-ball was no exception. Attacking my feet in the middle of the night with razor sharp claws, tripping me on the way to and from any room in the apartment, always mewing her displeasure at my angry words and kicking feet. She and I had a mutual loathing for one another.
Peeve revealed the soul behind the eyes of animals.
My treatment of Peeve, upon reflection, is how I was taught to treat animals in the home. They were merely ornamentation. Dogs mainly stayed out in the yard — more to be seen that actually interacted with. Cats doubly so. If they get on your nerves, open the door and let them out! There was little chance for intimacy with animals, and heaven forbid they sleep in your room or on your bed at night! Nope, out they go. I was trained to treat animals as just another piece of furniture — granted a piece of furniture that needed feeding, watering and more attention than your normal coffee table — but animals were merely part of the home furnishings and certainly NOT a part of the family.
It wasn’t until I started taking pictures with my girlfriend’s old camera that I began to see Peeve in a different light. I have a stunning picture of her lying in my guitar case staring up at the camera. Her blue-gray coat and amber eyes were beautiful against the deep royal blue of the lining and the black shell of the case. For the first time I saw a soulful being staring back at me through the eyes of a hated cat.
My attitude toward Peeve changed and though she was never as bonded to me as she was to my girlfriend, she and I came to an understanding and a mutual respect. I was the only one present when Peeve had a litter of kittens. Her openness and sense of trust in me during that time showed just how far our relationship had progressed in the year before she became pregnant.
My Furry Soul Mate
The father of Peeve’s kittens was a rough-edged black and tan tabby I named “Joshua” because I had just purchased the U2 album (revealing just how long ago THAT was!) “Joshua Tree” and it was a name that was fresh on my mind.
Joshua came to us as a $5 purchase from a local pet store. Peeve was so beautiful we just knew she’d have gorgeous kittens if we found the right father. I wanted gray tabby kittens so we went in search of a tabby boy for Peeve. Joshua was a malnourished kitten that fit neatly into the palm of my very small hand. He was in a cage at Pat’s Pet Palace, mewing for all he was worth as I passed by. He knew a sucker when he saw one. I gingerly took him out of the cage and held him up to my face. He immediately put a paw on each side of my face and kissed my nose. Yep, he knew how to get adopted. He came home with us immediately.
If Peeve was my girlfriend’s cat, Joshua was my cat. He could find me in a crowded room — eschew attention from anyone else and make his way right into my lap. He would not curl up on anyone else’s lap but mine, or my girlfriend’s on occasion. He was very picky. He was also a shoulder cat who loved riding around the house perched atop my shoulders. I had to train him to ask to get on my shoulders or else he would claw his way up if he missed his mark. I still have t-shirts with holes along the shoulders, compliments of Josh.
Peeve had revealed the soul behind the eyes of animals to me. Joshua had revealed the heart. He and I shared a deep connection. When I looked into his eyes, it’s like I had known him before from somewhere. I had a recurring dream about how Joshua would look as a human — a young, strapping man who I loved dearly. As a cat, he cared for me when I was hurting during the break-up of my relationship with my first girlfriend. It was routine for me to awake from a night of loneliness and sadness to find Josh curled up under the covers with me, snuggling me close. Joshua was my rock, my friend, my confidant and my savior during a dark time. He was my furry soul mate. A kindred soul sent to me by God to give me comfort and joy. So much for my childhood conclusion that cats were aloof and immune to human emotion and bonding.
Sadly, both Peeve and Joshua died young. Peeve was killed when a roommate of ours didn’t check the dryer and turned it on with Peeve and one of her kittens inside. Both were killed. Joshua lost a lot of weight and died of a perforated bowel at age 5. I was blessed to have both of them in my life, even if it was only for a short time.
Bodhisattvas in Fur Coats
The heart of the lessons Peeve and Joshua taught me was compassion and empathy. Unless we really see the light of God in the eyes of another creature, be they a cat, a dog, a rabbit, a deer, or our next door neighbor, we have no true sense of compassion for them. Compassion literally means, “to suffer with,” and unless we can truly see the suffering behind the eyes of any creature we cannot fathom feeling compassion for them.
In the weeks before Joshua died he suffered several seizures. On the night before his death I laid him on my chest and stroked him gently. He was unresponsive except for a small twitch of his tail every time I whispered, “Joshua.” I looked into his eyes and saw his great suffering — his pain, his anguish, his wish to be released. The next morning I gave him the gift of peace — a gift I could only give him because of the sense of compassion and empathy that he had taught me in his short life.
Peeve and Joshua were just the first of many bodhisattvas in fur coats who came into my life to teach me compassion, love and empathy for all living creatures. “Bodhisattva” is a Sanskrit term that translates as: Bodhi [enlightenment] and sattva [being]. A bodhisattva, then, is an enlightened being that Lisa Maliga describes as someone who “will undergo any type of suffering to help another sentient being, whether a tiny insect or a huge mammal.”
The suffering of Peeve and Joshua helped me to better understand the ways of compassion. They gave me a precious gift that a literal “Bodhi” continued to teach me. The dog we called “the little yellow dog” came to us quite by accident. I was working the night shift and trying to get some daytime sleep when a howling dog somewhere in the neighborhood kept interrupting me. I went in search of the bothersome hound, only to find it two doors up, chained in the backyard. The house’s occupant explained that it wasn’t her dog, but belonged to a friend who wouldn’t be back for several hours.
“Then let the dog come to my yard and play with my dog,” I offered. The little yellow dog never left. She had been called “Puppy” ever since she had been born and since she was growing out of puppyhood, we had to come up with another name soon. We already had a dog named “Sage” and instead of going the spice route as friends suggested and calling the new dog “Thyme” or “Rosemary,” we settled on “Bodhi” — mainly because it rhymed with “Puppy” and because we wanted to take on a “wise” theme instead of a culinary one. We thought it very clever.
Bodhi was aptly named. She continued the lessons on compassion and empathy that Peeve and Joshua had begun. The dog was infuriating. She never obeyed — not inside the house, anyway. Outside she was the perfect dog, coming on command, staying with you without a leash, always checking on you to make sure you were still with her. She was two different dogs, depending on where she was at the time. We reckoned she was abused inside of the house and was shy about coming to humans for that reason. But that still didn’t quell my anger at her when I couldn’t get her to come to me inside the house when I really needed her to. Our relationship was just as contentious as my earlier relationship had been with Peeve.
My emotional outbursts at her bred a certain distrust between us that only seemed to break after my partner and I had split up. Bodhi had stayed with my ex, because they had bonded so well. Sage had really been my dog, and she died of an illness brought on by a fever in the months before my ex and I split. But, it was Bodhi’s tenacity and patience with me despite my angry tantrums that taught me to begin to control my rage. She taught me patience — a lesson that continues to this day with my new dogs, Loki, Sadie and Bandit.
Bodhi died tragically on July 4, 2002 after being hit by a car. It tore my ex-partner’s heart to shreds — and mine, too. In my eyes, Bodhi had gone from that infuriating little dog to a wise and gentle old soul who knew the inner workings of the heart and how to bring out the best in people. She was the epitome of compassion, grace and unconditional love.
These are but a few of the animals that have touched my heart and my life over the past decades. Like any animal lover I can tell you stories about every animal I’ve had the pleasure to know — like Boomerang, the cat weaned from a bottle who taught me strength and grace in the face of several surgeries and who finally lost her battle with cancer last year. But like looking at baby pictures, such tales can be dull for the audience. Suffice it to say that animals have played a major role in shaping my spiritual journey, and they continue to do so.
A Charitable Heart
All these animal bodhisattvas have taught me how to cultivate a charitable heart, not just toward people, but toward all living creatures, for truly “every creature is a word of God.” If we pay close attention to the animals in our lives, we can hear God speaking to us — speaking words of love, charity, hope and grace.
Early eastern monk and hermit, Saint Isaac the Syrian knew this when he wrote:
“What is a charitable heart? It is a heart burning with charity for the whole of creation, for humans, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons — – for all creatures. He who has such a heart cannot see or call to mind a creature without his eyes becoming filled with tears by reason of the immense compassion that seizes his heart, a heart that is softened and can no longer bear to see or learn from others of any suffering, even the smallest pain, being inflicted upon a creature. That is why such a man never ceases to pray for the animals, for the enemies of Truth, and for those who do him evil, that they may be preserved and purified. He will pray even for the reptiles, moved by the infinite pity that reigns in the hearts of those who are becoming united to God.”
Our Christian tradition is filled with reverence toward animals. In Genesis 9:9-10 animals were saved from the flood and afterwards made a part of the covenant with Noah. The paschal lamb brings to mind the Passover sacrifice and the deliverance from the bondage of Egypt (Exodus 12:3-14); a giant fish saved Jonah (Jonah 2:1-11); ravens brought bread to Elijah (1 Kings 17:6); animals were included in the repentance enjoined on humans (Jonah 3:7). Jesus is quick to point out that even the “birds of the air” are important enough for God to look after and feed (Matthew 6:26). In addition, the “Great Commission” orders Christ’s followers to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15) — a command taken quite seriously by St. Francis of Assisi who preached sermons to the birds!
Christians are not alone in revering animals. Even Muslims learn that, “There is not an animal on earth, nor a bird that flies on its wings – but they are communities like you” (The Quran, 6:38).
Buddhists, as well, draw close connections between humans and animals:
“… there is not one living being that, having assumed the form of a living being, has not been your mother, or father, or brother, or sister, or son, or daughter, or the one or the other, in various degrees of kinship; and when acquiring another form of life may life as a beast, as a domestic animal, as a bird, or as a womb-born, or as something standing in some relationship to you” (Lankavatara Sutra chapter 8).
Mengzi, a Confucian from the fourth century B.C.E. believed that “superior people are affected toward animals so that seeing them alive, they cannot bear to see them die; hearing their cries, they cannot bear to eat their flesh.”
Sixteenth-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote in his ethical-mystical treatise, “The Palm Tree of Deborah” that we should, “let your compassion extend to all creatures, neither despising nor destroying any of them. For Wisdom spreads over all created things: mineral, vegetable, animal, and human. Each was created in Wisdom.”
Paying close attention to the animals around us, whether domestic or wild, can cultivate within us a charitable heart — one open to the suffering of those around us — one ready to receive the Word of God in a package of fur and claws.
Relating to God
“The way you relate to people reflects how you relate to God,” said one of my instructors during a spiritual director course I have been taking. That concept seems a bit backward to me.
Instead, I think the true sentence should be “The way you relate to animals reflects how you relate to God.” It’s been true in my life. Early on, God, like animals, were just there. Our parents told us we had to feed and water God through our prayers, church attendance and Bible study. But, our fervor for such practices lasted about as long as our promise to feed and water the new dog or cat did. It simply fell by the wayside as more interesting things, like bikes, toys and friends, crossed our line of sight.
As I began to mature, so did my relationship with animals. I took closer notice of them, began to really see them as living, breathing realities, not just another thing that was in my house. The same evolution of thought happened with God. God was no longer just something that was there because mom and dad said so. Instead, God became a living, breathing reality — a constant presence that began to teach me things like love, compassion, patience and kindness. My relationship to my pets and the animals around me began to reflect my relationship with God.
Animals possess all the qualities I admire in God: a trusting nature, unconditional love, fidelity, patience, and unending loyalty. Animals are also wild and unpredictable, even when we think we have them fully tamed. This, too, is how I see God — never quite fitting into my definitions and beliefs, but constantly showing a wild, unpredictable side. Just when I think I’ve “tamed” God, a wild display of grace or joy will come out of the blue. Just like my dogs and cats, God will never fully be tamed or trained just to my liking.
Hence, my relationship to animals reflects how I approach God: cautious, because of the natural skittishness of animals, but open, with a soft heart, an alert mind and a kindness and gentleness that only animals (and God) can truly return in kind.
My relationship with my animals, like my relationship with God continues to grow and change. My current cadre of animals (the dogs: Loki, Sadie and Bandit and the cats: George, Fraidy and Copper) continue to teach me valuable lessons about love, grace, honor, duty, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control. Some Christians argue that animals have no souls, but I disagree because there is evidence to the contrary. I believe animals truly must be “a word of God” because they consistently display the fruit of the spirit and foster those fruits within my own soul.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.