originally published in Huffington Post, October 2016
When I received my first pet at the age of 11, my parents said what all good parents say: Caring for this puppy would teach me responsibility. Bless their hearts, my folks knew so little of my inner life! Three years earlier, my beloved grandfather had died. I was both reeling from this loss and already embarked on the theological inquiry that would consume my adult life. Would my pet join Granddaddy in heaven? I wondered. I asked my minister, and he said no.
Now, half a century later, I share my Adams Morgan apartment with a 2-lb. rabbit named Hunny Bun. And I have no doubt: We will both end up in the embrace of God because, well, we’re already there.
My parents were not particularly pietistic, so they didn’t use church language. But they stood firmly within the Judeo-Christian tradition in teaching me that feeding, grooming, vaccinating and exercising my dog were all acts of stewardship. Adults in my mainline Protestant community made it clear that the difference between me and my puppy was vast, a difference in kind analogous to the gulf between me and my transcendent God. That animals had value in themselves, quite apart from their usefulness to humans, and that they could teach important life lessons – these were notions not openly entertained. Indeed, one of the harshest insults was calling someone “an animal.”
But St. Francis of Assisi, whose life is commemorated on October 4, thought and taught differently. Like the mystics in all traditions, Francis experienced the world not as a hierarchy topped off by God, but as a web infused with divinity; he recognized distinctions, but not the division between nature and the supernatural that was an unquestioned cultural assumption and the foundation of academic theology. It’s no wonder that the present leader of the Roman Catholic Church -- the most ecumenical and environmentally conscious pontiff in history, admired by believers and nonbelievers alike --is the first pope to take the name of the 12th-century saint. Legend has it that the original Francis was about to eat lunch with a fellow monk when a nearby nightingale broke into song. Francis suggested that the two join the bird in singing praise to God but Brother Leo demurred, pleading that he was no singer. Francis lifted up his voice and, phrase by phrase, sang a duet with the nightingale.
Francis took his cue from nature. And, in doing so, he defied the prevailing ideology of Western thinkers, who compared animals to humans and found them wanting. Most would agree with Rene Descartes, who denied animals an interior life with this jumbled logic: “The reason animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts. If they thought as we do, they would have an immortal soul like us.”
Applying this anthropocentric criterion, my Hunny Bun is the dumbest of the dumb animals because she hardly makes a sound. But I am a panentheist, like Francis, and I see Hunny Bun in a different light. The God in whom I trust is a nurturing Presence that pervades all life and who, in turn, is touched by all that lives. Although I reject the supernaturalism of the Middle Ages, I have a new appreciation for the medieval practice of ascribing magical powers to the animal companions of solitary old women. If I am becoming a crone, Hunny Bun is my familiar. She is my guide to a world beyond my narrow human one, and her powers are transformative. Hunny Bun is charismatic, delighting all who meet her. As I walk down Columbia Road with H.B. on my shoulder, passersby catch my eye and smile. Strangers pause to pet her and cuddle up for a selfie, and they move on with blood pressure lowered, stress hormones suppressed and relaxation hormones released. The encounters also soothe Hunny Bun, who has grown much less skittish in the 15 months since I adopted her.
Granted, it is perhaps easier to see God in a bunny than in, say, an armadillo. Rabbits have an almost universal appeal: They are associated with good fortune and fertility and, by extension, creativity. And H.B. is arguably the cutest of the cute; she is a Netherland Dwarf, bred to exhibit the big eyes and plumpness that humans find so endearing in their own offspring.
At the same time, Hunny Bun displays an exuberance and a composure that are quite alien to most humans. When she’s happy, after a snack of raisins or just because she’s running loose, she is beside herself, executing vertical jumps and twisting her head in one direction and her hind legs in the other – an aerial move that rabbit fanciers call a “binky.” On the other hand, as an animal of prey, she is vigilant. Sirens and the crying of children will send her scampering for cover. But when the threat is gone, it’s gone. She recovers immediately, neither clinging to the past nor anxious about the future. I call her Buddha Bun and see her as the embodiment of the homey wisdom of the Stoic Epictetus “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” Christians in the Roman and Anglican traditions often mark St. Francis’ feast day with rites in which priests bless domestic animals and cite their many services to humans. These are lovely services that no doubt inspire gratitude. But I long for liturgies that extoll the intrinsic virtues of animals, as Walt Whitman does in Song of Myself.
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd, I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition, They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins, They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God, Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things, Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago, Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Each night, at bedtime, Hunny Bun and I commune. She gazes into my eyes while lying on my chest, our hearts inches apart; with every breath I take, she rises and falls. Soon she grows impatient with my mushy pillow talk and hops down to lick my bare arm from wrist to bicep. After 15 minutes of this ritual, she looks at me quizzically, reminding me that I am the one who needs sleep. Me, I’m nocturnal, she says, and hightails it off the bed.
Like many of my generation, my theology was shaped by the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard, who defied the scientism of his time by asserting that salvation came through decision: “a leap into faith.” It’s a poignant metaphor and a reminder that all theology is autobiography: as a boy, Kierkegaard fell from a tree, and he suffered all his life from the injuries he received. He died from complications related to those injuries at 42, barely middle-aged by today’s standards. I now have 23 years on Kierkegaard, and I daresay that I know, even more profoundly than he, the truth of his aphorism: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” But, like many older folks, I’ve also grown happier through the years, and angst is a faint memory. Now I’m led not by obligations, but by enthusiasms. Life is less a struggle, more a dance. Not a high-stakes leap, as the melancholic Dane would have it. Just one graceful hop after another. ••• Lee McAuliffe Rambo has been a reporter, editor and commentator for print and broadcast outlets on both coasts and in Paris. She studied at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City and earned a master’s degree in the academic study of religion at Claremont School of Theology in southern California.