May’s North Clare Local article …
I tend to leave politics out of this column, but I’ll make a slight exception this time around. Potential American Democrat nominee Bernie Sanders hit the headlines recently when a small bird landed on his podium at a rally in Portland, Oregon. Sanders was clearly delighted with his little companion, and some in the media compared him to Disney’s Snow White. In contrast, the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump almost had his eyes pecked out by that most American of birds, a bald eagle, during a photo opportunity. One internet meme had both men and their ornithological encounters side by side, with the caption “It’s clear who Mother Nature endorses for President”.
It’s tempting to agree, but in reality, Trump encountered a confined wild predator and Bernie’s bird was an urban dweller well used to people. There’s nothing new in the idea that animals instinctively flock to good people. There is some scientific evidence, for example, that dogs can sense if they are being deceived. Despite Christianity’s ambivalent relationship with animals, early saints embodied the notion that good people are good with animals in spades. This was especially evident in the early Middle Ages, when Christianity was gently overwriting the pagan religions of Europe.
Back then, a rapport with animals was almost essential for sainthood. The most famous of these is, of course, St Francis of Assisi (12th century). He preached to birds and called for people to be kind to animals, his “brothers and sisters”. He also made an agreement with a wolf that it would stop terrorising the people of Gubbio in return for food.
While Francis had a divine touch with wolves, he was no match for his namesake Francis of Paola, who raised his pet trout from the dead. The trout, Antonella, was the saint’s special pet. A visiting priest cooked it, but before he could eat it, Francis saw him. In his anguish he prayed for the fish to be revived. It was, and Francis enjoyed many more years with his pet.
Two other saints with unusual- and downright dangerous- pets were St Jerome and St Gall. Jerome removed a thorn from a lion’s paw, and in it followed him around ever after. St Gall was a Swiss saint who was charged by a bear in the mountains. When he admonished the bear, it became remorseful, and helped him gather firewood. It too became a loyal companion.
While handling dangerous animals is a mundane task for medieval saints, mere mortals cannot hope to be so lucky. While imitating St Paul of Tarsus, who picked up poisonous snakes without being bitten, some 70 members of Pentecostal churches in Appalachia (a region of the southern United States) have been fatally bitten since the beginning of the 20th century. Not only is snake-handling a risky business for humans, it’s bad for snakes too. Kept in poor conditions, breeds with a twenty year lifespan only last three or four months within snake-handling churches. They’re also more likely to bite under stress. The practice is illegal in all states apart from West Virginia.
Many saints were much kinder to animals. Saint Anselm of Canterbury stopped a hunt by forbidding the hounds from pursuing a hare. Another saint with a kind streak was the Irish saint Columba, who founded the monastery in Iona. As well as being one the first to spot the Loch Ness Monster (he blessed it and it turned away from him), he once told one of the monks to keep an eye out for a sick heron arriving from Ireland. The heron was to be fed and sheltered for three days, and treated as a pilgrim. This was done, and after three days, the heron flew away, replenished.
Columba once blessed a knife, which, unknown to him, was to be used as butcher’s knife. When he found out it was to be used to slaughter animals, he said “’I trust in my Lord, that the implement I have blessed will harm neither man nor beast”. From then on, the knife would not even penetrate skin. Eventually the knife was melted down and used for cutlery in the monastery.
It’s clear that these stories of the saints and their ability to communicate and influence animals straddles a line between Christianity and paganism. Modern saints don’t generally have these abilities attributed to them and others, called folk saints, aren’t even recognised by the Vatican. The French St Guinefort, for example, was an actual dog, who was venerated well into the 1930s. St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers, is often represented in Orthodox traditions as a dog-headed man. An Irish medieval biography of him matter-of-factly states that he had a dog’s head. The line between folklore and religion is at its thinnest when it comes to saints and animals.