A thought for St. Francis Day
By Michael Mountain
In the ancient Egyptian pantheon, Anubis guarded the way to the afterworld. This handsome dog presided over funerals, weighed the hearts of the dead, and fed the souls of those he judged guilty to a hungry crocodile who sat licking his chops just below the scales of justice.
Across the Mediterranean, in Greece, Cerberus guarded the gates to Hades. This scary pooch was reported to have three heads, making it extra difficult for curious people who only wanted to pay a brief visit to get back to the land of the living. (One famous visitor who did make it back home was Hercules. According to some versions of the story, he figured out that the key to getting around the super-growly pooch was not to fight him but to be kind to him. No one had ever treated old Cerby that way before, and the dog just lapped it up.)
Both dogs spoke directly to our existential terror of death. Both sat at the portal between life and death, Cerberus reminding us that there is no return, Anubis acting as the guardian of our souls.
And if the prime purpose of religion since the dawn of civilization has been to help us relate meaningfully to the inevitability of death, that’s why Anubis was respected, even beloved, for thousands of years as the guardian of every soul who made the crossing.
Eventually, Anubis, along with all the other animal-related deities of that time, could no longer keep up with the tumultuous growth of civilization. As the Egyptian empire gave way to the Greeks, then to the Romans, and then to Western imperialistic monotheism, Anubis succumbed, with no one even to watch over his own passing.
Dogs didn’t have much place in the new religious hierarchies that deemed humans superior to all animals. Eventually, they would be viewed as simply “unclean.”
Death and religion in today’s world
Today, for the most part, we simply try to keep death at a convenient distance.
Our friends and relatives die in hospitals, surrounded by expensive equipment to help them eke out a few more days of what still passes for life. Our food, which comes from dead animals, arrives in shrink-wrapped plastic, with little to remind us of its origin. And at places we call “shelters,” the homeless pets no one wants are “euthanized” or “put to sleep,” hidden from sight in back rooms.
Meanwhile, we create endless distractions and entertainments to keep our minds off the prospect of death, hoping that our name, family, legacy or good works will outlive us. And we subscribe to belief systems that promise some form of life after death, some hope of immortality.
Beyond the occasional blessing of the animals in church, like on St. Francis Day, our modern religions ignore them almost entirely.But the animals and nature no longer play a part in these modern belief systems. Beyond the occasional blessing of the animals in church, like on St. Francis Day, our mainstream modern religions ignore them almost entirely.
That’s because we don’t want to acknowledge that we ourselves are animals.
“They are part of the physical world,” we tell ourselves. “But our nature is spiritual.” Many churches even insist that it’s heretical even to believe that a non-human might join their person in the afterlife, thus bolstering the affirmation that we are not part of the animal world and that only humans can live beyond death.
This idea that only humans have souls has led to the catastrophe of the natural world being designated as nothing more than a warehouse of food and other commodities, all available for consumption, sport, experimentation, and the general comfort and advancement of the superior human society.
But all such efforts to cope with our terror of death are doomed to failure. As long as we try to separate ourselves from nature (and therefore from our own true nature), we’re simply in denial, which can only make us even more uncomfortable. Like it or not, we come from the same “dust of the earth” as every other creature.
The fundamental spiritual values are kindness and empathy. Empathy dissolves the sense of separation. It speaks of respect, understanding and the universality of life.The real solution is to reverse course, embrace our fellow animals, and accept our own true nature as part of the animal kingdom. When we do that, we not only find peace of mind and acceptance of death; we actually discover our true spiritual nature.
That’s because the fundamental spiritual values are kindness and empathy. Empathy dissolves the sense of separation. It speaks of respect, understanding and the universality of life.
Albert Einstein talked about “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Ernest Becker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the book The Denial of Death, wrote that “only by surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest level can man conquer death.” Becker considered this to be the highest aspiration of any true religion.
Instead of fighting nature, ignoring its laws and denying that we are subject to it in a vain attempt to rise above our own mortality, this would be a good time to take the first steps toward become truly free of our mortal terror by caring for nature’s creatures and treating all living beings as we ourselves would want to be treated.
In treating all creation as one sacred whole, we will have discovered the true key to immortality.