During Lent, we may spend time doing battle with what we call our “animal passions.” But this may not be the right way to put it because God’s covenant is made, not just with men and women, but with the animals as well.
I know this sounds strange to us, but that is because we are the heirs of modernity, a philosophical movement that tends to separate human beings radically from other animals and from nature. Modernity sees nature as, at best, something that might serve us or be mastered by us. But God has a much more integrated vision of things. All creatures, coming forth from God, are ontological siblings—brothers and sisters. In finding oneness with God, we find, ipso facto, oneness with the rest of creation.
This idea is reflected in much of the great tradition prior to modernity. St. Thomas Aquinas says that vegetables, plants, and animals are ensouled like us. In fact, the word “animal” just means “thing with an anima, a soul.” Thomas Aquinas saw us as part of a great chain or hierarchy of being. For the modern consciousness, we are, essentially, the masters of nature, and this is part of the problem for us, of course. We have so mastered nature that we are, effectively, alienated from it.
The Bible would have named this as one of the faces of sin. Sin, the caving in on oneself prompted by fear and pride, effectively cuts us off from each other, but it also cuts us off from the non-human world around us. It cuts us off from our love for it, our curiosity about it, our care for it, and our fascination with it. (This was one of the major themes in Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si’.)
But Jesus, in his own person, joins together the disparate elements of creation, the spiritual and the material, angels and wild beasts.