“Good, real good. We’re exhausted.”
I smiled, thinking of our little one, who was just turning five months and starting to teethe. We were exhausted too!
“Oh they’ll do that to ya!” the cashier continued.
“Yeah, we just put her outside when she gets too loud.”
It suddenly dawned on me that this was not a human baby they were talking about. At least, I hoped not. I shook my head and tried to put the Great Chain of Being back in order. Minerals, Plants, Animals, Humans, Angels, The Trinity. But the phrase kept coming back to me… How’s the baby? Not the baby dog. Not the “puppy.” The baby. (Animal owners, fear not! If your dog has a sweater on right now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing…)
Honestly, have you noticed the incredible amount of attention and devotion that’s been lavished on critters these days? Dogs with cardigans who give birth to “grand puppies” for their doting owners. Cat food that looks like a five star meal, and if it wasn’t on the floor I might find myself tempted to eat it. Rivers of tears gushed over a dead gorilla rather than tears of joy that a human child has been rescued from said 450 pound gorilla. Just the other day I spied a bumper sticker that inverted the classic “God is my co-pilot” with “Dog is my co-pilot”!
To clarify early on (and this point might put a little hiccup into the cultural air we’ve all been breathing these days), the phrase “animal rights” is a misnomer. Only a moral being with reason and freedom can have rights, and responsibilities. When Mr. Snooky tears up the living room furniture, we don’t say “Now you’re responsible for cleaning this mess up!” And when we say “bad kitty”, we don’t quite expect a formal apology or tell her confessions are from 4 – 5pm this Saturday at St. Polycarp’s.
At the same time, just because a beast has no “rights” in and of itself, this doesn’t mean we have a right to be cruel to it, to abuse it, or maltreat it. Pope Francis wrote about his namesake from Assisi in Laudato Si, “Whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason”. His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. (Pope Francis, LS, 11)
Now to the idea of order, or cosmos, and our place in it.
Long ago, in what enlightened man today might refer to as the Dark Ages there was this very bright idea. A concept or framework that was (and is) referred to as the Hierarchy of Being, or the Great Chain of Being. When people gazed out upon reality, prayerfully up to the stars blazing in the heavens, or out across the fields wherein they worked with ox or mule under a hot sun, or within to their own rich interior life of dreams and desires, they were able to discern a hierarchy of being. Our ancestors categorized the universe as having roughly six distinct yet overlapping levels. From lowest to highest, from the capacity to some degree of existing, responding to stimuli, reproduction, growth and development, to thinking, and to loving straight up towards Eternal Unchanging Love Itself, they listed minerals, plants, animals, human persons, angels, and Divine Persons.
To quote St. Augustine, here’s an idea “ever ancient, ever new” that reveals our place in all the spaces of the visible and invisible worlds. Today, sadly, in severing ourselves from creation and the Creator through the various revolutions of our age (Industrial, Sexual, Technological) we end up with a devolution of sorts; a kind of amnesia about who we really are as human persons. The author Walker Percy once wrote “In spite of great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.”
Dr. Peter Kreeft says the two most destructive heresies of our day are “angelism, confusing man with an angel by denying his likeness to animals, and animalism, confusing man with an animal by denying his likeness to angels.” But in truth – we are both! And we are invited into that holy tension as both “the lowest spirit” with a God-shaped hole in our immortal souls, and “the highest body”, feeling that holy fire of desire for the infinite in our bones, as David sang…. “My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:3) What a wonder that no angel can feel this earthly passion, and no beast can sense this heavenly desire! We truly are unique.
In his “Oration on the Dignity of Man”, the 15th century philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandela envisioned God as saying to humanity:
So we live, and breathe, and begin in this world yet are made for that New World, the World without End. While we live then, let us look to Christ the Bridge, the One who stepped down from Heavenly Places and even became our Food. He sank beneath us on the lowest rungs of this Great Ladder of Being to lift us up to the highest! “The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours…” (Pope Francis, LS, 236)
In this age in which so many suffer a crisis of identity, let us look to the Word made flesh, Who “is all about us and Man is no longer isolated. We are now as we ought to be — between the angels who are our elder brothers and the beasts who are our jesters, servants and playfellows.” (C.S. Lewis, Space Trilogy, Book Three)