Coming home from the hospital, it was still several months before I could return to work. I had been temporarily paralyzed from the waist down, due to a neurological disease called Guillain-Barre Syndrome. After undergoing physical therapy to learn to walk again, I hobbled around on a cane for a while. I was able to get rid of the cane and walk normally after attending a healing service at a local Episcopal church. The healing was not complete, though; I still struggle with pain in my lower legs and feet on an almost-daily basis, usually in the late afternoon or evening.
My healing is still in process. I believe my healing has been greatly accelerated, though, through the prayers of friends as well as by the ministrations of a Reiki healer and also by my partner Michael (a massage therapist). One member of my holistic healing team is a feline massage therapist who came into our household a few months ago. His previous human named him Kato, after Inspector Clouseau’s butler who would jump out at him unexpectedly. Our Kato similarly has bursts of energy in which he races across the apartment and pounces upon prey that we mere humans cannot see.
Kato (the cat) has the ability to tell which one of my feet or lower legs is hurting. It’s neurological pain, which can be very sharp and intense. Kato will come and lay down on the hurting foot, sometimes for half an hour, purring loudly and sometimes stroking the foot (from side to side, unlike kneading). If the other foot starts hurting he will get up and move to that foot. It’s very calming and helps ease the pain. “Laying on of hands” with paws.
The other day when I hurt my toe by pulling a chair onto it (as clumsy bears sometimes do), Kato came running from the other side of the apartment and immediately began licking the hurt toe. (Actually, this has happened twice!)
Once, when I was lying in bed and one of my feet and one of my legs was hurting, Kato laid his head on the hurting foot and put his back paws on the other leg, exactly where the pain was. I was amazed and called my partner, Michael, to come look at it. Michael said, “Well, he’s a good little healer.” I said, “Yes, but sometimes he can be snooty” (which is true; he only does massage therapy if he is in the mood). As soon as I said “snooty,” Kato got up, looked me straight in the eye, and jumped down off the bed. I have learned not to dis the cat.
I have also learned that many others have been ministered to by cats, dogs, birds, and other animals. Animals have functioned as ministers as far back as Biblical times. The prophet Elijah was ministered to by ravens, who brought him bread and meat twice a day in the wilderness (I Kings 17:2-6). Jonah was rescued from the stormy sea by a great fish who delivered him safely to Ninevah (Jonah 1-2). Balaam’s donkey saved his life when he saw the angel of the Lord when Balaam could not (Numbers 22:22-35). (I’ve wondered at times if Kato is seeing angels when his ears perk up and he stares intently at invisible things.)
Jesus himself was apparently ministered to by wild animals. When he spent forty days in the wilderness following his baptism, he was not alone: “he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him” (Mark 1:13 ESV). Animals figured prominently in many of Jesus’ parables, as Matthew Fox, theologian of Creation Spirituality, has pointed out:
Jesus was evidently not a human chauvinist at all. For instead of controlling animals and ordering them about, he observed them very, very closely and learned from them. In fact, so much did he learn from animals that he continually uses them as symbols for the reign of God on earth. “The birds of the air,” the “sparrow falling from its nest,” the fish gathered and not wasted, the sheep and the goats, the one lost sheep — all Jesus’ parables that include animals reveal how humble he was toward them. He sensed the harmony and the interdependence that we share with all living things.
— Matthew Fox, A Spirituality Named Compassion: Uniting Mystical Awareness with Social Justice, p. 163
Jesus was born among the animals, in a manger — a feeding trough (Luke 2:7). In fact, animals were present at many significant “beginnings” throughout the Bible. God preserved animals as well as Noah’s family in the story of the flood (Genesis 7:1-4). God refused to destroy Ninevah out of concern for the city’s animals as well as its humans (see Jonah 4:11). Animals were present when Moses had his burning bush experience (Exodus 3:1). Shepherds, out tending their flock by night, were the first to hear the good news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8-17).
The prophet Hosea decried the suffering of animals as one of the consequences of the sins of humans (Hosea 2:18; 4:1-3). And the apostle Paul writes about the liberation of all creation, not just humans (Romans 8:19-23).
Those of us who believe in biblical panentheism know that God is in all things and all things are in God — including the animals which God created. Pelagius, a gentle monk who was decried as a heretic by Augustine, understood this deeply. Like other Celtic Christians, he wrote beautifully of God’s spirit dwelling in the ministers of fur (and feather and fin):
Look at the animals roaming the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them. Look at the fish in the river and sea: God’s spirit dwells within them. There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent. . .
. . . Look too at the great trees of the forest; look at the wild flowers and the grass in the fields; look even at your crops. God’s spirit is present within all plants as well. The presence of God’s spirit in all living beings is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly. . .
. . . All love comes from God; so when our love is directed towards an animal or even a tree, we are participating in the fullness of God’s love.
— from The Letters of Pelagius: Celtic Soul Friend, edited by Robert Van de Weyer, p. 71
Animals figure prominently in God’s vision of the New Creation, a future time when animals and humans will live peaceably together:
“The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-9 ESV).
“And I will make for them a covenant on that day with the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the creeping things of the ground. And I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land, and I will make you lie down in safety” (Hosea 2:18 ESV).
God’s New Creation will be a time when all of God’s creatures, animals and humans alike, will continue to minister to each other and to be a healing presence in each others’ lives. Sometimes we can get a glimpse of that coming reality, in the gentle warmth of a minister in fur.
A licensed professional counselor in private practice in metro Atlanta, Darrell Grizzle is the author of I Never Meant to Start a Murder Cult and Other Stories.