Editorial: The Beasts and the Blessed Ones
by Robert Ellwood
Many are the stories connecting saints and animals. A number were gathered in a 1934 book (recently republished) entitled Beasts and Saints by that exceptional chronicler and popularizer of early Christianity, Helen Waddell. This fascinating work focuses on tales from the Desert Fathers, early western Christendom, and Ireland.
The accounts seem to be primarily of two types. In the first, the godly man or woman restores an animal for the sake of human "owners," or recruits the beast for worthy human service, though in a way that exemplifies concern for both. In the second type, the saint acts out of compassion towards animals for their own sake, in the process often protecting them from less aware humans.
For the Sake of Humans
As an example of recruitment for service, here is the legendary story of the Abba Helenus back in the days of the Egyptian Desert Fathers. The saint, like most early monks a layman rather than a priest, found one Sunday that the priest who was expected to celebrate the Eucharist for his community was unable to do so because he was on the other side of the Nile and had no transportation; moreover he was fearful of the stream's many crocodiles. But the holy man went to the banks of the mighty river and, invoking the name of the Lord, summoned one of the great reptiles to his service. The crocodile dutifully ferried the abbot to the other side, much to the marvel of the brethren. But unfortunately the priest could not be persuaded to ride the scaly beast back, knowing that in his time he had consumed many humans. So Helenus had to return alone, having shown his power over beasts if not over sacerdotal timorousness. He then commanded his saurian servant to perish rather than increase his weight of carnivorous sin, and the crocodile dutifully did so (Waddell 18-19 and other sources). (May one hope that the beast then found himself transported to the happy shores of the River of Life in Paradise?)
Set a little later, in Brittany of about the sixth and seventh centuries, is the story of Malo, the rugged pioneer evangelist of that portion of France. It begins when the saint came upon a despondent swineherd. The lad had thrown a stone at an unruly sow to try to stop her from devastating a farmer's wheatfield, but had accidentally killed her. Not only that, but the sow's piglets were by now desperately trying to nurse from their mother, not realizing what had happened. Understandably, the boy was in dread of his employer's wrath, having nothing with which to repay the loss. The compassionate saint, for whom to see and feel was to act, touched the sow's ear with his staff, and immediately she came back to life, quite recovered. The lord, delighted in hearing what had happened, spread the holy man's fame and even gave him a farm. (Waddell 49-50)
Out of Compassion Alone
Readers of The Peaceable Table may, however, be especially engaged by stories of the second category, compassion for animals for their own sake. Similar to the plot of Malo's story is the following about Werburga (7th century), nun and daughter of Wulfhere, monarch of Mercia, a kingdom in what is now central England. Her uncle Ethelred, when he in turn became king, gave the pious princess an estate near the palace and put her in charge of a group of convents. One day her steward complained to Werburga that wild geese were destroying her crops. The royal lady told him in turn to put them all inside one of the buildings. Though puzzled, after some demurral he complied; without more ado the miscreant birds bent their necks and obeyed the saint's command conveyed through the steward.
Werburga then came herself to instruct the geese to leave others' goods alone, and told them if they would promise to do so, they could fly off. To her surprise they refused to leave, but just circled her feet disconsolately, complaining as best they could. Finally it was divinely revealed to Werburga this was because one of their tribe was missing, and they would not leave without him; and furthermore, that the loss was because the steward had underhandedly abducted that particular goose for his dinner.
The redoubtable lady-saint wasted no time in confronting her agent, demanding that he bring her the bones and feathers of the slaughtered avian. She then straightway prayed and made the sign of the cross over the remains, upon which the bird was restored full and complete. He and his winged companions now joyously made their way off, though not before doing thankful obeisance before their saintly savior. (Waddell 63-64; D. H. Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 491)
At quite another level, evidentially, are the narratives about the Anglo-Saxon Godric (c. 1069-1170), written down by a monk who as a child knew the aged saint personally. Here we have no raising of dead animals, but breadth of sympathy, clear thinking, and quick action. Godric, a hermit famous for hymns which are the earliest known examples of Middle English verse, and which he set to music of his own composition, is also celebrated for his care for animals. During the cold and snowy winter, he would bring such animals as rabbits and field-mice to his hut to warm themselves, then later let them go. He is best known for once giving refuge to a stag being pursued by the Bishop of Durham's huntsmen, cunningly telling the nimrods when they inquired at his quarters, "God knows where he is." Impressed by the holy man's radiant face, the rough woodsmen apologized and made off quietly. Godric kept the stag in his house till evening, then let him go; but it is said that the grateful animal would return from time to time to pay his respects. (For more on Godric, see Godric , and scroll down to the Pioneer column, "Melangell and Other Saintly Saboteurs.")
Many remarkable encounters of saints and animals, of course, fall outside the historical limits Waddell chose for this particular volume. We will not do more than mention the much-beloved Francis of Assisi here, since his stories are well known. Notice should be made, however, of two representative luminaries of the Eastern church.
Isaac the Syrian (fl. c. 700 C.E.) was a great exemplar of the ascetic tradition at its very best: disciplined, simple living not for its own sake or the sake of personal merit, but to free oneself for service; simple living as a way of opening one's heart to all one's fellow beings by means of an unencumbered life, able to look outward because there is so little in one's hand. St. Isaac was once made bishop of Nineveh, but finding the burdens of office too cumbersome, resigned after only five months to become a hermit, devoting himself to scholarship and writing. His essays are still with us.
His real vocation was teaching the spiritual way of the merciful heart, the path of a heart afire for all God's sons and daughters: for people, birds, animals, even demons -- for all high and low under heaven. The Syrian said that upon remembering these our fellow beings, or in looking at them, the wayfarer of the merciful heart would shed tears, for she or he would share in her own heart all the sufferings endured by other creatures. That is why, he explained, he was continually praying on behalf of irrational animals. "Poor innocent little creatures," he said to animals bound for slaughter, "if you were reasoning beings and could speak you would curse us. For we are the cause of your death, and what have you done to deserve it?"
Further north and a thousand-plus years later in time, Seraphim of Sarov (1759-1833) surely represented at its zenith the gentle wisdom and light-filled mysticism of the Russian church. After a preparatory period of some twenty-five years as a forest hermit, Seraphim emerged to become a busy Staretz or spiritual mentor to prince and peasant alike. His counsel seemed miraculously perceptive as to individual cases, and his countenance was reported sometimes (one account is first-hand) to shine like a second sun.
During his years of forest-dwelling, Seraphim acquired a particular rapport with animals. He was seen gamboling with a great bear as with a friendly dog, and when he went up to the monastery to take his rations, his animal friends, foxes, hares, and wolves as well as bears, would wait for his return, knowing he would share whatever he had with them.
One day a nun, Matrona, of a nearby convent that Seraphim befriended, saw him sitting on a log with a bear. Terrified, the woman let out a scream, and the monk gently dismissed the animal and invited the sister to sit beside him. But, she reported later, the beast returned and lay at the holy man's feet. She was again alarmed, but "saw Father Seraphim, quite unconcerned, treating the bear like a lamb, stroking him and giving him some bread." The nun calmed down, then "looked at the father and was dazzled by the sight of his face which seemed to me full of light and like an angel's. When I was wholly reassured the Staretz gave me a piece of bread and said: 'You needn't be the least afraid of him, he won't hurt you.' So I held out the bread to the bear and, while he was eating it, it was such joy to be feeding him that I wanted to go on doing so." Seraphim characteristically told Matrona not to tell anyone about the incident until eleven years after his death. (Valentine Zander, St. Seraphim of Sarov, p. 61.) See also Seraphim in PT 30.
Non-Christian Lovers of Animals
The relation of holy persons to animals is not limited to Christianity, Eastern or Western. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, basic text of yogic discipline and philosophy, perhaps roughly contemporary with early Christianity in their present form, instruct the practitioner to practice ahimsa, "harmlessness." This is one of the yamas, or abstentions, basic to the spiritual life; yoga rightly understands that unless one's life has a firm moral and ethical foundation, more advanced practice is worthless or worse. Of ahimsa the text says, "When a man becomes steadfast in his abstention from harming others, then all living creatures will cease to feel enmity in his presence." Many are the stories of yogis sporting with tigers, as did Seraphim with the Russian bear.
Turning to Islam, we may mention Rabi'a (713-801 C. E.), the former slave girl of Basra (now in southern Iraq) who became one of the first and most beloved adepts of the great Islamic poetic/mystical tradition. Purportedly, in the Islam of her day there was much emphasis on the Judgment, with its alternative destinations of hell and paradise. But Rabi'a felt that both were beside the point. She was said to have prayed "O my Lord, if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee from hope of Paradise, exclude me thence, but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, then withhold not from me Thine Eternal Beauty."
Rabi'a the saint led a life of voluntary poverty and simplicity. She turned down many rich gifts as well as many offers of marriage. Instead of wealth or noble family, her trademark was charity, and she was known for her many acts of kindness to humans and animals alike. Maria Jaoudi's Christian and Islamic Spirituality, p. 85, tells us that like Seraphim, she spent an initiatory season of inner preparation for her calling alone in the wilderness. There the animals gathered around her: deer, gazelles, mountain goats and wild donkeys. In her presence, they were trusting and fearless. One commentator wrote, "This saint was credited with complete abstinence from animal products so that animals no longer fled from her."
(It might be remarked that the Islamic spiritual tradition, often only partially understood or misunderstood, contains within it much that is favorable to kindly relations with animals, including some worthy deeds and sayings attributed to the Prophet himself. While probably Muslims live up to their own best ideals no better than anyone else, it is always good to be aware of the best. For a good starter, see Vasu Murti, They Shall Not Hurt or Destroy, ch. 11.)
What's It All About?
How are we to understand these stories of saints who clearly loved animals, and around whom birds of the air and beasts of the field gathered as though to be near someone wise and wonderful descended into their midst, those in whose presence even the much-feared predators are mild and harmless? Although some of the tales are legendary, their very existence tells us much about the spiritual vision of transforming power and ultimate Peace that they represent; while others of them, in fact, appear to have considerable historical truth. We are therefore justified in taking them seriously and seeking their meaning.
First, through this kinship with animals these blessed lives exemplified Oneness, recognition of the ultimate oneness of God, of ourselves with God, and so of all beings with God and with oneself. It is unity in diversity, to be sure, for this unity does not force, but engages each sub-center of consciousness in that creature's own way, seeking to live oneness through means suitable to his or her own way of life. Second, the saint therefore recognizes in practice the supremacy of love and compassion as the high virtue, for love is an energy always striving toward oneness, yet without compulsion and with full respect for diversity. It cherishes that which is different in the other, as revealing another facet of the One that we love.
The animal-loving saint, then, knows and lives out holiness as a quality indivisible, which opens one up, so to speak, to the inner holiness, or potential inner holiness, of all beings out to infinity. That is a magnificent understanding, one that sees the Divine shining the eyes of our animal kin. It is the first step on a marvelous pilgrimage.
“What is so beneficial to people as liberty?--which we see not only to be greedily sought after by humans, but also by beasts, and to be preferred to all things.”--Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BCE (pictured), Contributed by Lorena Mucke
“One man is proud when he has caught a poor hare, and another when he has taken a little fish in a net, and another when he has taken wild boars, and another when he has taken bears ... Are these not robbers?”
~ Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180), contributed by Lorena Mucke
"Boycott factory farms and other slave sites." -- Sr. Faith Bowman, OCG
Readers of PT may remember an editorial on a Bolivian animal sanctuary, Inti Wara Yassi, in our Nov. '08 issue (See Yassi ). A spokesperson for the sanctuary has written to say that once again a road is being cut through their park, devastating the animals and trees; she asks for our help. If this issue speaks to your heart and you want to protest to the Bolivian ambassador, click here. You may sign the model letter or, better yet, personalize it. Paste the letter into your email program, and send it to email@example.com. Thanks!
Help for Flood-Stricken Pakistani Animals
Two veterinary teams from an organization linked to the University of Lahore have sent out twenty-five volunteers in four teams to bring some help to animals in flooded areas. Resources are very limited for this vast disaster, and further help is needed. See Vet Teams .
--Contributed by Marian Hussenbux, QCA
In China, as in the US, bovine growth hormones are used to increase milk production in dairy cows. However, there is little regulation of the use of these hormones and growing new concern about their safety. Female infants in China who have been fed cow's milk-based formula have been growing breasts and very young girls have been growing pubic hair. The formula companies plead not guilty; the culprit seems to be the hormones given to dairy cows. To read the report by John Robbins, see Infants Growing Breasts . (Similarly, a study has shown that between 10% and 15% of U.S. American girls are showing signs of breast development at age seven; between 18% and 43% at age eight. These alarming figures are linked to overweight and obesity, but it seems likely they are also linked to consumption of cow's milk. See Puberty )
--Contributed by Lorena Mucke
Hunting Ban in Israel
Without fanfare, Israel recently amended its wildlife law to declare almost all species of wild animals to be endangered, and hunting them strictly forbidden. There can no longer be any hunting for "sport" within the boundaries of Israel. In thousands of years of human history, this is the first time any nation has passed such a sweeping ban on hunting.
--Contributed by Benjamin Urrutia
Glimpse of the Peaceable Kingdom
Alexi Vincent's first glimpse of Pepper was the day her son brought the black kitten home from Wendy's, where the poor creature had been dumped. But he soon began to thrive with the Vincent family, showing high spirits, romping happily. Remarkably, Pepper was a (near) lacto-vegetarian, fond of dairy, but with little to no interest in animal flesh. With some encouragement from Alexi, he stayed away from birds and lizards, and wouldn't kill rats even when he had a chance. He developed diabetes at age twelve, but with insulin injections lived to be twenty.
--Gracia Fay Ellwood (Personal communication, Alexi Vincent)
The photo shows Pepper ready to fill in for one of Santa's reindeer.
Film Review: Nanny McPhee Returns
Nanny McPhee Returns ("Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang" in the UK).
A Universal Pictures Film. Directed by Susanna White. Screenplay by Emma Thompson, based on books by Christianna Brand. Starring Emma Thompson as Nanny McPhee, Maggie Gyllenhaal as Mrs. Isabel Green, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, and Oscar Steer as the Green children, Eros Vlahos and Rose Taylor-Ritson as their Gray cousins, and Rhys Ifans as Uncle Phil. 2010.
Mrs. Isabel Green, attempting to hold down the farm while her husband is away at war (apparently WW II), has to save the place from being taken from her by her unscrupulous brother-in-law, Phil, who has gambled away his half of it, and tries various nasty schemes to get Isabel to sell her half so that he can be covered. She also has to deal with the war at home between her three rambunctious children, Norman, Megs, and Vincent, and their uppity Gray cousins, Celia and Cyril. The Grays have been dumped--a bit ahead of scheduled--by their London parents, who (we later find) are getting divorced. The young Greens and Grays fight ferociously, providing Nanny McPhee with her first Herculean labor, which is to teach them to live together in harmony. After that, she has to teach the children four other important virtues: generous sharing, cooperation, courage, and faith.
Norman and Cyril learn cooperation as they counter one of Uncle Phil's nefarious schemes, which involved sending a fake telegram to say that Vincent's father had been killed in action, inducing Isabel to decide to sell. Vincent has a hunch that his father is still alive. So, with Nanny's help, the boys go to the War Office, where Cyril's father works, to find out the truth. Here Vincent learns not only that his father has not been reported killed, but that Cyril and Celia are unwanted by both their parents. He responds-- generously.
As in the previous McPhee film, each time the children absorb the lesson and develop one of the virtues, Nanny McPhee loses one of her deformities until she is shown to be a handsome woman: it was ugliness that was in the eye of the beholder. When they appreciate her and want her to stay, it is time for her to go.
The movie is filled with beautiful and magical animals who are not mere decoration but integral to the story. They are: seven appealing piglets, prize-winners all, who with the help of the Nanny's magic can climb trees, fly a little, and perform synchronized swimming routines. They are eventually bought by a kindly farmer, who admires pigs for their cleverness, and one feels chances are good they will have a long and pleasant life with him. Next, there is Mr. Edelweiss, a clever but gluttonous jackdaw, something of a familiar to Nanny. But the two of them are at odds over his bad habit of eating putty, thereby causing glass panes to fall from windows.
There are also a sweet and beautiful cow, a good-looking but bad-smelling goat, and a miraculously-appearing baby elephant. All help Nanny McPhee carry out her important mission. (The story also includes a number of horses, both farm workers and military steeds, but they are not McPhee assistants.)
Since this is a comedy, there will be a happy ending, of course, but that doesn't mean that all loose ends are neatly tied up. Will Mr. Edelweiss be able to redeem himself with Nanny? Will the two friends be reconciled? You will have to see the movie to find out, because there will be no spoiler here.
We may hope that viewers of the film will gain a new respect for animals: in particular, that seeing the seven lovable pigs will move many to join the lovers of Babe who renounced eating "bacon" and "ham" and other animal flesh forever.
This funny-but-serious romp is recommended for all children and adults.
Essay Review: "Inside the Minds of Animals"
Jeffrey Kluger. "Inside the Minds of Animals: Science is revealing just how smart other species can be - and raising new questions about how we treat them." Time, August 15, 2010.
This survey of animal intelligence studies begins with Kanzi, who is among the most intelligent and the most human-like of God's nonhuman creatures. A full-page photograph accompanies the article. In the picture, the famous bonobo appears (and is described) as a "paunchy, balding patriarch," with bright penetrating eyes. But his personality belies his appearance. He is child-like, mischievous, curious, and linguistically creative. For example, Kanzi invented the term "slow lettuce" to designate kale, which takes longer to chew than lettuce. No reasonable (human) person can deny that Kanzi is also a person, i.e. a sentient and rational being.
Bonobos are not the only animals with brainpower. We read that an orca's brain weighs 5600 grams, four times the size of an average human brain (1400 grams). Crows and rooks are creatively clever tool-users. Their brains may be smaller and simpler--but they apparently use theirs more efficiently than we use ours. Hyenas clearly make plans in accordance with the type of prey they intend to hunt, e.g. zebras, and stick to the plan without allowing themselves to be distracted by another kind of prey (e.g. wildebeest) whom they may see along the way. Blue jays know how to outsmart those who might want to steal their caches of victuals. The most impressive fact I learned from this article: "David Premack of the University of Pennsylvania found that when chimps were taught symbols for 'same' and 'different,' they later performed better on analogy tests." This means they can absorb abstract ideas and apply them to concrete situations.
But the impressive intelligence of some animals is not the whole story, or even the most important point. Animals have heart. As author Kluger goes on to tell us, monkeys can be charitable, elephants mourn the deaths of friends and relatives, and pigs initiate action in a more optimistic way when raised in a good environment. As Peter Singer (following Jeremy Bentham) says, the intelligence of an animal should not be the determining factor on whether or not we inflict pain on another being. It is obvious that even animals who cannot make subtle logical distinctions can still feel pain and fear and anguish as much as we can, and increasingly humans are coming to hold that it is wrong for us to inflict it on them them out of selfish reasons. (It is important to note that they can also feel joy and pleasure, and it is likewise wrong for us to deprive them of it for our own perceived benefit.)
It is very encouraging that a major publication like Time has published a major article on this subject, raising awkward moral questions. However, there are major defects in it. One concern: Kluger says "we're not going to quit using animals in other ways that benefit humans . . . -- testing drugs, for example." Is that meant to be a prescriptive assessment ("we ought not to quit using animals," etc), or merely a descriptive one? Kluger isn't clear. If it is prescriptive, we need to reply that the benefit for humans of any given animal drug test is far from certain. For example, to judge by the effects on dogs, we would have to conclude that ibuprofen (and chocolate) are very dangerous and should never be taken by humans. For another, chimpanzees, who are much closer to us than dogs are, have never contracted AIDS, even when medical researchers have deliberately tried to give them this horrible disease.
But if Kluger's statement is meant as merely descriptive of the future--well, fortunately, even seemingly everlasting social evils can give way. Scientists' experiments on animals go back hundreds of years (from Descartes in the 1500s). In contrast, human slavery goes back for thousands of years, and pro-slavery spokespersons in the 18th and 19th century confidently replied to protesters that it had always been with us and always would be. Today, though it still flourishes in many places including the US, it is condemned, and illegal, in all countries. The times they are a-changin'.
Following researcher Christine Drea, the author also claims that herd animals - cows and bulls, buffalo, "live collectively but there's little shape to their society" and "exhibit little intelligence." But I have read (and reviewed for PT) scientific studies that show that cows in even semi-normal living conditions have both well-developed social structure (long-term friendships, old grudges) and creative, problem-solving intelligence. We might add that if homo sapiens were raised in slavery, separated from kin, terrified, brutalized, drugged and mutilated, then intelligence tests devised by some other species would no doubt prove that we have neither social structure or intelligence to speak of.
And--throughout the essay, any animal is still referred to as "it."
To reiterate, it is good that Time has published this article, but the overall message it gives is far from representing the whole story.
Crespelle (Chickpea Crêpes)
makes about 14 crêpes
1 cup organic chickpea (garbanzo bean) flour
1 cup organic unbleached flour
1 tsp. sea salt
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2 cups spring water
In a medium deep bowl whisk together the flours and sea salt. Vigorously whisk in the olive oil and water until no lumps remain and the mixture is very smooth. (This step may also be done in a blender.) Pour the batter into a medium size deep bowl; cover and let sit until ready to bake the crêpes. While baking the crêpes, place them on a flat surface, such as a cutting board, and separate with pieces of wax paper.
Crêpes may also be wrapped in plastic wrap or additional wax paper and stored in the refrigerator overnight before filling. They also may be baked, wrapped and frozen for at least a week or so. Simply thaw, fill, and cook according to individual recipes.
These crêpes are very tasty and versatile. They are easy to handle, and even though they can be made paper thin, they are not extremely fragile. The batter needs to sit for at least 20 minutes; but the batter may be mixed up to a day ahead of baking and be stored in the refrigerator until ready to make.
I like best to bake the crêpes in my electric skillet. I spoon in about 3 T. of batter, then pick up the electric skillet and give it a swirl and a twirl to spread the batter out into a delicate thin crêpe.
These crêpes are delicious filled with vegan ricotta, topped with a fresh tomato sauce, and baked in the oven--see recipes below.
makes about 2 ½ cups (1 pound ricotta)
1 cup hot spring water
½ cup whole blanched almonds
1 cup cold spring water
1 T. fresh lemon juice
¼ cup organic cornstarch
1 T. safflower oil
1 tsp. evaporated cane juice
½ tsp. sea salt
Place hot water and almonds in blender, blend until smooth and not grainy. Add the rest of the ingredients, blend well again. Pour into a small saucepan, stir constantly over medium-high heat until bubbly, reduce heat and cook one minute. Scrape mixture into glass container. Allow to cool. Whisk or stir with fork to give texture of ricotta. Store in refrigerator. Use as ricotta.
It is wonderful to be able to create an array of Italian dishes using this simple and easy recipe. It may be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator in a tightly covered glass container for about 1 week.
La Bohémienne (Tomato Sauce)
Makes about 4 cups sauce
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 large eggplants, peeled and cubed
1 large red bell pepper, cubed
1 large clove garlic, finely chopped
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup vegan Parmesan, plus additional for garnishing
In a large heavy skillet, combine tomatoes, eggplant and red peppers; cook uncovered over medium heat until liquid has completely evaporated. Mash mixture with fork from time to time. Cooking time should take about take 10-15 minutes. Add garlic, olive oil, sea salt, and black pepper; continue cooking until thickened, about 20 minutes. Sprinkle with vegan Parmesan; toss with pasta and sprinkle with additional vegan Parmesan as desired.
This dish’s history has roots among the Gypsies of Provence. It is a delightfully delicious accompaniment to broiled zucchini or pasta.
Pioneer: Emanuel Swedenborg, 1688-1772
Even amid the many colorful saints and sinners of human religious history, few are more remarkable than that tall, austere, scientific-minded man who reportedly traveled to heaven and hell, speaking to angels and even God as to a friend: Emanuel Swedenborg. Of him Jorge Luis Borges wrote:
Taller than the others, this man
Walked among them, at a distance,
Now and then calling the angels
By their secret names. He would see
That which earthly eyes do not see:
The fierce geometry, the crystal
Labyrinth of God and the sordid
Milling of infernal delights.
He knew that Glory and Hell too
Are in your soul, with all their myths;
He knew, like the Greek, that the days
Of time are Eternity's mirrors.
In dry Latin he went on listing
The unconditional Last Things.
Among the cryptic realities which Swedenborg saw far better than most were the deep interconnection of all life, the way in which those things which are seen reflect those of heaven, and how our diet and all else that we do shape our inner Glory or Hell. But first his story.
The son of a Swedish Lutheran bishop, Swedenborg was at first drawn to science. He served on the Swedish Board of Mines, and made important contributions to metallurgy and mining engineering. But in midlife his searching mind turned to philosophy and spiritual concerns as well. He wrote such books as the 1740 The Economy of the Animal Kingdom (the "animal" in the title does not refer only to our furry and feathered cousins, but derives from the Latin anima, soul), arguing that a powerful life-energy moves all things.
Then, in 1744-45, the Swedish sage went through a sort of initiation, in which he experienced God as meeting with him directly, informing him that he would be shown the realm of spirits, and instructed in esoteric realities. He would convey these revelations back to humanity as it entered a new age. This the initiate did, describing in a long series of Latin books the life of heaven and hell, the inner meaning of the Bible, and the relation of the manifested world to the divine. His view of the afterlife left behind the forensic judgmentalism of both Catholic and Protestant theology of the time, in favor of what might be called a therapeutic picture: God sends no one to heaven or hell--they send themselves there by their thoughts, and rise or fall accordingly. Like many of the ancients, he saw also profound interconnections or "correspondences" in the worlds inner and outer, so that there are layers upon layers of meaning in stones, plants, animals, stars, and passages of scripture. The meaning of an animal, therefore, would hardly be exhausted by the consumption of her or his flesh.
Swedenborg was austere in his diet, during his last fifteen years having no desire for flesh. One authority says he never ate meat; another says he occasionally had a little fish (perhaps, like the ancients, he did not consider fish to be meat). It was said he lived mainly on bread, milk and sweetened coffee, and occasionally almonds, raisins, vegetables, cakes, and gingerbread.
This is not merely a matter of omission; vegetarianism clearly had a strong appeal to him. In the Arcana Coelestia he wrote:
Eating the flesh of animals is somewhat profane. The most ancient people never by any account ate the flesh of either beast or fowl, but lived entirely on wheaten bread, on fruit, vegetables and herbs, various kinds of milk, butter, etc. It was unlawful for them to kill animals, or to eat their flesh. They looked upon it as bestial, and were content with the uses and services that the animals afforded them. But in process of time, when men became as cruel as wild beasts, yea, much more cruel, they began to slay animals and eat their flesh.
While this picture may owe more to the Golden Age of classical authorities like Hesiod and Ovid than to any verifiable anthropology, it reinforced the Swede's own preference for plain and humane fare.
It also carried over to those whom he influenced, some of whom were vegetarian pioneers in their own right. While relatively little-known today, except to scholars and adherents of the small Swedenborgian church, i.e. the Church of the New Jerusalem, sometimes also called the "New Church." Swedenborg had a significant popular impact on the nineteenth century. John Chapman, "Johnny Appleseed," was a strong Swedenborgian and vegetarian, who distributed Swedenborgian tracts as well as seeds in his journeys along the frontier (See PT 12 ). Sylvester Graham, the diet reformer and inventor of the graham cracker, was likewise both vegetarian and a follower of the Swedish seer. Swedenborg was an inspiration to New England Transcendentalists such as Bronson Alcott, (See PT) , vegetarian, education reformer, and father of Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women. Movements of the period such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the "Mormons"), Theosophy, and Christian Science similarly show a discernible Swedenborgian flavor, to the extent of, for example, close parallels between Swedenborg's and Mary Baker Eddy's tables of the allegorical meanings of scriptural terms. Mormons value vegetarianism as an honored part of their history, and some practice it.
An English offshoot of the Swedenborgian church, the Bible Christian Church, required its members to be vegetarian, although the two main branches of the "New Church" do not. One of the former's chief luminaries, the Rev. James Clark, published Abstinence from Flesh a Scriptural Doctrine and a Religious Duty in 1876.
Emanuel Swedenborg, then, in respect to vegetarianism as to so much of religious vision, remains an enigmatic yet tremendously engrossing and significant figure, standing virtually between the old religious worlds of medievalism together with the Reformation era, and the New Age (which he saw as beginning in 1757). He reminded his times--and ours--of the ancient link between a simple, humane diet and spiritual renewal.