Animal grace : entering a spiritual relationship with our fellow creatures
- Mary Lou Randour ; foreword by Susan Chernak McElroy.
- Novato, Calif. : New World Library ; [Emeryville, Calif.] : Distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West, c2000.
Where to find it
The author shares her explorations of feminism, Buddhism, and Jewish mysticism and explains how she came to find wisdom through observing the relationship between people and animals. 25,000 first printing. $25,000 ad/promo.
Until very recently I never quite understood what "grace" meant, though I certainly heard it often used in the Episcopal church in which I was raised. Even as a child, I picked up the weighty significance of the word "grace" from the tone of the voices uttering it. As I grew older, I couldn't help but notice that many people used grace to explain a monumental spiritual event in someone's life. Grace seemed to be the key-perhaps not the only one, but certainly one of the most important-to entering a spiritual life. It was a key, however, I could not find. My failure to find the meaning of grace was just the tip of a spiritual iceberg, a term I use deliberately. Although I searched for a spiritual home, my heart was frozen. No spiritual message, religious image, or theological understanding could penetrate me. My mind remained open as I sought out various points of view from many different traditions-process theology and feminist theology in Christianity, the Jewish mysticism of Martin Buber, and both the theory and practice of Buddhism. But these teachings never found their way to the place within me where I really lived, my vital center. I continued to perceive an impenetrable object between the essential "I" and a felt sense of spirituality, despite my best efforts to keep an open mind, and despite my longing for a spiritual insight that would resonate deeply in my being. What we know we know through our bodies, according to psychologist Ken Shapiro, who draws upon the field of phenomenology. It is in and through our bodies that we first organize meaning, before we transform our experience into language. Meaning does not originate in the head; rather, it travels from the body to the head, through the heart. And I simply could not open my heart. Eventually I grew resigned, giving up hope that I would ever experience the felt sense of spirituality I craved. Instead I learned to live with the feeling of reaching for something that seemed always beyond my grasp. As I lived with this loss, I continued to read occasionally about spirituality, and to wonder. These readings taught me that spiritual awakenings often come unexpectedly and apparently without our conscious effort. And so it was with me. Although there are really no precise beginnings in these matters, my story began a number of years ago, when I started donating to animal advocacy groups, one of the types of charities to which I contributed. When their literature came in the mail, I would scan it, noticing the endless stream of suffering to which animals seemed to be subjected-but I didn't really absorb it. I continued contributing, and eventually other animal advocacy groups began sending me their literature. More envelopes with heart-stopping, stomach-wrenching images crossed my desk: starving, beaten dogs ready to collapse; a cat, her head bolted to a metal frame, a wired device implanted in the top of her skull, her eyes open, startled, and unblinking; rabbits with ugly, red ulcerations eating away at their bodies in order to test cosmetics or household products. Mail saturated with these images kept coming and, in time, I began to pause longer before the graphic pictures of animal suffering, unable to turn away quite as quickly as I had before. The more I lingered, the more distressed I became. Finally these accumulating images impelled me to read a book I had always meant to read, Animal Liberation by Peter Singer. I expected reading Animal Liberation, a moral philosophy for animal rights, would be an intellectual endeavor. It was, but its considerable intellectual power paled in comparison to the emotional and spiritual effect it had on me; it was an effect I had not anticipated. Intuitively, I had picked up this book at a moment when I was prepared to hear its message. Spiritual awakenings don't happen in isolation; rather, they appear in the context of relationships. When we are ready, the relationship generates a spiritual event. Through Animal Liberation, I formed a relationship with all of the animals whose lives intersected with mine. As my awareness developed, the animals taught me that my decisions affected them. The protective membrane of statistics that shielded me from the agony of the animals and allowed me to maintain my otherness had been ripped away. These statistics were no longer just startling numbers; behind the numbers were suffering animals. Now, with nothing between them and me, I felt a dramatic and unfamiliar shift in awareness and intensity. I was with them, in the midst of their agony, fear, helplessness, and bewilderment. In the beginning of this journey, I often wept inconsolably as I tried to fall asleep. Instead of experiencing restful slumber, I plummeted into the tortured world of needless animal suffering that had been opened to me. Now I knew-all too well-how intimately involved we humans are with animals, that we use them to test makeup and floor cleaners, to conduct medical and psychological research, to "perform" in circuses, to supply us with food and fur. The sheer number of animals we use up is staggering: twenty-five million a year in medical research and product and cosmetic testing; seven billion slaughtered for food annually; thousands seized from their natural habitat and confined in circuses and zoos. A spiritual opportunity lay at the center of this world of animal suffering. Speaking to me through their suffering, the animals opened my heart and gave me the chance to overcome my spiritual impasse. Despite its undeniable emotional difficulty, I realized that my newfound awareness was, quite simply, a spiritual gift. Zen monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has observed that one cannot grow, or achieve peace, without suffering, saying: "We may need to transform suffering into insight, insight into nonduality, insight that leads to compassion." I learned that as we gain access to our hearts and minds, by acknowledging the ways in which we affect the lives of animals, this knowledge benefits us as much as it does the animals. As a psychologist, I know that a divided self cannot operate at its fullest potential. When we divide ourselves by denying, avoiding, repressing, or disassociating, we weaken our psychological capacity. It takes psychic energy to not know, or to not care, or to not act. When we allow ourselves to know, care, and act, we release energy, making it available for the growth and nurturance of our psychological and spiritual selves. I returned to my spiritual search with strengthened conviction; my heart, no longer frozen, beat purposefully. I committed myself to relieving the unnecessary suffering of the animals, knowing that I must build my own internal resources to help them. I learned first hand what Andrew Linzey, a preeminent animal theologian, had said: Once you take the road of becoming aware, really aware, of animal suffering, it is a one-way street. There is no turning back. There is, however, a moving forward toward a more committed and better articulated spirituality. One day I noticed within myself a quiet tranquillity. As I accomplished the different activities of my day-my practice of psychology, personal chores, and animal advocacy-I felt serene, strong, and in possession of a seemingly limitless still energy. Turning to my husband as we were walking the dogs together, I said: "Now, at long last I think I know what grace is. How I feel right now is grace. This is it. And I know it won't last. But now I know it's possible." Although this moment of grace came to me without effort or will, I know that it grew out of a process-at once subtle and distinct. Although I believe this process is life-long, I also am convinced that a turning point occurred when I committed myself to helping relieve the suffering of animals. My work on behalf of animals infused me with a sense of purpose and prepared me to accept my own spiritual energy. Joanna Macy, known for her work on Buddhism and ecology, has described this sensation of grace as finding "oneself empowered to act on behalf of other beings-or on behalf of the larger whole -and the empowerment itself seems to come 'through' that or those for whose sake one acts." Through their suffering, the animals I had come to see and hear had given me the gift of grace and resurrected my spiritual search. They gave to me. I would do what I could to give to them in return. Animals have much to teach us. They also possess the capacity to heal us. We know that animals play an important role in teaching children empathy. They can also enhance self-esteem and aid those who undergo coronary surgery in their recovery. Their presence can touch our souls, heal our psyches, and restore our bodies. In my case, the animals I encountered reconnected me to something fundamental within myself-that innermost aspect of my being that yearned for wholeness, a wholeness that only can be achieved through spiritual work. Animals are, as author Susan Chernak McElroy has observed, "embodiments of grace and blessing." Even when we cannot yet perceive that which begs to be acknowledged, I sense that all of us persist in "yearning for wholeness," desiring to be more connected to all of creation. I now know, from my own felt experience, that grace-filled spiritual possibilities appear when we redirect our attention toward the effect our actions have on the lives of animals. In so doing, we recapture the relationship we have with all of life, not just human life. This is a mutual process: As we become more aware of and responsible to the animals that surround our lives, they in turn teach us and heal us by redirecting us to the vitality of creation. Our spiritual relationship with animals builds on two basic commitments: to expand awareness and to take compassionate action. Awareness without any response can become isolating and self-indulgent. The pejorative phrase "navel-gazing" captures this concern. Someone might spend hours sitting on a cushion or praying in church to achieve a clear mind, but once achieved, stop there. A clear mind is not the end of one's spiritual story but its beginning. At the same time, individuals who take action without the benefit of awareness or clarity put themselves, as well as their mission, in peril. Without awareness one can too easily fall into dogmatic positions that harden the opposition and betray the very purpose of taking action, which is to cultivate greater justice and compassion in this world. Taking action also often means confronting opposition or indifference, which can be difficult and depleting. All who take action will need to replenish themselves. Those interested in pursuing spirituality through one's relationship with animals don't have to do anything special. A spiritual relationship with animals is foremost a practice rooted in the everyday- we can act spiritually as we engage in the daily, mundane activities of our lives. It is in these ordinary events that we find extraordinary spiritual possibilities. Our expanding awareness will allow us, for example, to choose to buy products not tested on animals. We also can decide to eat different food. We can firmly say "No!" to suffering. In these and other ways, we can take compassionate action. With each act, we deepen our awareness, strengthen our compassion, and enrich our spirituality. By making a spiritual relationship with animals an integral part of our practice, we find the opportunity, and encouragement, to recognize and revere the sacredness of all life. Of course all of creation has intrinsic value and deserves our attention. We should open ourselves to animals for two reasons, either one of which is sufficient in itself. First, so many animals have undergone such unrecognized suffering. As John Cobb, an eminent Christian theologian, has pleaded: "Hundreds of millions of suffering animals cry out to the Christian community to pay attention and to care." Jewish and Buddhist writers have made the same appeal to their faith communities. Isaac Bashevis Singer, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, saw an inescapable link between the treatment of animals and human moral development: "As long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers `a la Hitler and concentration camps à la Stalin.... There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is." Roshi Philip Kapleau, Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer, also makes a case for the end to the slaughter and eating of animals. In his book To Cherish All Life, he reminds us that the first precept of Buddhism is not to kill, or harm, any living being. It is "a call to life and creation even as it is a condemnation of death and destruction." Second, animals have a wisdom that is, as yet, largely undiscovered by some, and unexplored by others. In many ways their sensory world is vastly different from ours. In that difference, animals have access to levels of reality that might remain hidden to us without their help. I know this from my own experience with my dog, Toshi. Many years ago my husband and I had a dear friend, Robin, who was dying of cancer. We knew her death was imminent. One quiet night I lay reading in bed, as Toshi slept on his dog bed nearby. Suddenly, he awoke, sat up, threw back his head, and began a plaintive howling. Initially startled, I watched him to see if he was okay. After a number of mournful cries, Toshi settled back into his bed, and returned to sleep. The next morning we got a call from Robin's partner, who told us that she had died the previous evening at about 10:30. Toshi's howling took place at 10:45. He knew something I did not and he was able to point me toward a new understanding-that there is no exact moment of death in which we no longer exist. Rather, death is a transition to another state and that if we are sensitive enough we can participate in that transition. It is a lesson that I continue to ponder and attempt to understand. In Animal Grace, I hope to build upon the groundwork that so many before me have provided. I am indebted to them for many reasons. The obvious one is that their work provided a vast amount of thought and information that I have used in writing this book. Less obviously, but more fundamentally, they exposed me to ideas that reawakened me spiritually, and I am deeply grateful to them for their part in my spiritual journey. This journey is a process about which I feel deeply, care passionately, and think as mindfully as I can. While it is not always easy, it is always fulfilling. Our spiritual relationship with animals presents yet one more opportunity to commit oneself to life; it is one that is too good to pass up. Continue... Excerpted from Animal Grace by Mary Lou Randour Copyright © 2000 by Mary Lou Randour Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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- Novato, Calif. : New World Library ; [Emeryville, Calif.] : Distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West, c2000.
- Includes bibliographical references and index.
- xxiv, 167 p. ; 22 cm.
- OCLC Number
- Other Identifiers
- LCCN: 99049172