[A Border terrier puppy we bred.]
Clearly, people can have an unhealthy attachment to their pets, to the extent that they allow their relationships with them to take precedence over their relationships with people. On the other hand one shouldn’t paint with too broad a brush and assume that all or even most pet ownership is detrimental in this way. It is perfectly possible to love both people and pets, in a healthy way.
Personally, I am not that interested in the seemingly related questions: “Does an animal have a soul?” and “Should our love for pets be different from our love for people?” These strike me as worrywart questions, guilt-assuaging questions. I am impelled to ask: Must love be so carefully measured and metered out, as though we dare not waste a single drop or particle of it? Must we be so parsimonious in our bestowal of it? Is love then like a well from which we need fear that it might run dry if we draw from it too much or too often? Or, didn’t Christ tell the Samaritan woman He met on the road to Galilee about the well of water springing up into eternal life (John 4:14)? And isn’t this well of water divine love? And isn’t divine love a model and guide for us to follow with all creatures (and not just with people)?
There is a hierarchy in God’s cosmos. Between mankind and the rest of creation there is a profound difference – one established by God – and this difference can never be effaced. Furthermore, between domesticated plants and animals and the rest of nonhuman creation there is a difference, and it is of our own making. Because man has domesticated certain species for thousands of years, at the cost of blood, sweat and tears, it is altogether fitting that our feelings for them should be of a different kind than our feelings for plants and animals at large – to say nothing of our feelings for rocks or inanimate matter. Even within the domesticated species a gradation of emotional connectivity is proper and we need not apologize for it. Although I have known 4-H kids who would beg to differ, most of us will probably never love a cow in the same way we love a dog. But, you know, maybe those 4-H kids are right. And maybe Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in The Little Prince, was right, when he wrote the following words, for his little prince to speak to those embarrassed roses who were not his rose:
“To be sure, an ordinary passerby would think that my rose looked just like you – the rose that belongs to me. But in herself alone she is more important than all the hundreds of you other roses: because it is she that I have watered; because it is she that I have put under the glass globe; because it is she that I have sheltered behind the screen; because it is for her that I have killed the caterpillars (except the two or three that we saved to become butterflies); because it is she that I have listened to, when she grumbled, or boasted, or even sometimes when she said nothing. Because she is my rose.”
And these words:
“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. . . . “Men have forgotten this truth,” said the fox. “But you must not forget it. You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed. You are responsible for your rose . . .”
“I am responsible for my rose,” the little prince repeated, so that he would be sure to remember.
Responsible, you see. Forever. But does this sort of talk have any theological meaning? Or is it a product of the soaring imagination of one French author-aviator flying over the desert? The former, surely. The latter, too, though not only that.
In the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor taught others using the twin concepts of microcosm (man as little universe) and macro-anthropos (universe as giant man). Maximus believed that God set for human beings the stupendous task of mediating between the whole universe and God – with Christ to show us the way, and the Spirit to guide us on the way (not coincidentally, the title of perhaps the finest book in English on Maximus, by Lars Thunberg, is Microcosm and Mediator : The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor). Writing thirteen centuries later in France, the Russian expatriate, theologian and medievalist Myrrha Lot-Borodine beautifully summarized the Confessor’s thoughts on the ultimate fate of the cosmos (my translation):
Out of love for man – the microcosm for whom the Son is the ideal prefiguration – God will receive the universe to the glory of deification. Transfigured, vibrating, like a sensitive instrument with a thousand strings, (the divine lyre of Origen) it will live life everlasting, in the age of ages. And God will be “all in all” (Col. 1:15-28) Doxa-théôsis.
The Christian hope of ultimate resurrection and renewal is not for mankind alone then, but for the rest of creation too – by the grace of God, the bond between the one and the other being unbreakable. This, at any rate, is what Maximus taught, and I believe it. Perhaps surprisingly, given our modern tendency to see the church and the universe as disjoint, he even wrote about these things in his work on the church’s liturgy. And so I’ll conclude with a selection from that work.
From The Church’s Mystagogy by St. Maximus the Confessor (as translated by George C. Berthold in Maximus Confessor : Selected Writings):
How the world is said to be a man, and in what manner man is a world.
And again using a well-known image he submitted that the whole world, made up of visible and invisible things, is man and conversely that man made up of body and soul is a world. He asserted, indeed, that intelligible things display the meaning of the soul as the soul does that of intelligible things, and that sensible things display the place of the body as the body does that of sensible things. And, he continued, intelligible things are the soul of sensible things, and sensible things are the body of intelligible things; that as the soul is in the body so is the intelligible in the world of sense, that the sensible is sustained by the intelligible as the body is sustained by the soul; that both make up one world as body and soul make up one man, neither of these elements joined to the other in unity denies or displaces the other according to the law of the one who has bound them together.
In conformity with this law there is engendered the principle of the unifying force which does not permit that the substantial identity uniting these things be ignored because of their difference in nature, nor that their particular characteristics which limit each of these things to itself appear more pronounced because of their separation and division than the kinship in love mystically inspired in them for union. It is by this kinship that the unique and universal mode of the invisible and unknowable presence in all things of the cause which holds all things together by his existence in all things renders them unmixed and undivided in themselves and in relation to each other. And it shows that they exist by the relationship which unites them to each other rather than to themselves, until such time as pleases the one who bound them together to separate them in view of a greater and more mystical arrangement in the time of the expected consummation, when the world, as man, will die to its life of appearances and rise again renewed of its oldness in the resurrection expected presently.
At this time the man who is ourselves will rise with the world as a part with the whole and the small with the large, having obtained the power of not being subject to further corruption. Then the body will become like the soul and sensible things like intelligible things in dignity and glory, for the unique divine power will manifest itself in all things in a vivid and active presence proportioned to each one, and will by itself preserve unbroken for endless ages the bond of unity. . . .