It Is This Which Has Sweetened the Fragrance of Humanity

The humble man approaches the wild animals, and the moment they catch sight of him their ferocity is tamed. They come up and cling to him as to their Master, wagging their tails and licking his hands and feet. They scent as coming from him the same fragrance that came from Adam before the transgression, the time when they were gathered together before him and he gave them names in Paradise. The scent was taken away from us, but Christ has renewed it and given it back to us at his coming. It is this which has sweetened the fragrance of humanity.

St. Isaac of Nineveh

A recurrent theme in Christian hagiography is the interaction between saints and animals- particularly wild animals. The saint- who is often seen going into the wilderness- encounters animals as a matter of course, since he goes to the places most associated with wild creatures. However, unlike other people, he often finds the animals to be his friends and companions, not his enemies or his prey. Often times animals aid the saint, as in this episode from the Venerable Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert:

It happened, also, that on a certain day he was going forth from the monastery to preach, with one attendant only, and when they became tired with walking, though a great part of their journey still lay before them ere they could reach the village to which they were going, Cuthbert said to his follower, “Where shall we stop to take refreshment? or do you know any one on the road to whom we may turn in?”

“I was myself thinking on the same subject,” said the boy; “for we have brought no provisions with us. and I know no one on the road who will entertain us, and we have a long journey still before us, which we cannot well accomplish without eating. ” The man of God replied, “My son, learn to have faith, and trust in God, who will never suffer to perish with hunger those who trust in Him.” Then looking up, and seeing an eagle flying in the air, he said, ” Do you perceive that eagle yonder? It is possible for God to feed us even by means of that eagle.”

As they were thus discoursing, they came near a river, and behold the eagle was standing on its bank. “Look,” said the man of God, “there is our handmaid, the eagle, that I spoke to you about. Run, and see what provision God hath sent us, and come again and tell me.” The boy ran, and found a good-sized fish, which the eagle had just caught. But the man of God reproved him, ” What have you done, my son? Why have you not given part to God’s handmaid? Cut the fish in two pieces, and give her one, as her service well deserves.”

The meaning behind such stories is not simply to demonstrate the saint’s holiness or ability to perform miracles- though obviously that is part of it. However, the more important aspect of such stories is their demonstration of the saint’s partaking in a new order of creation, as St. Isaac describes, and as Bede himself says a little later in his Vita of St Cuthbert: “For it is no wonder that every creature should obey his wishes, who so faithfully, and with his whole heart, obeyed the great Author of all creatures. But we for the most part have lost our dominion over the creation that has been subjected to us, because we neglect to obey the Lord and Creator of all things.”

In the story of the Fall of man, man is not only severed from God- he is also separated from other humans, and from the whole of creation. God is made to be a hostile Other; because of this, all of creation becomes a hostile Other to man. Even individuals find themselves at war within themselves- a war, a pattern of violence that carries itself out into the entire world. Only in Christ is this disordered humanity made right, as Christ forges a new humanity, and within it, a New World, St. Isaac says, in which the Other is no longer a hostile enemy or competitor, but a subject to be loved. This extends to all of creation, for as man is reconcilled to God he finds himself reconcilled to other humans and even to non-human creation, as his disordered relations are restored to ones of peace and love. While the full realization of the New World in Christ must wait until the Eschaton, the saints display in their lives in the world a glimpse of this New World, and encourage us to participate in it, that we might express the all-embracing compassion, peace, and love of Christ.

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