ANIMALS AND THE AFTERLIFE
My thoughts on the Oneness of Creation
There is no formal doctrine in the Orthodox Church concerning the afterlife for animals, including our pets. Those Fathers of the Church who have expressed themselves on this matter were simply expressing theological opinions that have not become universally accepted, and remain known as "theologoumena" (personal opinion).
The Church has wisely refrained from pronouncing conclusively regarding the afterlife, for much remains unknown. We will not truly understand what awaits us after this life until we have entered into the afterlife. As Orthodox Christians, we simply accept the Nicaeo-Constantinopolitan Creed, reciting the words, "I look for....the life of the world to come."
By God's grace and our cooperation with this grace, we expect to inherit eternal life. We believe that all beings who have been a part of our lives will also be there. Some of us would even hope, along with C.S. Lewis, that it might be possible Paradise will also include our beloved pets, and even the animals that have contributed in a myriad of ways to our own well being. Would it be possible that the cow that provided milk for our children, and cheese for our table, might one day join us in a Paradise where there is no death and no pain?
C.S. Lewis describes something like this in his book "The Great Divorce" in which a sanctified lady in paradise is accompanied by a myriad of animals as she walks in glory through the fields of Paradise. As I enjoyed the affection and loyalty of our monastery's wonderful Norwegian Forest Cat, Hammi, it would seem to me a Paradise without this loving little creature, would be wanting. Even the eternal loss of our hens, who've provided us with so many wonderful, fresh eggs, and given me so much delight, as I've watched them enjoying their free range lives, would seem sad to me.
This is simply my opinion, and I look forward to the possibility of meeting with the many beloved dogs and cats whose lives I have shared, over my seventy-five years. The saints saw animals as creatures of God, created as gifts of God's love, and therefore resisted negligence or indifference when these animals were under their charge.
Saint Paul of Obnora was known to converse with birds, and Saint Seraphim of Sarov made friends with a bear. Saint Anthony the Great had a friendship with a lion. Saint Modestos viewed animals as sublime and mysterious gifts from God, and would often bless the livestock of the faithful - praying for their health and survival and glorifying in the vastness and beauty of all that God made. I myself, for some twenty-two years, was blessed by our cat Hammi, as I'd let him out of the library after his night of sleep.
The traditional lands of Britain, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, all lands of the Celtic peoples, which, until the 11th century were part of the unified Orthodox Catholic Church and whose saints and spiritual life have much to offer the contemporary world, saw all of reality as a single unity. These saints knew, as all of the holy saints of the Church have known, that the wholeness of creation had been torn apart by the sin of Adam, and was restored by the saving act of Christ. In their lives they embodied the restoration of wholeness in creation, whether by communication with angels and spirits, or by kinship with all of the natural world.
Saint Athanasius said, "(God) provided the work of creation also as a means by which the Maker might be known … Three ways thus lay open to them, by which they might obtain the knowledge of God. (First), they could look up to the immensity of heaven, and by pondering the harmony of creation come to know its Ruler, the Word of the Father." Thus, the natural world, seen in the light of Christ, remains a way to know God, that is, a way of salvation.
The oneness of our relationship with Creation is brought to life with the story of Saint Kevin of Glendalough. While standing at prayer in a traditional Celtic monastic position with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross, a blackbird built a nest on his arm and laid her eggs. Saint Kevin, not wanting to disturb her nest, stayed in the position until the eggs hatched. The saint is said to have stated, "It is no great thing for me to bear this pain of holding my hand under the blackbird for the sake of heaven's king."
In the beginning of the restoration of unity in the entire fallen cosmos, Christ went out into the desert and "He was with the wild beasts, and the angels served Him" (Mark 1:13). These heavenly and earthly creatures who were destined to become the new creation in the God-Man Jesus Christ were assembled around Him. There is a pointed reference to this restoration in the life of St Isaac of Syria, when he wrote:
The humble man approaches wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They scent as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. This scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming. It is this which has sweetened the fragrance of humanity.
In other words, the state of likeness to God in Christ to which he had risen enabled him to be with the wild beasts just as Adam was in his naming of them. And, I suspect the reason pets are so important to us humans is that they aid in our journey into the restoration of kinship between two different parts of creation. Our pets become like all the animals were in the beginning, when Adam was charged with naming them.
When the human can lie down with the cat, or the dog, or the chicken, (to paraphrase Isaiah) we aid the advancement of the Kingdom just a little, work to recreate Paradise just a little, and so give new meaning to such menial tasks as cleaning out the chicken coop, or the litter box.
Finally, as one of my favorite bishops said, "Animals were with Adam and Eve in Paradise, so why on earth wouldn't they also be in Heaven (Metropolitan Kallistos Ware)?"
With love in Christ,