January 22, 2021

A Modern Bestiary, Part One

Peacock-animals-28816217-1600-1200The parking lot of a suburban Central Florida community college was the last place I ever expected to find a peacock, and yet there he was, picking about the dumpster like a rooster and gobbling down stray grains. Looking back in retrospect I probably should have called security and found out where the poor bird had escaped from. His long tail feathers (peahens have no such decoration) dragged along in the dust behind him. I was in an awful funk. I had been laid off the previous year and was struggling to make ends meet working in positions for which I was not well suited.

It was a very dark period in my life and that particular day was darker than most. I don’t remember now what had occurred to precipitate such a dark mood, but I do remember the peacock. At first, the bird paid no attention to me, continuing to pick out grains around the dumpster, but when I turned to look at him, he turned to look at me, opened his tail feathers in a magnificent fan, and began strutting towards me. After a few paces, I guess he figured out that I wasn’t a peahen, folded his breathtaking plumage, and returned to his supper. I went on to my class. The words of the Beatitudes presented themselves immediately to my mind:

For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life? And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.

It was if the illustrations concerning the birds of the air and the lilies of the field were accordioned together into this one gorgeous animal: I had nothing to fear, finally. I and mine would be taken care of, perhaps not in the style to which we had become accustomed, perhaps not in the way we were accustomed to expect, but we would be cared for.

In a similar way, beasts have often accompanied me in prayer. Before becoming Orthodox and introducing icons into my prayer life, my greatest preference was to pray outdoors. Once, there was a time when a very close friend needed prayer. I found a little bench next to a small drainage pond and began to pray. It was one of those times when prayer wasn’t work, when I didn’t have to “prime the pump.”  By the grace of God I was allowed to pray with great liberty and boldness for my friend for an extended period of time. When I finished, I found myself surrounded by a menagerie; a pair of squirrels, a heron, a butterfly, several small birds of the sparrow or finch type, and a pesky bee buzzing around my head. All of these animals were closer to me than animals usually approach. The squirrels and the heron were practically in my lap. When I finished praying they went their own ways.

The fantastic way of life we have chosen in the six or seven generations since the advent of Industrial Revolution has estranged us from Creation in ways we can scarcely imagine. In addition, we grow more and more estranged from each other as we attempt to make our lives conform more closely to the artificial images that are projected into our crania during practically every waking moment. If some of the current research into the interface between the human nervous system and the cybernetic networks we have recently created ever bears fruit, we may be tempted to dispense with the natural world altogether and take up residence in a fantasy of our own devising. One can only hope God will the cast that particular Tower down before it is ever constructed, but our servants the beasts have never forgotten their blessedness in Paradise, nor do they ever cease to yearn, in their inarticulate way, for the restoration of their communion with their Master Adam.

I would like to continue this meditation next week with some stories of saints and their communion with the beasts.

Editor’s note: Flannery O’Connor once wrote an essay about raising peacocks that is one of the greatest essays I’ve ever read. Take some time today to enjoy this as well.  JD


  1. Very nicely done. Thank you.

    Just one bit of a reminder, though, that the beasts are fallen, as well.

    We’re all in this mess together. Nice as it can be at times.

    • Robert F says

      Yes, Steve. Every disease, every plague, every cancer, is a reminder of the fallenness of all creation.

    • I’m admittedly no expert, but which of the animals disobeyed God and ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Which of the animals sinned against their Creator? Which of the animals knew that they were naked?

      While all creation certainly suffers from the effects of man’s fall and groans together awaiting the redemption of the body, I believe it is the redemption of the fallen HUMAN race’s bodies, and only theirs, that that passage of scriptures is referring to, not any of the animals.

      Please correct me with the appropriate verses of scripture if I am the one who is way off base here.

    • Are the beasts fallen, Steve, or victims of the fall?

      • Robert F says

        You will note that the serpent was a nasty, evil little bugger prior to human consumption of the forbidden fruit; and God punishes the serpent along with Adam and Eve for disobedience.

        • Well, yes, the serpent was cursed to go on his belly henceforth (did it have arms and legs before, or walk upright on its tail? No one knows), but did that curse extend to the entire animal kingdom? Give verses

          • Robert F says

            All I’m saying is that since the serpent was already involved in an evil act by counseling Eve to disobey God, evil must already have been afoot (abelly?) not only in the world but in the Garden; the Fall seems to involve an intensification of the effects of evil rather than the beginning of moral imperfection in the world. Sorry, I have no verses, but it’s a reasonable implication based on a reasonable reading of the Genesis text, and would not contradict orthodoxy. What are the texts that would render such an interpretation impermissible?

        • Genesis mentions the serpent in particular but not the other animals. Is the serpent Satan himself though, and not merely an animal? Apparently Satan had already fallen (Jesus said that he saw him fall like lightning from Heaven). I think this was Satan’s attempt (successfully) at getting humans to fall as well. Not sure about the other animals, and they may be victims.

          On a side note, I’m not convinced by those who say there was no death prior to the fall. I think that it’s spiritual death that came about from the serpent/fruit episode, and that big fish were eating little fish all along. I think growth itself depends on decay and consumption, and that composting may have been included in obedience to the command “Be fruitful, multiply, and cultivate the earth.” I think “subdue” is a misinformed translation and cultivate” much better. But convince me otherwise.

          • Robert F says

            I do believe physical death existed prior to the fall, but I’m not as sanguine about the place of death, decay and consumption as you; that death is so often linked with predation in this world, and that predation is inseparable from violence, and that death is so wrapped up in torment and horrifying pain, makes me believe that, even if in the divine economy death has the role to play which you ascribe it, in this world both before the fall and after death has been permeated by spiritual evil. I tend to think that even before the fall (and I don’t take the Genesis narrative as history here, so I don’t know how the fall occurred) the principalities and powers were in rebellion against God, and that, since those very principalities and powers are authorities in this world who were appointed by God before (speaking spiritually not chronologically here) their rebellion, they influenced the course of creation’s development from very soon after the beginning.

            I think the disobedience of humanity extended and deepened the extent of that evil by involving sin in the material creation (the fall), something which no other animal could do because none are imprinted with the image of God the way humanity is, and so none have spirit in the same way that humanity does, like the angels, which are spiritual, non-physical creatures; but the ultimate purposes of God are fulfilled in humanity by Jesus Christ, in whom sin, suffering and death are overcome, and the new creation is inaugurated and ultimately will be finished.

            In the new creation, predation will be gone; life will continue to feed on the energy that is released by death, but that will be the death and energy of the Lamb, God himself, directly, with no intermediary. God is the heavenly banquet; we experience this in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist is the heavenly banquet.

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    If some of the current research into the interface between the human nervous system and the cybernetic networks we have recently created ever bears fruit, we may be tempted to dispense with the natural world altogether and take up residence in a fantasy of our own devising.

    “The last invention in human history will be the Holodeck.”
    — Dilbert

  3. Christiane says

    ” In His Hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”
    (Job 12:10)

  4. Loved the story of the animals around you while you prayed!

  5. David Cornwell says

    Thank you so much for this beautiful meditation. All nature reminds us once again of the greatness and holiness of God’s good creation. We have become so estranged from its beautfy, and so determined to exploit every single ounce of it for our own profit, that it is us who have betrayed this sacred trust and contributed to its falleness. And some of our wierd theology in effect makes excuses for this sin.

    On another blog the other day I read this quote and it set my mind to thinking:

    “We are ever more conscious of the necessity of preserving nature and preventing the destruction of animal and plant species, which has recently reached a frightening scale. In connection with this the word ‘crisis’ is used. ‘Crisis’ is a Greek word, which means, literally, judgement. A critical moment is one when all that has passed is put in question. it is very important to see a crisis as a judgement. This could be God’s judgement on us. it could be Nature’s judgement on us, a moment when Nature with indignation and outrage refuses to co-operate with us. It also could be that moment when we judge ourselves – and in many cases condemn ourselves. The question as to what we have done to our earth in the last half century is placed before our conscience. The question is not one of what is profitable to us – that the earth should be fruitful and that everything in it should be at its best – but is one of our moral responsibility before the world, created by God for love and with love, a world which He called to be in communion with Him.”

    Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, Encounter, 125

  6. Great meditation, Mule.

    Ravens are rarely ever seen in Indiana. However, the Swiss saint Meinrad was a friend to ravens and is still associated with them in art. When my daughter and I were visiting the tiny shrine of Monte Cassino, near St. Meinrad’s Archabbey in southern Indiana, we heard a distinctive croak and soon saw several glossy black birds with hatchet-like beaks. Never before or since have I seen them anywhere in the state.

    • Damaris, don’t forget the Raven King as described by Susanna Clarke in Jonathan Strange And Mr. Norrell …

    • You are right that the American or Common Raven is not to be found in Indiana, but lives far to the north and west. You probably saw the American Crow, (Corvus brachyrhynchos) which is found somewhere in every state in the union, except maybe Hawaii. The crow is just a smaller version of the raven, but still one of our larger birds. They are members of the same family. Crows are often found in groups-murders, they are called-and hang together on high on dead tree limbs. You can see why these birds are associated with the spooky and the macabre-a murder of crows on dead tree limbs, even though they are most intelligent birds.

      • Thank you, JSturty. You’re right in what you say — but it was a raven. My dad was an amateur but very serious ornithologist, and Roger Tory Peterson was a house guest on several continents during my childhood. I’ve seen ravens in Europe and Asia — none of this to boast, but just to establish my credentials! 🙂 And my Peterson guide says that the raven is found in Michigan and occasionally in the Appalachians as far south as Georgia — so not that far away. But really, my larger point is that ravens aren’t seen in that area except when honoring their saint — a whimsical and non-Protestant point of view that C.S. Lewis and, I think, our own Mule would agree with.

        • I live just over the border from S. Indiana, in Kentucky, have a B.S. in forestry, have never seen a raven in this neck of the woods, and my scientic bent and protestant sensibilities don’t have much to do with saints or saintly place. BUT-Who am I to doubt such a gracious post. I was not there. I did not see it. So a raven it is! I have learned it is often better to trust another’s religious experience than insist on my own finite viewpoints. May God bless your honest and mature faith.

          • I just read somewhere that Aristotle said that “the probable impossible is always preferable to the improbable possible.”

            I’m still working on that one, and I think he was talking about art or writing, but in this case he’s saying that there was a raven in southern Indiana.

          • JSturty,

            My husband, on going over this thread, said, “I probably shouldn’t tell the commenter about Farragut’s statue in DC.” All the other statues around downtown DC seemed to have pigeons on them, but David Farragut, the great admiral (he of “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” fame), always had sea gulls perching on him. I said no, you probably shouldn’t — but I did anyway.

            I’d love to go bird watching with you in Kentucky some day.

        • This is a late addition to the discussion: as a resident of the Pacific Northwest I am surrounding by crows. They are the definition of ubiquitous. Some see them as rude pests, but I admire them for their collective intelligence that is fun to watch as is their use of “tools” of accomplish tasks. They also grieve their dead: painful to see, but beautiful to note them as part of the common creation.

      • I recall a test with corvis corvedea pserformes (quite sure I misspelled that) in which the bird was able to use four layers of tools to reach a food prize. Not even dolphins can solve a four-level puzzle. Intelligent indeed.

        • Amazing birds, truly.

          • A couple of years ago my son and I took a snowshoe backpacking trip into the boundry waters along the border between Minnesota and Canada in February. We snowshoed down the lakes that canoeists are paddling right now. What I remember most about that trip, other than waking up to -26 degree temperature, was the absolute and utter stillness of the northern wilderness. In the hospital in which I work, there is constant noise. You have to fight for silence. In the north woods, there was constant silence. The only sound was the occasional booming of the ice as it moved and shifted and the whispering of the wind as it blew the snow across the lakes. We saw not a human soul our whole time out. Our only conversation partners were a couple of ravens that hung out just down from the camp, watching out for us, heralding us back to camp when we returned in the late afternoon from a day of hiking, waking us up in the morning with their caws and cackles. They became our neighbors in this inhospitable frozen northland, fellow celebrants of the stark and wondrous beauty that is the northern wilderness in winter.

  7. Note to JD, Editor (Jeff Dunn, is that you?): Flannery O’Connor’s essay may have been published in Holiday magazine under the title “Living With A Peacock” but its original title, the one given to it by Flannery O’Connor herself, is “The King of the Birds”….

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