Modern Teaching

This is the opening paper at our session on the Theological Perspectives of Animal Suffering at the IOTA conference in Iasi (Jassy) Romania. It was given by our Patron, Met. Kallistos of Diokleia and titled: ‘Compassion for Animals in the Orthodox Church.’







“BULLFIGHT CONTRADICTS TO OUR SPIRITUAL TRADITION”. Letter of Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia to Vera I. Maximova, President of the Russian Society for Animal Protection
24.08.2001 · English, Архив 2001
Letter of Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia to Vera I. Maximova, President of the Russian Society for Animal Protection
Dear Vera Ivanovna,
With attention and concern I read your letter about the plans of carrying out a bullfight in Russia.
I am sure that such a spectacle will make its evil contribution into the obtrusive propaganda of violence, with which our society, through centuries brought up in the ideals of love and charity, has lately faced. Our Church bless human creative work, but it says that human activities are not welcomed by God if “they are directed on satisfaction of sinful needs of spirit and flesh” (Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church).
I shall not repeat that the spectacles, that expose lives of animals and moreover of people to danger on purpose are immoral and dangerous to the society. Even if the life and health risk is reduced to minimum, the kindling of violence cult damage morale of a person especially one of a child or youth. Bullfight is more and more condemned in the countries of its birth. It contradicts to the Russian law as well as to our spiritual tradition.
Therefore Iwould like to join my voice to that of those, who resolutely disagree with penetration of such public spectacles in Russia and especially with their obtrusive advertisement.
With respect and wishes of Godўs help in every good undertaking,
+Alexy, Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia


Metropolitan Kirill: “We celebrate the event, not the day”. (Izvestiya, January 5, 2003)
21.03.2003 · English

Your Eminence, do animals, in particular dogs, have a heavenly patron? If so, who is he and how can we pray to him?

– Domestic animals are helpers to the man. Some of them have a direct impact on human well-being. That is why the Orthodox Church traditionally teaches us that we can pray to saints for the good health of animals. From the earliest times, peasants have prayed to Martyrs Flor, Laur and Blasius for the health of cows, horses and other animals. There are no special prayers for dogs, but the Lord “has mercy upon animals” and urges people to do so. A merciful attitude to the nature, a good attitude to animals, especially domestic ones, is integral part of Christian ethics. To destroy environment and at the same time to love the man is impossible. Love is an all-embracing notion. “The merciful heart” is open for all people.



The Ecumenical Patriarch, His All Holiness Bartholomew, calls for us to acquire a ‘Eucharistic spirit’ and ‘ascetic ethos’ in our responsibilities towards animals. He states:

Let us regard ourselves as responsible before God for every living creature and for all the natural creation; let us treat everything with proper love and utmost care.

(HAH ‘Thine Own From Thine Own’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 2006, more readily found in Chryssavgis, J. Cosmic Grace, Humble Prayer: The Ecological Vision of the Green Patriarch Bartholomew, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans (2009:330)


This interview took place between Metropolitan Kallistos and Presbytera Christina (Dr. Nellist) on the 24TH February 2014 in Oxford, England.

Presbytera Christina: Firstly Father, may I ask you to comment upon the research I left with you last year. This was the comments made by the Orthodox priest in response to the outcomes of my research in 2012 which examined the opinion of Cypriot animal protectionists on the Orthodox Church in relation to various aspects of the animal theme.

Metropolitan Kallistos: Yes, well though I might slightly re-phrase what the priest says in one or two areas, in general there is nothing that he says where I felt ‘no this is definitely wrong’. So I can say that he is correct in his statements.  I can comment on one or two of his answers but I think some of those points come up in the further questionnaire you sent to me, so rather than comment on his statements I would perhaps make my own statement in due course.  The points that we need to discuss, not that I disagree with him, are the questions of whether animals have souls and of course, why the orthodox clergy that were written to did not to reply. I think one of the reasons may be that they didn’t quite know what to reply.  When you get an enquiry and there isn’t a simple and obvious answer to it, you tend to put it aside and not do anything about it. I think that may well be what’s happened here.

Firstly a general comment – it seems to me that a concern for animal welfare is a fairly recent thing in a country like Britain. Of course, in the Tradition and in the Old Testament you have Saints who have shown real concern for animals but animal welfare organisations specifically are I think a fairly modern thing.(1) So to me, some of the problems you identify are not so much a theological question, as a cultural one.  This subject has been a concern that people have felt in countries like Britain and America for some considerable time but culturally the traditional orthodox countries haven’t really caught up with this.  It’s not that they are taking a different stance but they are more in the situation perhaps that we in the west were in fifty or one hundred years ago.  Probably in the beginning of the 20th century we would not have found much in the way of animal welfare organisations even in the west, I may be wrong there but I see it more as a cultural and sociological thing rather than theological but that’s a matter for discussion.

Presbytera Christina: It wasn’t my writing to the Church; this was the general theme that came out in the Cyprus research.  Many people had written to priests and bishops and had not received any response.

Met. Kallistos: I think we have to admit that this isn’t a priority in the minds of most bishops and priests and they might say we are concerned with humans and to that my answer is ‘it is not a matter of either /or, you should be concerned with humans and animals. The one doesn’t exclude the other. Now of course my experience is limited as I have always had an urban upbringing so I don’t know in too much detail what goes on in farming but I have seen some things which have left me very disturbed.

Presbytera Christina: Well I do not eat meat not because I do not like the taste of it but because I object to the system which is very cruel and the only thing I can do is choose not to be part of that cruelty and I just hope that over time, the organisations that do focus on farming methods like Compassion in World Farming (2) for example, can change it.  Again, methods such as factory farming are rather new and I feel that if more people knew what happened they may well give up eating meat. Of course, it is easy to find out what goes on, there is plenty of visual and written material on the web and in the form of reports and research. So perhaps it is more that people don’t want to know, rather than not being able to access the information.

Met. Kallistos: Well exactly. People who live in towns like me eat the products but don’t know too much about the background and I think if I knew more about the background I might feel I might have to become a vegetarian but I am willing to say a bit about that later.

Presbytera Christina: Do you believe animal suffering is relevant to God?

Met. Kallistos: Yes.

Presbytera Christina: In your opinion, is the suffering of animals, something the Orthodox Church should be concerned with? 

Met. Kallistos: Yes.

Presbytera Christina: There appears to be a need for clarification of the Orthodox Church’s position on cruelty to animals. Would you be able to give us a clear statement of the Church’s position?

Met. Kallistos: The Orthodox Church to the best of my knowledge has never attempted to make dogmatic statements about this – statements expressed in the form of formal and official church teaching. The question of animals for example was never a matter discussed at the seven Ecumenical Councils. Yet, a reverence for animals, sensitivity to their position, their suffering, this certainly is part of our Orthodox Church faith. We start from the principle laid down in the first chapter of Genesis – that the world is God’s creation, God saw everything that He had made and behold  it was very good – Genesis 1:31. The world is God’s creation and it is a good and beautiful world. So the question of animals and how we treat them, links up with our view that animals are part of God’s creation and just as we should treat the whole of creation with reverence and respect, so we should more particularly, treat the animals with reverence and respect. Now it is said in the first chapter of Genesis that humans have a unique position in God’s creation because we are created in the image and likeness of God and that is not said of animals, though I would like to pursue that later on in our discussion but being created in God’s image and likeness gives us a responsibility towards the Creation as a whole and towards animals in particular. It is said that we are to have dominion as humans over the created order but dominion does not mean domination or ruthless tyranny. This dominion that humans are given is part of being in God’s image, so what this means is that just as God cares for His Creation and loves it, so we, after the image of God, are to care and love the Creation.  This to me is the basic position of the Orthodox Church in regard to animals.

Presbytera Christina: The Ecumenical Patriarch’s proclamation at Patmos[3] defined the misuse of animals as a sin. In my research it appears that the Church in Cyprus is reluctant to speak on animal abuse of any kind but particularly in the form of poisoning. Would you give us your opinion on the poisoning of animals in general and in particular as a form of population control or for unwanted animals?

Met. Kallistos:  I was present on Patmos at the time the Ecumenical Patriarch made his proclamation and of course, I fully agree with the affirmation that animals have their own proper dignity, that this is to be respected and therefore the misuse of animals along with the misuse of any part of the creation is a sin.  William Blake, that great eighteenth century prophet said ‘Everything that lives is Holy’, so the animals are Holy and therefore, the way we treat animals is directly relevant to our living of the Christian life.

I would condemn the poisoning of animals.  There will be situations where domestic animals do need to be put down because they are diseased or because they are breeding too many and there is not enough land to support them but poisoning would seem to me a cruel way of dealing with this problem; There are ways in which animals can be put to sleep that do not involve a long and painful death.

I think that we do have a responsibility some times to limit the numbers of domestic animals but not by poisoning.  Equally, I suppose we do need to keep down wild animals which may be praying on our flocks or herds – the wolves on Mount Athos for example were quite a nuisance; Unfortunately there are now no more wolves there, they have all been disposed of and I regret that but again, poisoning seems to me, an evil way to dispose of animals because it will usually involve a lingering and painful death. There are more humane ways of dealing with the problems.

Presbytera Christina: The neutering of animals is the practice of Animal Welfare Organisations throughout the world.  It is used to reduce the number of unwanted animals and also for health reasons in later life.  It has been suggested that the Orthodox Church forbids this procedure. Do you believe this reflects the Church’s position and if not, could you clarify its position?

Met. Kallistos: To my knowledge, the Orthodox Church, has never forbidden the neutering of animals and I consider that used in a responsible way, this is a good method of preventing unwanted animals and that there can be health reasons as well to advocate this practice, so I am not against the neutering of animals. Of course we do not approve of the neutering of human beings but for animals I do not think the Orthodox Church has ever been forbidden this practice.

Presbytera Christina: How is it that the Orthodox Church which has a wealth of texts relating to respect for God’s Creation, finds itself in 2011 and 2012 research, as being perceived of being indifferent to the suffering of a major part of God’s Creation? Is it ignorance in the clergy of Patristic teachings on the subject or is it more likely to be a lack of transference or application of their knowledge, to a priest’s or parishioner’s behaviour?  How are these problems to be addressed?

Met. Kallistos: Now that is very true, first of all, the Old Testament is full of regulations that were imposed and adopted by the Jewish people relating to the humane treatment of animals. I call to mind a very good book on this subject not by an Orthodox but by a Roman Catholic, Fr. Robert Murray and his book the ‘Cosmic Covenant’ where he shows that particularly in the covenant of Noah, the covenant made between God and humans, also involves the animal world. That I believe is the true Christian teaching and I accept that as an Orthodox.

Again if we look at the lives of the Saints, there are numerous examples of close friendships between Saints and particular animals.  I think of the collection of texts well known many years ago, made by Helen Waddell, called ‘Beasts and Saints’ and the examples she gives are both Eastern and Western, this is not only Orthodox but part of our common heritage. So from the tradition of the Orthodox Church, we have plenty of examples of close mutual understanding between humans and animals.  The trouble is whilst we have all this in theory we do not sufficiently apply it in practice.

Presbytera Christina: How is this to be addressed?

Met. Kallistos: There is a need for more education and we are up against the basic problem that all too many people, clergy and laity, think as Christians that this doesn’t matter – that the treatment of animals is not a moral issue. But as soon as you say that animals are part of God’s Creation and we humans have a God given responsibility towards the Creation, then at once, one sees that it is both a moral and spiritual question. That is why the Ecumenical Patriarch was so right to insist that the misuse of the Creation is a sin- but all too many people don’t see it that way.

There is a further problem in that people involved in agriculture might feel that the intervention by Christian clergy and others, suggesting humane ways of treating animals would diminish their profits- it would mean that they could not make as much money and that is an argument against organic farming in general.  This argument I don’t accept.  First of all, even if it did diminish your profits, perhaps you should not make evil profit from the Creation and I think also, that it is possible to practice organic farming and humane treatment of animals, in a manner that is perfectly viable economically; but I do see there could be objections here.

By way of illustrating this point, I remember visiting many years ago, a Roman Catholic monastery, though I will not say where, except that it was in the United States and they took me with great pride, to see a new appliance that they had installed for battery hens.  There were thousands of hens in this vast shed, all in tiny cages and subjected to electric light all through the night so that they would lay a larger amount of eggs.  Now there it seemed to me, that the desire of a larger profit was leading to an immoral use of living creatures.  Animals have their dignity their natural ways of behaving – hens wonder about picking up the food they find, picking it up in different places and they should be allowed to do this.  I was deeply shocked that a monastery, which should be sensitive to the dignity of Creation, should be showing such pleasure in this new installation. Well, their motive was to make profit; however, even if you can’t make quite such big profits, surely humane farming could be economically viable.

Presbytera Christina: Can you remember how many birds were in each cage?  Normally in factory farming there would be several hens in one tiny cage.

Met. Kallistos: That I don’t remember clearly but I noticed how in many cases, the birds had virtually no feathers.  I was appalled to see the naked skin of these poor birds and I was deeply shocked that the monks did not seem to see that there was something un-Christian, contrary to our faith in the beauty of God’s world, to do such a thing as that. So to summarise, I think it is a lack of teaching and a lack of spiritual imagination.

Presbytera Christina: On that point I can comment that I have very poor eye-sight and yet I am able to see the suffering of other creatures and what I do not understand is that others do not see it, even when it is pointed out to them.  This is why I was so upset at the suggestion that some priests were involved in poisoning animals – as Christians how could they do that?

Met. Kallistos:  Well, quite so.

Presbytera Christina: Several of my questions relate to the suggestions that because an animal does not have a soul, it doesn’t feel pain or that they are irrelevant or that we should not concern ourselves with them.  Would you like to take each point in turn or would you like to cover them in a more general statement?

Met. Kallistos: I shall cover these points as I make my statements.   The idea that animals do not suffer pain – I find that quite extraordinary.  The evidence is so clear. Indeed we cannot see inside the animal’s minds but all the symptoms that humans display when pain is inflicted on them are displayed also by animals. So we have every reason to believe that animals experience pain as we do and to suggest therefore, that to inflict pain on animals is something morally neutral, I find abhorrent – it is a sin.

Presbytera Christina: How do we deal with this sin in the Church?

Met. Kallistos: Quiet, persistent teaching; but the difficulty is that all too many of the clergy in country districts, in Mediterranean countries particularly, don’t see that. Here as Orthodox Christians we have a marvellous theology for the Creation but the priests may be afraid to preach about this because such a message would perhaps be unwelcome to the farmers who are their parishioners. They may be afraid to incur in this way hostility but, and there is an important point to make here, the Church has always been called to take an unpopular line.

On the subject of souls, I will refer to a book in which I have previously written on the subject of souls and I did have a specific section on the souls of animals.  This is entitled From Soul to Self edited by James Crabbe, published by Routledge in 1999. On this question of course it is true, that in much of Christianity eastern and western, there has been a tendency to make a very sharp distinction between human and animals.  It is said that animals do not possess reason, more specifically, that they do not have immortal souls. The result of this approach has been that we are in danger of treating animals as objects and not subjects.

Now part of the question here, do animals have souls, depends on what you mean by the word soul. The Greek word psyche has a broader understanding perhaps than our modern understanding of the word soul. Aristotle said there are three types of soul – the vegetable soul, the animal soul and the rational soul i.e. the human soul. Now to speak of vegetable’s having souls would strike some people as facetious and they will make jokes about talking to your tomatoes. Well in fact there may well be subtle connections between humans and plants. After all, we do describe some people as having green fingers – these people seem to have a natural empathy with growing things and seem to be skilful in making them grow; however, the soul used in this way by Aristotle means ‘life force’. So from that point of view animals certainly do have a soul because they undoubtedly have a ‘life force’.  But do they have the same soul as humans?

Now many of the characteristics we think of as distinctively human are also found in the animals. In fact any attempt to make a very sharp delineation in light of modern research into animal behaviour and intelligence, doesn’t entirely work.

Do animals have the power of speech, well not exactly as we humans do but animals do make cries and sounds which communicate messages to the other animals, so they do communicate. There has been much research in this area, I can think specifically of dolphins and they have quite subtle ways of communicating to each other. Indeed, there is so much research now that we cannot say animals are inarticulate for they have all kinds of ways of communicating and this has implications for our view on thought.

To say animals don’t have reason is also questionable.  Again there is much research in this field.  For example if you put a banana behind a door with a rather complex handle to open the door, if the monkey is interested in it, he will test  and experiment with the handle and surely he is doing something very similar to what we do when we try to think and solve a problem. So it seems to me that you cannot make a sharp distinction here either.

Again, animals show deep attachment to one another.  Many animals are in fact monogamous and form unions throughout the whole of their life and we could say that they are better at this than some humans.

When an animal loses its partner it will show signs of bereavement and grief as humans do.  Here we can use as an example the research into elephant family groups. So it is much harder to make a sharp distinction between animals and humans than it once was.  Just to say animals have no souls is inadequate, in fact so many of the characteristics that are human are now found to some extent among the animals.

If we look at the Greek Euchologian, the Greek book of prayers, used officially in the contemporary Greek Orthodox Church we have prayers for animals. Here is one of them:

Lord Jesus Christ, moved by your own tender mercy, pity the suffering animals….            For if a righteous man shows pity to the souls of his animals (Pr 12:10), how should you oh God not take pity on them, for you created them and you provide for them? In your compassion you did not forget the animals in the ark….Through the good health and the plentiful numbers of oxen and other four -footed creatures, the earth is cultivated and its fruits increase; And your servants who call upon your name enjoy full abundance of the products of their farming.[3]

Well that prayer definitely shows compassion for animals and for their suffering and there are prayers specifically for sick animals.

Well you may say if you are a farmer it is very important that your animals shouldn’t die.  The death of your horse would have been a severe blow to peasant farmers in earlier ages. So, if we pray for animals and we say they have souls, we cannot say simply that they have no human characteristics at all – the line of demarcation is not so clear.

Now the normal view is that the animal soul is formed from the earth and therefore it is dissolved at death and doesn’t survive, yet the accounts in the Bible of the age to come make it quite clear that there will be animals there. The ox and the ass – the lion and the lamb will go together. The usual view is to say that they won’t be the same animals, but how do we know?

Do we have any right to say that animals do not possess immortality?  I think this is a subject where we can simply say, we do not have a clear revelation on this point in Scripture. I cannot recall anywhere where it says animals cannot survive into a future life, so why shouldn’t we leave that to God’s mercy and say that we don’t understand about this?

So perhaps the animals do survive. So in all of this, simply to say that animals have no souls is – inadequate. It is a matter of opinion as opposed to any dogmatic statement from the Orthodox Church. It is a subject in which we have not been given clear revelation or guidance in revelation.

Now it is true, that in the Orthodox Church, meat eating is allowed. It is considered that this only happened after the fall. In an unfallen world in paradise humans did not kill the animals. The eating of meat is seen to some extent as a falling away from original perfection. But we have never then been vegetarian as a matter of principle but it is interesting that monks and nuns usually abstain from meat. They do eat fish so it isn’t a vegetarian issue in itself.

But coming back to the question from which we started, to me it is unsatisfactory to say animals have no souls and we should avoid making such an assertion.

Presbytera Christina: Can I press for a specific answer to a point from my research. For example in my research it is suggested that because an animal doesn’t have a soul it doesn’t matter if they are treated cruelly or again, that because animals do not have a soul they cannot feel pain or suffer.  Should it matter if an animal has a soul or not – should that be our rationale to the way we treat it?

Met. Kallistos: I reject those kinds of statements. I think the whole discussion on whether animals have souls or not is in the end probably a ‘red-herring’.

The point is that animals are living creatures, all life is from God, and therefore we should treat the animals with respect and reverence.  They have their own characteristic dignity and we should respect that.

Now we can use animals for our service, use horses for ploughing though we do not do that so much now, but we should nonetheless with our domestic animals, give them enough to eat, we should not over-work them, we should keep them warm and clean. So in other words, in treating animals we should let them be themselves.

They should be as far as possible healthy without pain or discomfort and if we do kill animals for our food we should kill them in a humane way.  I know in some religious traditions you ask forgiveness from the animal before you kill it well, there is no such teaching in the Orthodox Church that you have to do this but surely it expresses something that we should respect and reverence the animals for what they are – as God has made them – for they are God’s Creation and we should not show contempt for God’s Creation.  They have feelings and we should not hurt those feelings.

Presbytera Christina: If I can stay with this subject for a moment, it seems that we have what I call a disconnect between the theory and the practice. If there is a perceived connection between what is thought to be Church teaching that animals do not have souls; that they are irrelevant and therefore it doesn’t matter if they are cruelly treated – how can we disseminate the true opinion of the Church as you have expressed it today in this interview? How do we make people aware of these teachings/ proclamations of the Orthodox Church’s view?

Met. Kallistos: We have to patient but persistent.  It often takes a long time for a message to percolate through to people in general but people’s attitudes can be changed and we have to work on that.

Clearly there are vested interests that will want to go on treating animals in the inhumane way that happens now, through battery hens or whatever, but we should quietly but persistently, combat those views. Opinions can be changed. There is in any rate, in our western society in countries like Britain and America, a greater sensitivity to the harm we are doing to the Creation and the need to change our ways of attitude.

We have a very long way to go and we are faced by certain very strong financial interests but if we hold fast to our message and go on preaching it, in season and out of season, about the value of the animal creation, this may result in a change gradually.

To quote a quite different situation, I can recall in my youth and I am thinking back to the 1950s, being told by a doctor friend of my family that there was a definite connection between smoking and lung cancer; But, she said, the tobacco companies are so powerful and they have such financial resources behind them, they will fight to suppress the evidence. Yes this did happen but nonetheless, in the last few decades there has been a fundamental change of attitude towards smoking and people’s opinions have been changed.  The anti-smoking lobby did not have big resources behind it and yet it has won.  There are increasing restrictions on where one can smoke and the cigarette packets have on them the message that smoking kills.  If you can change our attitude over smoking, can we not change our attitude over animals?

Presbytera Christina: Would you give us your opinion on why there is an apparent lack of debate from Orthodox academics, on the theme of animal suffering and related issues? 

Met. Kallistos: There ought to be, for it should be seen as a direct consequence that respect for the Creation, for the environment, carries with it more particularly respect for the animals; so we have a basis to work on there because a lot has been written by Orthodox.

It may not have permeated through to all the faithful but plenty has been said about the responsibility of humans for the environment, about the ecological crisis about the tragedy of what we are doing to the material creation.  The present Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has said many things and several volumes have been issued of his addresses and sermons on this matter. So we have a good basis there to work from.

This theology of creation that the Orthodox Church is deeply committed to – the deepness and beauty of Creation – has as a direct consequence, reverence for the animals.  Why we haven’t so far made the connection, I am not really sure but it is high time we did so.

Presbytera Christina: Would you agree that if the Church does have compassionate views towards animals within the created order, then there appears to be a need for the Church to ensure that its teachings are both taught and practiced at grass roots, priestly level?  How could this be achieved, particularly in relation to Cyprus, where many people become priests after they retire without any formal theological education? Should all clergy attend courses on the environment/animal welfare and / or should we include such training in our seminary courses?

Met. Kallistos: There is need for education here at every level and we should start not with the people in theological seminaries but we should start much earlier with the children.  That the normal catechism teaching given in our Church Sunday School classes should include teaching about the Creation and about compassionate and Christian treatment of animals.  We should start with people when they are young.

The Orthodox Church should include such topics in the manuals that it puts out – the Church of Greece puts out plenty of books for teaching children and I know the Greek Archdiocese in North America has a programme with a lot of literature.  I think we should struggle to see that this literature includes as one of its themes, part of the essential Christian teaching of respect for the animal creation.

Then certainly later on when priests are given training, the courses the clergy are given should include teaching on the environment. The Ecumenical Patriarch has been saying this about the environment in general but this should also include teaching on the animals and how they should be treated.

In general then, we should be working on every level to educate people.  We should bring this before them as a point that they ought to think about.  We should encourage those who have this area of responsibility to educate the children and educate the priests so that they in turn can educate their people.

Presbytera Christina: Is anyone doing this – writing this material?

Met. Kallistos: I don’t know of anyone doing this at the moment. But we must encourage them.  What you are doing is important but the trouble is most people do not give priority to this issue and they don’t think it matters – but it does matter very deeply.

Presbytera Christina: Let me ask a question on this theme but from a different perspective. Isn’t the treatment of animals important not simply for the animals and to reduce their suffering but also for our sake also? What does it say about the heart of someone who is cruel to other creatures or indifferent to suffering of any kind?

Met. Kallistos: I think so.  If we misuse the animals, this will have a negative effect on our own character.  It will coarsen us and it will reduce our spiritual sensitivity. Misuse of the animals means that there is some ‘blind spot’ in our own understanding of God and our standing of our place in the world. So, yes we are harming the animals and this is very serious but we are harming ourselves as well.

Presbytera Christina: You are familiar with St Isaac the Syrian’s famous comment on ‘The Compassionate Heart.’  What is your interpretation of this passage, with specific relevance for Orthodox Christianity’s engagement and treatment of animals?

Met. Kallistos: Now I have here ‘What is a Merciful Heart’.

Presbytera Christina: Now that is interesting because I wrote to Dr Sebastian Broke about this title for I have seen both Compassionate and Charitable for the same text and these two meanings are quite different. As a specialist in Syriac I asked him for his opinion.  He was quite sure the correct translation was Compassionate.  I also wrote regarding the use of the phrase ‘irrational animals’ in this text and he said that the Syriac did say ‘irrationals’ and it was he who chose to put animals.  My response was to say that depending upon when this was composed and interpreted ‘irrationals’ may well have included women and slaves. What it does do is highlight the importance of having expert translators.

Met. Kallistos: Well yes.  Merciful Heart is not so different to Compassionate and yes, there have been Christians who have said that women are not made in God’s image but in my view that is a definite error. Women are in the image of God as much as man and women are baptised just as men are.

The translation I have here follow the standard translation and I quote:-

What is a merciful heart? ….. It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for the demons and for all that exists…. As a result of His deep mercy or compassion the heart shrinks and cannot bear to look upon any injury of the slightest suffering of anything in creation. That is why he constantly offers up prayers full of tears even for the irrational animals….. He even prays for the reptiles as a result of great compassion that is poured out beyond measure in his heart after the likeness of God.[4]

Well here we are challenged, for it is perhaps not so difficult to feel affection for squirrels but most of us perhaps do not like snakes.

Here is another example by a twentieth-century saint, the Russian monk St Silouan the Athonite:-

One day I saw a dead snake on my path that had been chopped into pieces.”

So obviously somebody had deliberately cut it up.

“Each piece writhed convulsively and I was filled with pity for every living creature, every suffering thing in Creation and I wept bitterly before God.” [5]

So here in Orthodox teaching across the centuries, is certainly a sense that the animals suffer and that we should mind about that; And not just the domestic animals but also the wild animals – not just the furry attractive creatures but also the animals we don’t like so much. 

Presbytera Christina: It is a subject fraught with difficulties for if you love the fox, what about the fleas or ticks on the fox?

Met. Kallistos: Yes what do we do with the wasps?  I find that if you sit still the wasps will usually go away – don’t pursue it, just let it be and it will go in due course. But yes, this is all part of our rich Christian inheritance – Biblical and in the Tradition both Eastern and Western and the thing is we are all too ignorant of this but we must go on emphasising these teachings to other people and to ourselves.

Presbytera Christina: Part of your answer to an earlier question touched upon the Church’s engagement – Christianity’s engagement and treatment of animals and my research in Cyprus shows there to be a complete lack of communication between the Church and the Animal welfarists.  They are ignorant of each other’s views and yet when you analyse what is said – and you have earlier ratified what the priest said to me – they are when analysed, saying the same thing. Yet I have evidence though I have not brought it out into the public discussions, of hostility between the two groups and definite fear of the Church. Fear by some that the Church will try to shut them down, stop them functioning, if they say anything negative about the Church.

Now I know through personal experience that some animal welfare workers can be extremely difficult to work with.  I have myself been insulted during my research in Cyprus as I was perceived by some of being from the Church. They can be very difficult to work with because of their passion and because of the daily reality of dealing with animal cruelty, poisoning and abandonment and I understand that completely, but any group would have to be carefully chosen to include those willing to work together and the same would be true for the Church.

I am seeing Bishop Isaias of Tamassos and Orinis in Cyprus on the third of March to talk about my research findings and I have no idea what he will say but one of the questions I asked the priest was whether the Orthodox Church might consider having a liaison officer to work with the animal welfarists.  In other faiths they have a Christian animal welfare group – the Catholics have one, the Anglicans have one, I am not sure if the Baptists would have one but certainly there are examples.

Is there any way that the Church can have an animal welfare group?  Do we have one voice for Orthodoxy here or would there be a need to set up ‘nationalist’ groups – a Cypriot group, a Serbian group etc. Would the Ecumenical Patriarch be open to the suggestion that there could be such a group – an Orthodox Christian Welfare group? How do you view that?  Where is the way forward here?

Met. Kallistos: Well there are several points here so let me try to answer them. Yes I would certainly say that one step forward would be to try and set up a group in the Orthodox Church similar to the Anglican and Roman Catholic groups you mention who are concerned with animal welfare. Possibly Cyprus would not be the best place to start but I may be proven wrong.  I feel that you are more likely to get a response to this from Orthodox in the western world, who have been more exposed to these sorts of ideas.

I think something could be done to try to interest Patriarch Bartholemew on this since he has written and said so much.  He is known as the ‘Green Patriarch’ because of his statements and actions concerning the misuse of the environment. He is concerned about the pollution of the water and the air but the whole problem of course is a single one and misuse of the animals goes hand in hand with misuse of the rest of the environment – it is all a single issue. So if there is going to be leadership it might come from him.

A possibility here is to contact Archdeacon John Chryssavgis who works with Patriarch Bartholemew on environmental matters. He has edited the different collections of Patriarchal essays. He was my pupil at one stage and I think he has been involved in the Patriarch’s statements. He would be worth contacting I feel and you have my blessing to do so.

Another possibility is this.  The Patriarch every year organises an ‘ecological cruise’. The delegates are Orthodox and non-Orthodox, from the worlds of economy, theologians and environmental scientists; because the question of the environment is not so much in having to persuade theologians as persuading the politicians and the large international businesses and they are much more difficult to reach.  He tries in these conferences on the high seas to bring people of influence together and to impress on each other, the urgency of these questions.  Perhaps they could devote one of these floating symposiums specifically to the question of animals. It has been in the past that as they are travelling in a boat they have concentrated on the seas but why not the animals, though it is a little difficult perhaps to relate to the fishes.

Presbytera Christina: Not if you dive Father, then it is easy to relate to marine life.  The myriad of species, forms and colour is a sensory delight and I can tell of the inquisitiveness of cuttle-fish and octopi from my swimming so regularly in the various countries I have lived.  I have wonderful video footage of the inquisitiveness of one particular octopus who lived in one specific coral just off my home in the Seychelles and cuttle-fish and squid are equally fascinating.  They will line up and watch you, signalling to each other the whole time and if you swim slowly towards them they will retreat to the same extent that you come forward.  If you retreat they will come forward and you can repeat this process several times – I usually then swim away as I do not wish them to become used to being around humans who are generally a danger to them.  I have frequently turned around from examining or observing the behaviour of some creature only to find myself the object of inspection by another creature, not I must add a shark but certainly barracuda, squid and many varieties of fish.

To come back to Fr. Chryssavgis, I was asked by the organiser of the forthcoming international conference on religion and animals that I am to present at later this year, if he would be worth inviting.  My reply was certainly do so because he has written extremely well in general  terms on creation as they all do, but nothing yet specifically on animals.

Met. Kallistos: Yes, it is curious how they have not carried that a step further because it is not a very big step.

Presbytera Christina: Well, sadly he could not come because his schedule is already full but he did respond by saying that he had wanted to write something for a long time and would like to be invited on another occasion.

Met. Kallistos: Well I am glad he is in touch with Professor Linzey because he I think [Fr. Chryssavgis] is a key person in that he is advising the Patriarch on such matters. So if you could contact him, you may be able to encourage him to discuss the issue of animals, their treatment and their place in the created order with the Patriarch that would be an excellent way forward. I am not aware of any Orthodox group that is concerned with this at the moment but like all things we have to start somewhere and this would seem to me a useful place to start.

I would certainly encourage you and bless you and when I next see John, I don’t know when that will be but then I will take this matter up with him, as a new step that the Patriarch might take.  The Patriarch has said plenty about the non-animate environment but what about the animate environment as well.

Presbytera Christina: Lastly Father, I thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you at length on this matter and to thank you for discussing what some will see as sensitive, even political issues, though I do not see that they have to be. From my research I can prove that the treatment of animals has been the subject of discussion in the Orthodox Church, though not a priority, from the earliest times.  My research however identifies a distinct gap between the teachings and the practice.  I do feel that the Orthodox Church has the wisdom and I would like to think the courage to lead the other religious groups as the Ecumenical Patriarch has done with the issue of the environment, if only they would focus their attention on the particular creature within, rather than the general overview of the environment. Certainly, your contribution today has started the conversation and I hope a wider and informed debate in Orthodoxy will follow.


  1. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals was established in 1824 by a few individuals including Arthur Broome, an Anglican priest; Richard Martin, a member of parliament, who in 1822 piloted the first anti-cruelty bill and William Wilberforce, a member of the aristocracy & M.P, who spent over 50 years trying to abolish slavery.
  3. Prayer of St Modestos in Mikron Euchologion i Hagiasmatarion Apostoliki Diakonia: Athens, (1984:297).  The prayer is attributed to Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain.
  4. Homily 74, Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh  Wensinck, A. J. (trans) Amsterdam, (1923:386); also Lossky, V.  The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church Crestwood: NY, SVSP, (1976:111)
  5. Sakharov, Archimandrite Sophrony  Saint Silouan the Athonite  Tolleshunt Knights, (1991:367,469)