Time and again animals are our teachers. So many of the Saints are associated with them: St Jerome and his lion, St Anthony Abbott and the wild pig, St Hugh of Lincoln’s swan, St Philip of Neri’s cat, St Benedict of Nuria’s raven, St Brigid’s fox, and many more.
The animal story which most fascinates me is that of St Francis of Assissi taming the wild wolf of Gubbio. There is a sense in which we can interpret such a story symbolically, the wolf representing Francis’ shadow side. Each of us has such a psychic shadow, and until we have learned to come to terms with it and harness its energies, it will continue to threaten us, as the wolf of Gubbio threatened the people of that region.
For the Millennium at Bleddfa I raised the money to commission from the Irish sculptor, Ken Thompson, a life size statue of Tobias and the Angel, which was unveiled by Rowan Williams who was then Archbishop of Wales. We see the angel talking earnestly into the ear of the young Tobias, but what is especially moving is the figure of Tobias’ small dog, standing of his hind legs, as though saying, ’It is all very well for you, Master, talking with angels, but don’t forget me down here!’ for animals are so often our teachers and healers.
I remember when I was a student at Oxford, there was one morning when I lay on the floor in despair, and my marmalade cat came and lay on my chest, his paws on either side of my neck, his face looking into mine and purring deeply. Slowly I relaxed, breathing deeply and fell into a profound sleep.
And I am reminded of the story told me by a friend who is a psycho-therapist and who had one client who had AIDS and was too frightened to speak. On one occasion my friend forgot to close the door of his consulting room and his dog came in, went straight to the man, and jumped up onto his lap and settled there. The man began to stroke the dog and suddenly was able to speak.