Creatures Great and Small

From the Celtic saints we learn to be open to a way of knowing that only the creatures can offer

Written By Mary C. Earle

If you wish to know the Creator, come to know his creatures.
—Columbanus, 6th century

The  Irish monk Columbanus voices a perspective from the Celtic Christian tradition that  invites ottersus to recall a truth given in the first chapter of Genesis: that every aspect of the whole created order comes forth from the same holy Source.  What we currently call biodiversity reflects divine creativity and intent.  Coming to know creatures, great and small, heals us of our peculiar tendency to behave as if we had brought the world into being.  Paying attention to their existence draws us out of a narrow focus on humanity and into an expanding awareness and wonder.   

Through the lives of the saints from Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Cornwall, we discover clues about the divinely ordered way of living in a cosmos populated by creatures not of our making.  In the Celtic tradition, the lives of the saints are noteworthy for the continual presence of creatures. Within the bounds of this tradition, the relationships between the saints and the creatures are not out of the ordinary.  They are an accepted dimension of holy living.  The creatures befriend the saints as much as the saints befriend the creatures.  In the befriending, the knowing begins to unfold.

This kind of knowing to which Columbanus refers comes from a contemplative gaze.  First and foremost, the tradition acknowledges the presence of the creatures.  The stories from the Celtic saints remind us that we live in the midst of animal kith and kin, whether we know that or not.  When we pay attention with a long, loving gaze, we discover life in creaturely form on every side. 

The essential goodness of the creatures, their very otherness and dizzying variety, speaks to us of the ongoing creativity at the heart of the Trinity.  The vast and diverse life of insects, birds, reptiles, fish, mammals and all creeping things is encompassed and included within the stories of the lives of the saints.  This is a sacred landscape that is densely populated in the sense that the creatures are seen, not ignored.

The creatures are active participants in the stories of the Celtic saints.  They inhabit the saints’ lives just as they inhabit the world.  Melangell of Wales shelters a hunted hare and her valley becomes a place of refuge.  Kevin of Glendolough in Ireland allows a mother blackbird to build her nest in his hand outstretched in prayer, and out of deep courtesy holds his arms outstretched, cruciform, until the young hatch and fly.  Cuthbert of Lindisfarne prays all night in the North Sea.  He then is comforted and tended by two otters, whose very breath warms the feet of the saint and whose furry bodies bring circulation back to limbs chilled by the water.  A fly helps Mo Chua keep his place in the psalter and a stag holds Cainnic’s book on his antlers while the saint read and prayed.

With startling regularity, the hagiographical material presents us with interactions between men, women and creatures.  Sometimes a saint may correct the behavior of a creature.  When confronted by a lunging monster at the river Ness, Columba does not kill the water monster.  Instead, he sets a clear boundary, commanding the creature to return to its habitat and not to touch the settlers on the shore.  Kevin saved a wild boar being pursued by dogs on a hunt; his word stopped the dogs in their tracks.  When the hunters appeared, they too were chastized.  Dogs and hunters both repented.

The stories of the saints tell us that this tradition understands that creatures and humanity are in a living, God-given reciprocal relationship.  The stories invite us to remember that the creatures have their own dignity and otherness, that each of them has distinctive traits and habits.  Befriending, companioning, provisioning, tending, teaching—the creatures are present as active participants in the process of redemption and as members of the holy community of a world transformed by Christ.  Thus when St. Kevin dropped his treasured psalter into the waters of Glendalough, a friendly and faithful otter dove into the depths and retrieved the sacred book.  This tale, like many others, points us to the creatures as companions in searching the depths of our souls for God’s truth.  The otter saw Kevin’s distress and responded.  The otter’s searching reminds us that the creatures dwell in places and in dimensions that are foreign to us; they have a knowing and a being that we do not.   

The tradition suggests that the creatures, in their own way, are prayerful.  From Welsh poetry we find various reminders that the birds in song, the salmon swimming, the stag running, are all forms of praise to the living God who made the creature with those particular properties and characteristics.  In a fourteenth century poem, Dafydd ap Gwilym perceives a thrush whose “chasuble was of the wings of the wind,” and a nightingale who “sings to the many/ the Sanctus bell in lively whistling.”  (Threshold of Light, p. 13) This Welsh poet’s vision draws us to a eucharistic lens which sees that the creatures themselves participate in the ongoing consecration of all that comes from the holy Source.

Because the creatures and humanity are perceived to be in an interdependent relationship, something like an extended kinship system, the stories also give us examples of the saints tending animals with great respect, kindness and attention.  Columba is said to have instructed one of his monks to be on the watch for a stranger guest, a crane, who the saint knew would arrive at Iona exhausted from her travels.  The monk was instructed by Columba with these words: “Tenderly lift her and carry her to the steading near by: make her welcome there and cherish her with all care for three days and nights.”  (Beasts and Saints, p. 40) Columba’s instruction brings to mind the monastic tradition of receiving a guest as Christ.  In this case, however, the guest is not a person, but a crane.  Nevertheless, the weary creature is received with hospitality and tenderness, for she too has come into being through Christ.  The stories of this nature remind us that the world is in Christ, and call us to live from that reality in all of our relationships, including those with the creatures.

From the perspective of this tradition, the creatures come to us to heal our loneliness (see Gn. 2) and to work with us, interact with us, pray with us.  The creatures stand in their own identities, brought forth by divine power.  From the Celtic saints we learn to be open to a way of knowing that only the creatures can offer, a way that heals the dullness of our blinded sight and allows us to catch glimpses of glory on wings, on four feet, with fins or with feathers.

For further reading:
Esther DeWaal,  Every Earthly Blessing
Mary Low, Celtic Christianity and Nature
Philip Newell, The Book of Creation
Noel O’Donoghue Dermot.  The Mountain Behind the Mountain
Helen Waddell, Beasts and Saints