Met. Kallistos of Diokleia interview pt.3

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.[1]

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.” [2]

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] 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)

[2] Sakharov, Archimandrite Sophrony  Saint Silouan the Athonite  Tolleshunt Knights, (1991:367,469).