Animals have always been an important part of my life. Since I was about five years old I always wanted to be a vet. To qualify from University College Dublin and embark on life in small animal practice was a dream come true, although, I always knew that, one day, I would want to go back to university to study and specialise in veterinary pathology. What I didn’t realise at the time, was that I would feel called to be a priest as well, a number of years later and how faith and animals are interlinked!
My life now is as a full time veterinary pathologist and what is known as a Minister in Secular Employment, someone who is called to a priestly role, but very much feels their role is within a workplace. For me, my faith and my job are complimentary. I am not a vet five days a week and a priest at the weekend, rather it is all part of who I am seven days a week. And isn’t that what living out our faith as an everyday faith is all about?
From the very beginning of the Bible, there are clear references to animals and their role in creation.
Animals and their wellbeing is such an important part of who I am, but they are also an immensely important part of God’s creation. They are not incidental creatures who just happen to be there for human amusement and provide some companionship for us as we live out our earthly lives. From the very beginning of the Bible, there are clear references to animals and their role in creation. In the first chapters of Genesis, God was pleased with his whole creation of animals, plants, water, the heavenly beings and of course, man. We are called to have “dominion” over the animals (Genesis 1 v26), not in the sense of dominating, but rather of stewardship. The Psalms (especially Psalms 8, 24, and 65 )are also full of references to the importance of animals and praise thereof, and from our Old Testament prophets we also read of the importance of animals. As Isaiah proclaims in chapter 43, verse 19-20 as he describes the restoration of Israel, “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, the wild animals will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” And of course, the final animal that Jesus encounters, the donkey, as he rides into Jerusalem on his final journey in Palm Sunday, plays a key role. The Bible is certainly not a book which paints animals as incidental to our lives or of little importance.
Of course, at heart, I’m a scientist and I meet many who scratch their heads at a scientist believing in God. For all who don’t believe, there are many who do! My scientific knowledge has only bolstered my faith in God, both at a macroscopic level, when we think of the laws of physics which precisely allow our planet and us to exist and survive and at the microscopic level, the latter being what I look at every day. The mind-boggling levels of informational sophistication and processing capacity of living organisms that have been laid bare by science, not only at sub-cellular levels, but also the control and regulation of processes within the whole organism, do nothing to persuade me that there is no God.
On the contrary, none of these scientific observations can sufficiently explain the origin of biological novelty, themselves requiring fine-tuning and specified information. They speak of a Divine Creator behind it all. A fascinating discussion of this and more can be found in “Cosmic Chemistry” by John C. Lennox.
Apart from scientists, many more recent theologians have contemplated the relevance of animals and faith and two great theologians stand out for me on this point. C.S. Lewis believed that animals receive a sense of self or personality from association with their humans. “If a good sheepdog seems “almost human” that is because a good shepherd has made it so,” says Lewis. He suggests, acknowledging that he is going out on a theological limb, that animals “attain a real self in their masters in a sense similar to the way humans attain real life in Christ.” Animals that have enjoyed a personal relationship with a human, Lewis believes, have a better theological chance at immortality. And just as our belief and love in Christ may lead to heaven, so love of one’s pet may allow them in too. Of course, we don’t know if we will see them in heaven, but these thoughts certainly give me, and I hope you too, hope that we may meet them again in another life.
Archbishop Demond Tutu was also in no doubt of the importance of our animal friends and stated in the introduction to “The Global Guide to Animal Protection” published in 2013 that “it is a kind of theological folly to suppose that God has made the entire world just for human beings, or to suppose that God is interested in only one of the million of species that inhabit God’s earth.”
That enormous outpouring of love produced in humans as we look at animals seems to me to represent the outpouring of Christ himself as he sacrificed himself on the cross to blot out our sins.
That enormous outpouring of love produced in humans as we look at animals seems to me to represent the outpouring of Christ himself as he sacrificed himself on the cross to blot out our sins. Conversely, the love that our pet animals show us also tells us something about the love Christ has for us, unconditional, pure and selfless and above all, living in the moment, rejoicing in nature and not worrying about what tomorrow brings. As Jesus said, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34).
In my own virtual ministry, I see the importance of animals in people’s lives, both Christians and non-Christians and I feel called to proclaim God’s word through this unique medium and tapping into the spirituality which each and everyone of us can feel through that connection with animals and probably, most of all, our pets.
Through the season of Lent, I read a daily poem from the book “Hearing God in Poetry” and one poem stood out for me, which is well worth a read. It is called “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart and it describes the many activities of his beloved cat, Jeffery, and how that by simply being a cat, Jeffery, glorifies God by being himself. The poem exalts in all the movements of the cat and Christopher Smart rejoices in every form of his cat’s play.
And that is probably the message that I see every day in the people and animals I encounter, that the glory of God is there for all to see if we would but take time to notice.
Lennox, J.C. (2021) Cosmic Chemistry. Do God and Science Mix? Lion, London
Lewis, C.S. (2012) The Problem of Pain. Collins, London
Linzet, A. (2013) The Global Guide to Animal Protection. Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Harris, R. (2021) Hearing God in poetry. Fifty poems for Lent and Easter. SPCK London