Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Animal Suffering

This is an edited and revised article first published in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review 61:3-4 2016

Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Animal Suffering
Dr. Christina Nellist

Abstract: In this paper I advance the opinion that the Eastern Orthodox Church has the potential to develop a theology that tackles the difficult subject of animal suffering. Certainly there has been considerable debate on matters concerning the protection and care of the environment, but very little is said on the need to care for and protect the individual animals within that environment, with even less commentary on their suffering. There are positive comments that denounce cruelty, but there is also ambiguity regarding our use and relationship with animals. This paper aims to address this lack of engagement with this subject by providing an anamnesis of an alternative, though less prominent Orthodox tradition—one that promotes loving, compassionate relationships with animals, where friendship with animals is acknowledged as a positive act and their suffering viewed as against God’s will. It is hoped that my research will provide a platform/framework not only to raise awareness and stimulate Orthodox discussions on the important subject of animal suffering and its sub-themes, but also in order to facilitate the formulation of an Orthodox animal theology and ethics of love.


Through my historical reading of patristic texts and contemporary works, such as those by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Dr. Sebastian
Brock, and Rev. Prof. Andrew Linzey, I gradually formed the hypothesis that the Eastern Orthodox Church has sufficient teachings to develop a theology that tackles the difficult
subject of animal suffering. Undoubtedly, this is different to the dominant tradition, which has centered its focus on humanity’s relationship with God and role in the cosmos, yet
I advance the opinion that this is not the only tradition available to us. There is another, though less prominent tradition, one which advocates a more inclusive theology, where “all things” are blessed, saved, and protected from harm. This tradition provides guidance for a more humane treatment of animals than is currently the case. In essence, it reminds us that all animals are loved and protected by God and that their
suffering is against his will. By causing harm to animals or by our indifference to it, it is suggested that human salvation is jeopardized.

Initially, we can state that biblical and patristic teachings reveal types of righteous behaviors that are advocated by God in both the Old and New Testaments.(1) For example, the compassionate behavior proffered in Deuteronomy and Exodus (2) is repeated in Christ’s teachings on the Sabbath in Matthew and Luke.(3) Acknowledging the importance of these righteous behaviors developed in early writers such as
Clement of Alexandria and the authors of the hagiographies of the saints. For example, Clement teaches that Christ:“pities, instructs, exhorts, admonishes, saves, shields…That we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world…Is it not then monstrous…that while God is ceaselessly exhorting us to virtue, we should spurn His kindness and reject salvation?” (4) Of interest is Climacus’ extension of virtuous behaviors to animals:“While vices and passions are not in us by nature, the virtues, including faith, hope, and love, are set in us from God by nature; [they] are even to be seen in the animals.” (5) The importance of teachings on the virtues for the subject of animal suffering is obvious.

Unfortunately for animals, certain aspects of Western and Eastern theology were heavily influenced by the flawed science of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle,(6) and some of this discredited science was incorporated into their homilies and teachings.(7) This tradition left a discernible trail primarily in Western theology and philosophy via the teachings of Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, and Descartes, which resulted in a dominant theology that separated the human creature from the rest of God’s creation.(8) Zizioulas speaks to the point:

“In the past, philosophers made this distinction by saying that humans were specially characterized by intelligence or rationality. However, ever since Darwin showed that intelligence can also be found in other animals, and that the difference is a matter of degree and not of kind, philosophy no longer insists on rationality as the special characteristic of man.” (9)

A question to raise here is that if philosophy no longer insists on rationality as a special characteristic of man, is this also the case for theology? Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew speaks to this point when suggesting that the Church should “cultivate a more comprehensive picture of scientific principles and demands in environmental issues.”(10) That being the case, it seems reasonable to include the large corpus of scientific research on animal language, rationality,and cognition rather than simply ignoring it.(11) This research raises serious questions for aspects of Christian theology that were/are based upon the now untenable scientific, philosophical, and theological premise that animals do not have these capacities. The key point to make here is that while it is important for the Orthodox Church to keep its tradition, it is likely to lose credibility, both in society and academic debate, if it insists on holding fast to flawed concepts that are the theological equivalent of a ‘flat earth’. There is enough sound theological material to secure the special role of the human, without holding fast to flawed historical teachings, especially when they have resulted in incalculable suffering to God’s nonhuman created beings.

I argue that it is not theological or philosophical arguments that focus on souls or rights that hold the key to understanding and dealing with the subject of animal suffering, but rather, patristic and biblical teachings on our role as being made in the image of a loving God. This image moving toward likeness demands of us a love of all created beings and requires a life lived in accordance with our original nature, rather than one that turns from it in sinful actions. In this context, it is my contention that biblical and patristic guidance has the potential to reveal God’s thoughts on animal suffering and protection,
just as they do on many other issues. Conversely, it follows that there would be an anti-Christ like behavior that represents the opposite of God’s goodness and the opposite of His will. Evagrius gives us the classification of eight types of evil λογισμοi (thoughts or cogitations): gluttony, fornication, avarice, grief, anger, accidie (spiritual sloth, apathy, depression, distraction, despair), vainglory (boastful vanity), pride (conceit, egotism, vanity).(12) Certainly, patristic teachings are full of such guidance together with warnings of the soteriological implications of these antitype behaviors. St. Cyril, for example, calls hunting and horseracing examples of the “pomp of the devil.”(13) It would seem reasonable to suggest, therefore, that cruelty, abuse, and exploitation in all its forms are evil and against God’s will.

The contemporary Orthodox environmental debate developed through its reflections on our role as image(14) and is indeed grounded in patristic teachings, such as those of
Cyril of Jerusalem,(15) Ephrem the Syrian,(16) and Gregory Nazianzus.(17) While human sovereignty is acknowledged and debated via humanity’s role as steward and priest of creation, the interpretation of the created world as mere utilities or commodities is rejected.(18) Met. Kallistos teaches that we are to see the world as God’s gift that may be developed and transfigured, while consistently emphasizing that this ‘use’ is not to be understood or enacted in a destructive way.

A central theme of the Orthodox theological and ethical environmental debates has focused on the sin of environmental abuse. However, while Mantzarides,(19) Stylios,(20) Zizioulas,(21) and others refer to the sin in the abuse, misuse, and exploitation of the environment,comments on the sin of exploitation and misuse of animals such as those found in the animal industries are rare. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew again offers us guidance by describing sins against creation as “mortal sins”(22) and “an unforgivable insult to the created God.”(23) I argue that it would be incongruous to suggest that such teachings exclude the suffering of animals within that suffering environment. Teachings such as these are important not only for discussions on animal suffering, but also for discussions on the implications of that suffering for human salvation.

It is important to note that these are not new teachings, but ones grounded in patristic commentary, such as St. Isaac’s famous teaching on the compassionate and merciful heart that “cannot tolerate any harm to animals and plants.”(24) More recently, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia and Bishop Isaias of Tamasou and Orinis have confirmed that any misuse of animals is a sin.(25) We are therefore gradually beginning to see the sin of abuse, misuse, and exploitation of the nonhuman animal creation being included in modern theological discussions on human salvation.

It also seems reasonable to suggest that teachings on the nature and consequences of evil are as relevant for discussions on animal suffering as they are for every other theological discussion on suffering. There are useful developments by Bartholomew and others, and here Zizioulas recognizes that while many will scoff at describing ecological problems as ecological evil:

“There are hardly any responsible scientists or politicians who would not agree with it. If we follow the present course of events the prediction of the apocalyptic end of life on our planet at least is not a matter for prophecy but of sheer inevitability.”(26)

Up until now, there has been very little discussion on the evil of animal abuse and exploitation by Orthodox theologians or scholars. My argument is that animal abuse and exploitation arise from the same evil. In our interview Net. Kallistos specifically teaches on the “evil profit” in some farming practices, which are used in order to feed “the desire of a larger profit.” He describes this as “an immoral use of living creatures” and was shocked that the monks at one location he visited did not recognize the process as “un-Christian.” His teachings on “evil profit” and “immoral use” would be equally applicable to other harmful practices in animal industries and align with Bartholomew’s teachings on mortal sins. Boff (1997) links evil with the ethical dimensions of responsibility and restraint arguing that: “Evil is whatever harms and does away with beings or destroys the condition for their reproduction and development.”(27) While he is not Orthodox, he echoes, as many Western theologians do, the teachings of the Fathers. This definition helps us move from an environmental debate that focuses on habitat to one that includes the creatures within it.

Such teachings cross a wide range of animal suffering issues and concur with comments by Goodall (28) at the Winchester Symposium on Hunting concerning the unsustainable commercial hunting of African wildlife (bushmeat) for food and Rowland’s  example of a non-invasive clinical psychology experiment on dogs in his paper entitled the “The Structure of Evil”. (29) Many believe that ‘non-invasive’ experiments do not cause harm to animals, but a reading of the process involved and the intensive suffering and death from that experiment would quickly dispel that assumption.

I would like to add a little more here for experimentation on animals involves some of the most extreme cases of animal abuse, exploitation, and suffering. It is a common belief that the case for using animals in experiments for the good of humankind is proven. However, if we examine the evidence, that is, reports specifically on animal experimentation such as Linzey and Linzey (30) and Bailey and Taylor (31) we find this is not the case; it is in fact a hotly disputed issue within the scientific community. Importantly, Pound (32) found there were few systematic studies examining the validity of animal experiments and concludes that it is “nearly impossible to rely on most animal data to predict whether or not an intervention will have a favourable clinical benefit-risk ratio in human subjects.” Knight (2011) had already alerted us to this problem: “the utility of many animal experiments in advancing human healthcare or even biomedical knowledge of significance is poor.”(33) Significantly, there is also recognition of this problem from leaders in the drug development industries: “The poor predictability of animal experiments is one of the major challenges facing the drug discovery industry.”(34) While Messer (35) acknowledges the complexity and difficulty of this theme, Knight provides evidence of “a widespread failure of ethical oversight” due to “an over-reliance on the assumption that invasive experiments on chimpanzees and other laboratory animals were likely to be of substantial use in advancing biomedical knowledge.”(36) Such findings challenge long-established views on the benefits of animal experimentation. As a result, it is time for us to become better educated on this theme and review the many scientific studies and Western academic works available, in order to arrive at a consensus on this important issue.(37)

In order to help us in our theological discussions on this particular theme, I suggest that we again reflect upon our role as image moving toward the likeness of God and the patristic teachings that “no part of Creation is left void of Him: He has filled all things everywhere”(38) and, “nothing in creation may be thrown away as worthless, as says the Apostle, or be left without its portion of the Divine fellowship.” (39) This should concern us, for in our cruel, abusive, and exploitative treatment of God’s creatures, is it possible that we are continuing to inflict some form of suffering upon our beloved God?Our view of certain non-human animals as ‘disposable life’, is equally “monstrous and unseemly” (40) and this too ought to alarm us.

We might also remember the traditional patristic teachings that Christ abhors all forms of violence and is commonly depicted as the archetype of the virtuous man who is “mild and tranquil…He would neither break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. The mild and peaceful response of His kingdom was indicated likewise.”(41) The subject of animal suffering, therefore, not only has relevance for Orthodox debates on sin and evil, but also for its discussions on living a life that reflects the image and likeness of God.

Crucially, Bartholomew and Zizioulas counsel us to extend our understanding of community,(42) to give a voice to the rest of creation whose rights are violated,(43) and to extend our love to the nonhuman world. Bartholomew also advocates extending justice “beyond one’s fellow human beings to the entire creation” and, remarkably, speaks on the “rights” of the nonhuman creation:

“Justice extends even beyond one’s fellow human beings to the entire creation. The burning of forests, the criminal exploitation of natural resources…all of these constitute expressions of transgressing the virtue of justice.” (44)

This is a formidable and profound teaching that crushes the false teachings of philosophers and theologians throughout the ages such as Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, and Descartes, who deprived animals of justice and mercy due to their supposed lack of language and rationality. Such teachings are also important for determining the ‘right’ use of animals. However, this is the theory. Important questions on practice arise here, such as: what does justice mean for the nonhuman animal beings who suffer from abuse and exploitation in intensive farming or laboratories, and who will decide if we do not use the “image of God” as our guiding principle? We might consider such teachings to be untraditional or outside the boundaries of Orthodox teachings, yet similar teachings on justice and mercy being extended to the nonhuman creation are also found in biblical and patristic texts, the Psalms and early patristic poetry.

Many Orthodox commentators suggest that it is humanity’s failure to apply biblical and patristic guidance that gives rise to our contemporary moral and ecological crisis, and I am in full agreement, but I extend this disconnect between theory and practice to the Church and Orthodox academia regarding its lack of engagement with the animal suffering and protection themes.(45) Certainly, nonhuman animals are part of ‘all creation’ but they are different to mountains, seas, rivers, and the air we breathe, and the crucial difference is that they are proven to suffer pain, fear, and terror as we do.

Grounding my belief in the Orthodox teachings that all suffering and abuse is against the will of an all-loving God, I suggest He would not ignore cries for help from any of His
creatures. I suggest the possibility that God facilitates the release of their suffering by sending ‘agents of cooperation’ throughout history, who try to save or reduce animal suffering. Historical “agents” would be the prophets and saints, who act as exemplars of compassionate, merciful, and righteous behavior,(46) with their contemporary equivalents being theologians and ethicists who warn of environmental disaster,
together with those who actively work in conservation and animal protection movements.(47) While this might seem an unlikely suggestion, it is supported by Stylios,(48) who states, “This in practice means that Christians will be leaders in every ecological movement which seeks to maintain and protect the natural environment.”

Similar views are expressed by Bartholomew when he acknowledges that humanity is both indifferent and unjust in its treatment of creation. He teaches that Orthodox Christians should be convinced environmentalists:

“It is a pledge that we make to God that we shall embrace all of creation. It is what Orthodox theologians call in “inaugurated eschatology,” or the final state already established and being realized in the present.” (49)

Bartholomew also recognizes the biblical teaching that creation cries for liberation, and that it is not too late to act.(50) He urges us to develop practical programs and for the “clergy and others in parish ministry to encourage and promote love for nature.”(51) In light of such statements and initiatives, it seems incongruous to suggest that involvement with animal protection and conservation groups would be excluded by  Orthodox Church leaders or from parish involvement. If Orthodox Christians have authority to be leaders in environmental matters, I submit that they are also given authority to create initiatives in the field of animal protection and conservation. If they are not the leaders, they should, at the very least, be willingly engaged in those discussions. Yet there is also ambiguity here, for there are those who teach a different message.(52) This in part is due to ignorance of what is involved in animal protection, a large part of which is responding to human calls for assistance.(53) This benefit to humanity is recognised by Bishop Isaias of Tamasou and Orinis, who has, since our interview, established an Orthodox Animal Welfare group in Cyprus.(54)

Throughout this paper I have argued that our relationship and use of animals should be based upon love and compassion and that we should take as our guiding principle, God’s great love for his creation. We, as image moving toward likeness, are to allow each creature to flourish as God originally intended. This would come easily to us as we move from image to likeness, yet in our fallen state we see such simple statements as challenging and against our vested interest. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.(55)

Nonetheless, many questions remain concerning our theology and its practice. Theokritoff informs us of the “disturbing gulf between the implications of our theology and tradition” and the attitudes and behavior toward animals that is “typical of Orthodox societies.”(56) There is therefore a pressing need for the Church and academics to discuss the evil perpetrated against animals, for it is the very same evil as that perpetrated against children, women, and men. I advance the opinion that any evil perpetrated against any of God’s created beings will have serious soteriological implications both for those involved, for those who know but are indifferent to the suffering, and for those who know and are concerned but fail to act to prevent or highlight the evil acts to the appropriate authorities.

I believe the sin and evil of abuse to animals is important enough to be discussed at Synodical level, yet to my knowledge, other than the recent proclamation from the Holy Synod in Cyprus,(57) there have been no proclamations from the patriarchs on the specific subject of animal suffering. It is hoped that this article will facilitate engagement from the Church and the academic community by producing evidence of historical and contemporary themes, texts, and voices in order to provide a framework for Orthodox theologians and ethicists to develop, thus ensuring their crucial role in both the saving of human souls and the reduction of animal suffering.

1 Here we are reminded of the Orthodox understanding that all Scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16) and John’s teachings in John 1:1–3, that Christ is the incarnation of the Word and the Word was God. In this sense we may argue that Christ as Word inspires the Old Testament texts andreiterates their teachings in his incarnate form in the New.
2 Deut 22:4; Exod 23:5.
3 Matt 12:11–12; Luke 14:5.
4 Exhortation to the Heathen, in Philip Schaff, ed., The Complete Ante- Nicene & Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection, O2, chap.1, Catholic Way Publishing, Kindle E-Book.
5 John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent (PG 88:624–1028); See also D. J. Chitty, The Desert A City Crestwood, NJ: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995:173.
6 Aristotle, History of Animals, trans. A. L. Peck, Loeb Classical Library Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk: St. Edmundsbury Press Ltd., 1970.
7 Basil’s Hexaemeron; John of Damascus’s Exact Exposition on the Orthodox Faith, bk. 2, CANNPNF 2:09; Gregory Palamas, “Topics of Natural and Theological Science,” in the Philokalia, 4:346–417.
8 This has recently been recognized in the Catholic Church in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’.
9 J. Zizioulas, “Proprietor or Priest of Creation?” Keynote Address of the Fifth Symposium of Religion, Science and the Environment, June 2, 2003, available at: http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/Met-JohnCreation.php.
10 Message for the conference entitled “Orthodoxy and the Environment,” Kavala, Greece, September 7, 1993 in J. Chryssavgis, ed., Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew I ,Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009:378.
11 E. Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology, Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009:240.’Other’ theologians are unreferenced.
12 Evagrius Ponticus (PG 40:1272–1274A).
13 Cyril of Jerusalem, “First Mystagogical Catecheses” 6, in The Catechetical Homilies of St Cyril Archbishop of Jerusalem, ed. D. M. Kalogeraki, Orthodox Missionary Fraternity of Thessaloniki, 2011.
14 Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I, “Message on Environmental Protection Day”, September 1, 1989; Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, “Caretaker of the Environment” International Conference, June 30, 2004. Both available at: http://www.ec-patr.org.
15 Cyril of Jerusalem, Homily 15.26, in Kalogeraki, ed., Catechetical Homilies of St Cyril.
16 R. Murray, “The Ephremic tradition and the theology of the Environment,” Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies 2, no. 1 (2010):67–82; Beth Mardutho, The Syriac Institute and Gorgias Press.                                                                                                             

17 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 45, in H. Bettenson, ed., The Later Christian Fathers New York: Oxford University Press, 1970:101.

18 D. Staniloae, “The World as Gift and Sacrament of God’s Love,” Sobornost 5, no. 9 (1969): 662–673; K. Ware, “The Value of the Material Creation,” Sobornost 6, no. 3 (1971): 154–165; J. D. Zizioulas, “Preserving God’s Creation: Three Lectures on Theology and Ecology. Parts 1–3,” King’s Theological Review 12 (Spring 1989): 1–5; 12 (Autumn 1989): 41–45; 13 (Spring 1990):1–5; also “Man the Priest of Creation,” in A. Walker and C. Carras, eds., Living Orthodoxy in the Modern World, London: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000:178–88.

19 G. Mantzarides, Introduction to Ethics: Ethics in the Crisis of the Present and Provocation of the Future,Thessalonike: P. Pournaras Publications, 105, in S. Harakas, “Ecological Reflections on Contemporary Orthodox Thought in Greece,” Epiphany Journal 10, no. 3:46–61, at 54.

20 Bishop E. K. Stylios, “Man and Natural Environment: A Historical- Philosophical-Theological Survey of the Ecological Problem”, in Harakas, “Ecological Reflections…”

21 Zizioulas, “Preserving God’s Creation,” pt. 1, King’s Theological Review 12 (Spring 1989): 1.

22 “Christmas Encyclical,” 1994, in Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer, 127. Bartholomew often comments on the sin and evil in the abuse of creation in his discussions on greed and its effects on the poor.

23 Ibid.

24 “Message of His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the Day of the Protection of the Environment,” 1997, in Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer, 49.

25 In order to provide the academic community with theological commentary and address the confusion arising from the lack of Orthodox engagement with this subject, I conducted interviews with Met. Kallistos Ware in Oxford and Bishop Isaias of Tamasos and Orinis, Cyprus, in 2014. These are available on the panorthodoxconcernforanimals.org website and in my forthcoming book entitled Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Animal Suffering, publication in late 2018. See also Met. Kallistos’s comments at the Religion, Science and Environment Symposium at Patmos: www.rsesymposia.org.

26 Zizioulas, “Preserving God’s Creation,” pt. 1 (Spring 1989): 1–5.

27 L. Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor, trans. P. Berryman. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997:136.

28 Conference notes from video provided for the Winchester University’s Hunting Symposium on November 28, 2015, by Jane Goodhall on Hunting in Africa (online), available at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLFcSZizooL63hyILbzM9Bflwi2fs0n37s.

29 M. Rowland, “The Structure of Evil,” in A. Linzey, The Link Between Animal Abuse and Human Violence. Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 2009:201–205. Here a dog was continually electrocuted in order to jump over a barrier which increased in height with each electric shock. The result was extreme suffering and death.

30 A. Linzey and C. Linzey, Normalizing the Unthinkable: The Ethics of Using Animals in Research is a report by the Working Group of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, March 2015. This incorporates over 200 studies and reports into animal experimentation. Details are available at: http://www.oxfordcentreforanimalethics.org.uk.

31 J. Bailey and K. Taylor, “Non-human Primates in Neuroscience Research: The Case Against its Scientific Necessity,” ATLA 44:43–69.

32 Pound et al., “Is animal research sufficiently evidenced based to be a cornerstone of biomedical research?” British Medical Journal [BMJ] 348:3387; also BMJ editor F. Godlee’s accompanying editorial “How Predictive and Productive is Animal Research?” BMJ 348:3719.

33 A. Knight, The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011: 4, 57–59. For the number of animals used, see pp. 9–17. For species, sources and categories of use, see pp. 18–28. It is important to note that many of these procedures are done without anaesthetic. Another important report is the USFDA (2004) Innovation or Stagnation: Challenge and Opportunity on the Critical Path to New Medical Products, available at: http://fda.org/ScienceRsearch/ SpecialTopics/CriticalPathInitiative/CriticalPathOpportunitiesReports/ucm077262.html.

34 M. G. Palfreyman, C. Vinod, and J. Blander, “The importance of using human-based models in gene and drug discovery,” Drug Discovery World (Fall) 2002:33–44, available at: http://www.ddw-online.com/fall- 2002/p148472-the-importance-of-using-human-based-models-ub-gene-and- drug-discovery.html.

35 N. Messer, “Human, Animals, Evolution and Ends,” in C. Deane- Drummond and D. Clough, eds., Creaturely Theology: On God, Humans and Other Animals. Norwich: SCM Press, 2009: 211–227.

36 Knight, Costs and Benefits.., 189.

37 To help us through the literature, I recommend two studies: firstly, the Linzey report, note 31 above; and secondly, E. Aaltola, Animal Suffering: Philosophy and Culture. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

38 Athanasius, On the Incarnation 8; also Against the Heathen 42.

39 St. Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism VI.

40 Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word.                                                       

41 Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.20.10. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints.

42 J. Chryssavgis, ed., Speaking the Truth in Love: Theological and Spiritual Exhortations of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011:297, 280.

43 Bartholomew, ‘Caretaker of the Environment International Conference’, June 30, 2004, available at: http://www.ec-patr.org.

44 “Justice: Environmental and Human” composed as a foreword to proceedings of the fourth summer seminar at Halki in June (1997), in Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer, 173.

45 My social science research has relevance here and is part of my thesis, entitled Towards an Animal Theology in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. 

46 E.g., Gregory of Nyssa’s homily ‘Love for the Poor’, in S. R. Holman, The Hungry Are Dying: Beggars and Bishops in Roman Cappadocia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001:193–199.

47 Although I do not suggest that the latter are saints.

48 Bishop Euthymios K. Stylios, “Man and Natural Environment: A Historical- Philosophical-Theological Survey of the Ecological Problem,” 1989:66, in S. Harakas, “Ecological Reflections,” Epiphany Journal 10, no. 3:46–61.

49 Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today: His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. New York: Doubleday, 2008:107.

50 “Climate Change,” 2007, in Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer, 350–351.

51 “Education and Parish Action,” 1994, in Chryssavgis, Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer, 109–110. I have written an outline for a seminary module and master’s dissertation to facilitate this process.

52 S. Sakharov, St Silouan the Athonite. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1991:95–96.

53 The public requests help for various reasons ranging from domestic violence, marriage breakdown, loss of employment, through to family members developing allergies, entering the hospital or care homes, or death.

54 We have now established panorthodoxconcernforanimals.org, which is a registered charity, with Met. Kallistos of Diokleia and Bishop Isaias as its patrons.

55 For example, the detrimental impact of eating an animal based diet on the environment, land and water resources and climate change is well documented both in scientific and UN reports.

56 Theokritoff, Living in God’s Creation, 240.

57 This statement was made as a result of my presenting my Cyprus case-study to Bishop Isaias in 2014.                                                                                                               

The Death of a Companion Animal

The Death of a Companion Animal

I write this brief article as we prepare once again for the day when we give permission for the veterinarian to end the life of a beloved pet.  This will signify almost the end of a 13 year long journey which started in Cyprus when Katie, a six week old puppy, was abandoned outside our home in Pervolia. We already had two rescue dogs from our time in Chile and whilst my first inclination was to ask the Nicosia Dog shelter to take her, when we learnt they had an outbreak of Parvo-virus, we decided to keep her. This will be the third time in three years that we have endured this experience, for our two rescues from Chile in 2002 – Humboldt and Ingrid, died in 2015 and 2016 respectively. I say almost the end because once her life has ended, there begins the final phase – that of mourning her death.  It is the recognition of the need to mourn for a companion animal that results in this article.

Last year I discussed with a Greek friend and psychologist, the pain I suffered when one of our pets died . She surprised me when stating that the inability to mourn and grieve for a companion animal was one reason for depression in a significant number of her patients. In her experience, the repression of grief was worst among those who identified as Christians. This repression arose soon after individuals expressed their grief, only to be dismissed with comments such as ‘it’s just a dog’ or cat, which was viewed as a belittling of the individual and a dismissal of their animal’s life as insignificant and irrelevant.  For some, the grief is internalised and gives rise to depression.  There would seem to be both an opportunity for academic research in this area but also the need to raise the subject for discussion.

In my research I have both early and contemporary Orthodox commentary from senior theologians on a number of issues and whilst this subject has not as yet been discussed, certain comments from Patristic sources may guide us.  For example, St. Irenaeus informs us that ‘among the “all things” our world must be embraced’[1]; St. Athanasius, states that ‘nothing in Creation had gone astray in its notions of God, save the human being only’[2], whilst the Psalms, the poetry of St Ephrem and St. Gregory Nazianzen and our liturgical texts inform us of a type of ‘knowing’ where all creatures recognise and worship God. [3] In contemporary commentary we are taught that everything that lives is ‘Holy and therefore, the way we treat animals is directly relevant to our living of the Christian Life’[4]; that animals should be treated with ‘reverence and respect[5] and that whilst humans are at the top of a hierarchical scale, ‘this is not to denigrate the rest of creation.  They are God’s Creation and we must respect that and treat them respectfully’.[6] Bishop Isaias teaches that

  • If you are a good Christian you will love the animals and they will love you back and there are many books showing this through the lives of the early Saints as I said before. You cannot find a Holy man who has mistreated animals.[7]

It would seem entirely Orthodox therefore to grieve for the loss of a companion animal who, for example, may have been a long-term member of the family; the only close companion of the owner; or who may have been the last link with the earlier death of a partner or child. Regardless of the reason, for many there appears to be a genuine need to grieve. There is also the need for us to show compassion to our human friend, relative or member of our congregation in this situation.

Teachings which indicate that we are to treat animals with respect when they are alive would seem to lead us to the conclusion that we are also to be mindful of them when they die.  This mindfulness may take many forms. Some owners may feel that once their animal is dead, that they can be disposed of by their vet or any other method, whilst others may wish to bury their animals in their garden. Some might also like a prayer of thanksgiving in remembrance of their animal’s love, friendship and loyalty.  Some non-Orthodox theologians have provided prayers for this ceremony[8] yet whilst Orthodoxy offers prayers for sick animals[9] there does not appear to be prayers to bring comfort to owners at the death of their companion animals. It was for this reason that Fr. Simon combined prayers from the Orthodox prayer book with an element from the Linzey text[10] in order to provide the theological context of praising God for the life of their animal. Let us know your thoughts.

Prayer at the death of companion animals

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. (3)                                                            Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.  Amen.

O God of all spirits and of every flesh, everything that has breath praises you both in this world and the next.  Heaven is full of the sounds of creaturely voices in a great cacophony of praise and thanksgiving.  Day and night your creatures praise you, without ceasing and with joy.

In your all-encompassing mercy, O God, we now commit the life of this our beloved friend and companion (name) to eternal fellowship with you.Create within us a spirit of gratitude for the life of (name) Give rest, O God, to (name) who lived among us and gave us freely of (his/her) love.

 Holy Father, your Son Jesus Christ taught us that not one sparrow is forgotten in your sight. We ask therefore for you to provide a place of green pasture where (his/her) praises will be heard in your presence and where (he/she) shall be free from suffering and pain.

God our Creator, hear our prayer and let our praise unite with those in heaven into one long song of eternal thanksgiving:

Glory to You, O Christ our God, the source and destiny of all living things.                                      Glory to You, O Christ our God, Who bears the wounds of all suffering creatures.                            Glory to You, O Christ our God, Who transforms all suffering into joy.

St. John saw the new heaven and earth; a place without pain, sorrow or crying;                            for the same God who creates, is the same God who reconciles and                                    redeems all creation.

            Glory to You, O Christ our God and Saviour of the Universe:                                                                              in Christ shall all be made alive.

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. (3)                                                                   Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.


Editor’s note

This morning, permission was given to end the life of our beloved dog Katie. May she rest in peace.


[1] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2:2:5.

[2] Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word 43:3.

[3] E.g., Ephrem the Syrian, Nineteen Hymns on the Nativity of Christ in the Flesh, 13:27 CANNPNF2-13;  Hymn to the God  St. Gregory Nazianzen: Selected Poems (4th Ed.) McGuckin, J. (Trans.) Oxford: SLG Press.(2005)

[4] Ware, Met. K. Oxford interview 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Isaias, Bishop.  Interview, Tamasou & Orinis, Cyprus. (2014)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Linzey, Prof. Rev. A. Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care, London: SCM Press.(1999) 

[9] Prayer of St. Modestos,  Mikron Euchologion i Hagiasmatarion, p. (1984:297)

[10] With Prof. Linzey’s permission.