The Souls of Animals

July 29, 2018 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Since I first came to Union Church last September, one of the things that has truly impressed me is the number of people here who share a great love of animals…their dogs, cats, horses and other pets as well as their commitment to the well being of animals in our world.  I had the privilege of participating in the Blessing of the Animals in the early weeks and we had a number of people who joined us to ask for a blessing on their pets.  Martin Buber, the twentieth century Austrian theologian, once wrote, “In a wonderful and inexpressible way God is created in his creatures.”  That was certainly the belief of many spiritual people over the ages, that all of God’s creation has a piece of the divine within it.  Let us pray,

I remember a story when I was a child.  My sister Karen was in her CCD class one week, which some of you may know, was the Christian Education program within the Catholic Church, the tradition in which we were raised.  She had stepped out of the class to deliver the attendance list to the office and upon returning, the nun who was teaching, asked her “Does a dog have a soul?”  Well, the teacher couldn’t have asked a better person.  From her earliest years, Karen has loved dogs and has had up to 3 dogs in her home throughout her adult years.  And so, that was an easy question for her and she immediately responded, “Yes.”

However, the nun did not agree as she was trying to distinguish between human beings and the rest of creation and she said, no, of course a dog doesn’t have a soul.  Well, Karen knew what she believed, despite what the nun chose to share.  And, in recent years, Pope Francis himself has declared that animals have souls!

Many years ago, I was working at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont as a campus minister and I had the opportunity to hear a talk by the Rev. Gary Kowalski, a local Unitarian Minister who had written a book about the souls of animals.  Today’s sermon is drawn liberally from what he shared in that talk and in his book.  He understood that much had been written about the intelligence of animals and their ability to solve problems, but as a minister, he wanted to explore the question from a spiritual vantage point.  He sought out to explore what defines spirituality and whether we might be able to say that animals have souls.

When I think about spirituality, I think in terms of relationships, of our relationship to ourselves, our relationships to one another, to all of creation and most importantly our relationship with our creator.  Spirituality is not easy to define, but it encompasses a lot of the ways in which we consider the deeper meanings and experiences of life.  How do we make meaning from our own lives and make meaning from what happens in the world?  How do we speak about the ultimate questions of life and death, of grief and joy, of right and wrong?  What is it within us that invites us to appreciate music and art, what is that deep place within us that yearns for a deeper connection with the whole of creation and with the infinite?

Kowalski thought about it in this way, “without anthropomorphizing our nonhuman relations we can acknowledge that animals share many human characteristics.  They have emotional lives, experience love and fear, and possess their own integrity, which suffers when not respected.  They play and are curious about their world.  They develop loyalties and display altruism.” They have what he calls, “animal faith,” a spontaneity and directness that can be most enlightening.”

I wonder how each of us might define the concept of a soul.  How do we explain that deepest part of our spiritual being.  I imagine that it is what makes us uniquely who we are, that it is that part of our self that is hard to describe in clear terms and it is something which we cannot see or measure.  However, our souls are manifested through our emotions-our joy and laughter, our tears and grief, through acts of courage and heroism, in our capacity to be generous and offer forgiveness.  Rev. Kowalski writes, “Soul is what’s behind the scenes in the tough and tender moments when we are most intensely and grippingly alive.  Soul is the point at which our lives intersect the timeless, our love of goodness, our zest for beauty, our passion for truth.  Soul is what makes each of our lives a microcosm-not just a meaningless fragment of the universe, but at some level a reflection of the whole.”

Much as we cannot definitively prove the existence of the souls of persons, so it is with animals, but much in our relationships with one another, if we open our hearts to other creatures and allow ourselves to sympathize with their joys and struggles, we discover that in these exchanges we are deeply touched and changed.  “There is an inwardness in other creatures that awakens what is innermost in ourselves.”  We have much to learn from animals and from all of creation.  The Pawnee Chief Letakots-Lesa once said, “In the beginning of all things, wisdom and knowledge were with the animals, the One Above did not speak directly to man.  He sent certain animals to tell men that he showed himself through the beasts and that from them, and from the stars and the sun and the moon, man should learn.”

How then have animals touched our own lives? How have they shared some of the divine within themselves and what have we learned from them about relationships and connection and the circle of life?

For those who have explored the lives of animals, we have learned a great deal about the way they live together, how they react after someone in the group has died, what music and art mean in their world, whether they know right from wrong, how some choose partners for life, and whether they are conscious of themselves in the world…all areas that we often think of as unique to humanity.

We know that to be alive is to live with the awareness of mortality, our own, the loss of ones we love and how we cope with such loss as we move through our lives.  Some of you may remember the story of Koko, the lowland gorilla who was followed over two decades by her teacher at the California Gorilla Foundation.  Koko had learned American Sign Language and was able to communicate in simple ways with her teacher, Dr. Francine Patterson.  At one point, three abandoned kittens were brought to stay where she lived and Koko chose one of them as her own pet and her special friend.  She carried her around attempting to nurse it as a baby gorilla.  They played together and developed a special friendship.  One night the little kitten escaped and was hit by a car.  When Koko was told about it, at first she acted as if she hadn’t heard, but then started to sob and would sign the words ‘Sad/frown and sleep/cat” whenever the kitten was mentioned later.  She missed her cat.  Eventually, she was asked by a staff member there, “Where do gorillas go when they die” And Koko signed “comfortable/hole, bye” and gave the sign for kissing a person goodbye.

We know too that elephants and rhinos also mourn their dead.  There has been film taken of the graveyards of elephants.  As scientists have observed, when a member of the elephant’s family dies, they often go through a ritual of caring for the one who has died.  Some elephants will go into the brush and break branches with which to cover the animal as well as with the earth nearby.  Throughout the night, members of the family stand in vigil over their fallen friend…and there are times when they have come back to the location even after months have passed, as if to pay their respects.  And mothers who lose their calves often stay nearby for days, protecting them from lions or other scavengers, and the mothers can be lethargic for days, unable to proceed with the normal routines.

Another example of how animals may live on a plain that extends beyond simple instinct or biology is the capacity for some to mate for life.  We know that many birds choose to do this.  “There is a story of a farmer in Argentina who witnessed the connection of partnership and love when he was out on his horse and noticed on the plain ahead of him two geese, a white male and a brown female, walking in the distance.  He noticed that the female was working her way slowly southward while the male appeared agitated, walked about forty yards ahead of her, occasionally rising into the air with forlorn cries.  After flying a short way the gander turned back to rejoin his mate in her march.  This pattern was repeated again and again.  The female had broken her wing and unable to fly, had journeyed forth on foot on her migration to the Megallanic Islands.  The male was propelled by his deep instincts to fly south, but he refused to abandon his partner, remaining loyal to her, seeming to beg her to spread her wings and join him in the long flight home. “

I trust that many of us may appreciate the ways in which animals bring joy and meaning to our lives.  If we look into the eyes of our own precious friends, we see something deeper there, a sympathy perhaps, a sense of caring.  We know that therapy dogs and horses bring amazing healing to many lives.  Children with autism seem to respond in a special way to dogs or horses and to communicate in ways they are unable to with members of their own human family.

We share this planet with many living and amazing creatures, most of which are not domesticated, and many of whom are struggling just to stay alive as their habitats are encroached upon or they become the prey of poachers for financial advantage.  I love the sounds of whales, the intelligence of dolphins, the grace of beautiful horses, the companionship of our own special dog, Cody.  The Little River Band had a song years ago called Time For a Cool Change and it had these lyrics, “The albatross and the whales they are my brothers…”  It’s an interesting concept isn’t it, to absorb the idea that all living things need one another for survival, yes, but also to thrive, to make meaning of our lives, to learn and move forward in life.  We are fellow travelers on this journey and our care for the living creatures of the earth is deeply connected to our own spiritual development as well as our responsibility as stewards.  The animals of our planet are a gift and our survival is directly linked to their well-being.