“The humble man approaches ravening beasts, and when their gaze rests upon him, their wildness is tamed. They come up to him as to their Master, wag their heads and tails and lick his hands and feet, for they smell coming from him that same scent that exhaled from Adam before the fall, when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This was taken away from us, but Jesus has renewed it, and given it back to us through His Coming. This it is which has sweetened the fragrance of the race of men.”
St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 77
, Ascetical Homilies
“For it is no wonder that every creature should obey his wishes, who so faithfully, and with his whole heart, obeyed the great Author of all creatures. But we for the most part have lost our dominion over the creation that has been subjected to us, because we neglect to obey the Lord and Creator of all things.”
St. Bede, Life of St. Cuthbert
In the lives of the saints a recurring motif is that of the saint’s close association with and understanding of nature. It is a thread that runs through numerous hagiographies, in many forms, and goes back arguably into the biblical narrative. These stories are usually dismissed by moderns as superstitious, and rather pointless- what service to humanity or one’s spirituality is done by receiving obeisance from crows or tending to an injured lion? And at first reading it is hard not find them not only difficult to believe, but quite, for lack of a better word, childish. Yet one may find in these often charming and almost magical stories deep theological implications; they reveal first the brokenness of the world and man’s place in it, and the possibility of redemption, redemption not limited to man, but extending through him to the whole created order.
While one may find examples in many saints’ lives, for our purposes let us restrict ourselves to Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert. St. Cuthbert flourished in Northumbria during the seventh century, as bishop and monastic. Bede records a number of miracles that the saintly bishop performs, and many of them involve nature, especially animals.
First, we should consider what is meant by miracle. Miracles are regarded with either outright rejection or extreme suspicion by most today, and their presence in medieval accounts is always a difficult point of contact for modern minds. Yet for the medieval person, miracles represented much more than remarkable manifestations of God’s power simply for the sake of being seen. Miracles are, as the Greek word indicates, ‘sign events,’ manifestations of God’s power that have a specific meaning. They have the same function in saints’ lives, though their exact meaning is not always immediately evident. They demonstrate something about the order of the world and God's operation in it. Ultimately all miracles are calls to repentance. They manifest God to the world, while also showing the brokenness of the world. We may see this in the Gospel accounts: Christ heals the sick, drives out demons, calms the angry sea, feeds the hungry- all acts of bringing healing, of binding up what is broken in the world, of righting a wrong. Each one serves as a sign of what Christ was- is- doing in the world as a whole. They are, as C. S. Lewis once noted, localized miracles flowing from and pointing to the one great miracle: Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension; the true repairing of the world.
In the lives of the saints we see the same principle. Miracles are enacted words revealing the power of God through its very operation. What then of the miraculous animal stories? St. Bede leads us to it in the passage quoted above. If we were to confront Bede with the implausibility of these stories, he would probably agree: but he would stipulate that the reason they sound implausible is because we are fallen from the original dominion we had while in communion with God. Nature is severed from us and we are at enmity with it. Adam’s fall caused not only an ontological separation between himself and God, but between himself and other people, and between himself and the whole of creation. In the saints this ontological divide is reversed; their close communion with God removes the animosity and ontological separation intrinsic to fallen man.
In The Life of St. Cuthbert
, the first miraculous event with animals is one in which St. Cuthbert had been praying in the sea off of Lindisfarne all night, one of the monks secretly watching him. After some time he comes up on to the shore and began praying. The narrative continues, saying, “Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element.” Two things about the saint are revealed here: first, the manner in which animals willingly approach him and do him service. This is a direct reversal of the postdiluvial passage in which God says to- fallen- man, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth and upon every bird of the heavens, upon everything that creeps on the ground and all the fish of the sea.” (Genesis 9:2) This dread clearly stems from man’s fall; earlier in Genesis we are told how God brought each animal to Adam for Adam to name. With the fall the created order no longer has the same connection with man, for man forfeits his closeness to God, from which the connection with the natural order stems. But in the saint this ontological fall is shown to be overcome able, through union with Christ in prayer and humility- the last aspect in particular being greatly emphasized by St. Cuthbert.
We are also told that St. Cuthbert blessed the otters, showing that the saint does not see creation as mere means of utility, but invests in it love and care. His love for creation flows from his possessing dominion from God, Who is love and care towards all His creatures: “Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O Lord” (Psalm 36:6). Man’s dominion must be dominion in imitation of the humble Lordship of God, Who deigned to die for His creation, man, upon the Cross.
Later in the account, Bede relates a story in which St. Cuthbert and a young man, Cuthbert’s attendant, were on a journey preaching the Gospel in remote villages of Northumbria. Because of the remoteness of the region, the young man began to worry whether they would have anything to eat that evening. Cuthbert admonished him not to worry; if God so willed he could send an eagle to bring them food. A little further along they came to a river, and on its bank was an eagle with a large fish. The young man went and took it from the eagle, but was reproved by St. Cuthbert: “What have you done, my son? Why have you not given part to God's handmaid? Cut the fish in two pieces, and give her one, as her service well deserves.” They then took their half of the fish and walked to the next village, where they cooked and shared their bounty, making “an excellent repast, and gave also to their entertainers, whilst Cuthbert preached to them the word of God, and blessed Him for his mercies.”
This story is meant to especialy emphasize God’s providence in supplying His servants, and demonstrates the proper response of His servants to His gift of creation. Cuthbert saw the eagle as the “handmaiden” of the Lord and of His servants, and therefore deserving of her fair share. The food they received in thanks and shared with the villagers, along with the word of God, receiving and further giving creation eucharistically, in imitation of Christ, both in His becoming man and entering into creation as the Second Adam, and in His instituting the Eucharist.
In the remaining stories of St. Cuthbert’s interaction with nature we see the same principles. Cuthbert is able to exercise a grace-given dominion over creation because he has returned to God. He is restored to holiness, which enables him to approach the natural world in imitation of God. This holiness, the sanctity of the saint, is seen to be something that is perceptible even to animals, for it is an ontological feature of the saint, he having been brought back to communion with God, and thus to communion with the natural order as well. Upon receiving back the natural world he re-offers it to God in blessing and thanksgiving, as Christ did throughout His ministry on earth, fulfilling the role Adam failed to fulfill. Cuthbert, in union with Christ, is re-made a priest after the example of Christ, and relates the world back to God, whether in the act of preaching the Gospel or proffering a blessing upon a pair of otters on the ocean-side. Having been brought back to harmony with God in Christ, man may now be brought back into loving harmony with himself, with his fellow man, and with the entire creation, instead of the enmity and separation of sin.
Thus the stories of the saints and animals are ultimately stories of Christ re-making man. In Christ we can come back into the divine harmony, through union with Him, back into his God-given dominion in humility, back to closeness to the natural world. To quote St. Isaac the Syrian from above, “This was taken away from us, but Jesus has renewed it, and given it back to us through His Coming. This it is which has sweetened the fragrance of the race of men.”