The Animals and the Angels
The community in which I live is located in an open, parklike area of great beauty, a space we share with many birds, lizards, rabbits and ground squirrels. Each time I take a walk, I will see some of them--flying or perched, eating, on sentry duty, singing or giving alarm, emerging from or disappearing into dens and nests. I often stop for a brief moment of wonder and delight as I look into their dark eyes and bless them.
But at night, and occasionally also in daylight, there are also the coyotes. Sometimes there are howls which I always feel are expressions of hunger, not only of the body’s hunger for the food that perishes, but the soul’s hunger for the food that leads to eternal life. (For from where did they come, but from the divine Source? Is it not possible that at some deep level they feel it and thirst painfully for the fullness of that Life?) And occasionally there will be a fierce outburst of many coyotes yammering together as (I suppose) they tear apart a rabbit or squirrel they found abroad or dug out of his or her underground nest. Then what can a compassionate listener do except pray--pray that the consciousness of the anguished victim be received into the Light, that the coyotes will evolve beyond the bloodlust that curses them as well as their victims?
I find that William Blake’s “Night,” the poetry selection for this month, gives voice to these very concerns. The time is nightfall, the setting is evidently a rural scene in England’s green and pleasant land. A living moon watches the beautiful landscape and smiles with delight. The innocents are birds and sheep, the predators are wolves and tigers. (English tigers?) But there is another, major party in this scene that is probably seldom in the thoughts of friends of animals today, and that is angels. (This is, after all, William Blake.) After birds have gone to nest, sheep to fold, and other animals to caves, bright angels move unseen through the fields, blessing the buds and flowers and the sleeping creatures, comforting any who should be sleeping but instead are crying.
The angels know the predators too: “When wolves and tigers howl for prey / They pitying stand and weep, / Seeking to drive their thirst away / And keep them from the sheep.” How can angels possibly drive away the wolves’ hunger, their bloodthirst? I cannot imagine any means except spiritual evolution, which very likely will take ages. How can they keep them from the sheep? The narrator implies that they succeed at times and at other times fail. The dreadful rush, the terror, pain and death take place; the angels weep.
So far, Blake’s concept of angel guardians of animals seem merely fanciful. A visionary, he may have himself seen these figures, but whether they are real apart from his highly original mind apparently makes no difference to the real-life outcome. Whether or not they exist makes no difference to the outcome. At this turn in the story, however, the question of the reality of Blake’s vision becomes very significant indeed for real life. “The angels, most heedful, /Receive each mild spirit / New worlds to inherit.” The narrator, whom I assume to be the author himself, perceives the angels conducting the surviving spirits of the victims into what is unmistakably the Peaceable Kingdom. “And there the lion’s ruddy eyes / Shall flow with tears of gold. . . .“ The great beast is filled with compassion, becomes the guardian of the sheepfold, and declares that he can now lie down beside the lamb.
Whether or not there is life after death for any or all sentient beings potentially makes a great difference to the problem of evil and suffering. It does not in itself solve that problem, for, as philosopher C.D. Broad pointed out, injustices might go on just as merrily after death as before. We can’t count on the afterlife providing a suitable Reward for everyone, or that it includes a Peaceable Kingdom of any sort. But if survival IS a reality, whatever its nature, it would expand the stage of action exponentially.
This possibility may seem scarcely more meaningful to some readers than the existence of angels. In the minds of many Friends and other people of faith who seek peace and justice, survival is associated with an other-worldliness that abandons the earth to gratify the desires of the individual soul. It is generally thought to be mostly the product of wishful thinking, and quite out of keeping with the findings of science.
This, however, is far from being the case. Survival of death is certainly out of keeping with the assumptions of those who see themselves as scientifically-minded, but these assumptions may be just as much based on faith as those of those of the most dogmatic religionist. What matters is not the positive beliefs we inherit from our religious forebears or the negative beliefs from our intellectual culture. What matters is evidence.
A brief summary of the kinds of evidence that go up to make the metatheory of survival, particularly in regard to animals, will be presented in the May issue.