A Dog’s Best Friend

photo 4 copyI would like to suggest that dogs are perhaps the greatest things humans have ever accomplished. If my understanding is correct, dogs are essentially gray wolves, or directly descended from a wolf species, beginning somewhere between 60,000 to 100,000 years ago. At some point they were domesticated by us and used as aids to hunting. It has even been suggested that the domestication of dogs gave us an edge in our competition with Neanderthals. Human beings have domesticated any number of animals, generally for purposes of food. But dogs are another matter (I’ll ignore what they do in Korea). And it is this process and its result that I mean to laud as among our finest hours.

We long ago ceased to be serious hunters, but we kept our dogs. The breeding and development of dogs for companionship seems to be a fairly recent thing. Dogs have gone from a wolf-like appearance to the myriad of shapes and sizes we now know. But it is the inner reality of this that interests me: the personality of dogs.

Animals are without sin. Creation, St. Paul says, has been made “subject to futility” on account of our Fall (Romans 8:20), and notes that this was not done “willingly.” Their state is not their fault. God has made Creation subject to death and dissolution for our sake (it directs us towards repentance). But creation itself has no sin – it has not broken its essential relationship with God. The bread that becomes the Body of Christ does not need to first repent of its sins. Repentance belongs to humans alone.

Another way of saying this is that various animal species always act in accordance with their nature (one of the meanings of sin is to act contrary to our nature). Dogs do dog things. Cats do cat things. Squirrels do squirrel things. Dogs do not gather nuts and climb in trees. When human beings domesticate an animal, they do not give them a new nature. At most, we breed and train in a way to accentuate certain aspects of their nature. The instinct of a dog not to soil its own nest or bed is extended by a human being such that we say a dog is “house-trained.” The whole house becomes its bed.wolf-with-monk

But, my marveling and praise is over what we generally like in dogs. They are wolves and could be made to behave like wolves and be quite dangerous. In some cases, they are still trained for aggressive behavior. But, on the whole, we have chosen very affable traits for development. Dogs are kind, grateful, loyal – all of the things that we celebrate about them.

When we survey the world and creation, there are many things that stand as shameful signs of human occupation. This is particularly the case where the civilizational collapse that we call modernity has had the upper hand. The charm of an English village is the product of a different age. The mind-numbing banality of an American suburb and its strip malls is the mark of modernity. But then there are dogs.

Dogs seem to be an island that reflects not only their own natural goodness, but human goodness as well.

factory-farming-chickensOf course, there is a darker side. I am not alone in writing about animals and men. George MacDonald, perhaps one of the most profound theological minds in British history, was deeply opposed to then growing practice of experimentation on animals. CS Lewis shared his convictions and often wrote in opposition to “vivisection.” Lewis also pondered freely the meaning of human relationships with animals and suggested that we perhaps had a calling to raise animals towards a more complete and full personal existence. The talking animals in his children’s stories are not cartoon characters – they are a meditation on what Lewis saw as a uniquely human mission. He is very clear that in Narnia, the “Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve,” rule over the animals, but in a manner that transcends our present domestication. The animals of Narnia are not pets: they are friends. I have always been taken with Lewis’ thoughts in this direction, and have found them fulfilled most nearly in our relationship with dogs (my wife keeps cats).

Animal cruelty is revealed as true evil when we think in this manner. When animals are objectified (the opposite of personified), we turn our minds and hearts away from them and subject them to unspeakable treatment. This is itself part of the depersonalization of the world that often marks our modern lives.

My maternal grandfather was a farmer. In the years that I remember best, his farm was given primarily to the raising of cows. It was a modest farm, with a dog or two and always a bevy of cats who lived by catching mice. But I always remember my grandfather walking slowly among his cows, like a shepherd (or cowherd). Christ Himself exalted the role of shepherd, even noting that a good shepherd “calls his sheep by name” and even “gives his life for the sheep.” David himself served such a role, killing both a lion and a bear in protection of his flock. These are images that go far beyond a mere utilitarian relationship with animals. These animals have names. Interestingly, one of the primary and early uses of dogs was the sharing of this shepherd role.

It is interesting that Christ Himself offered no better image of His relationship with people than to compare Himself to a shepherd. There is something godlike in a proper relationship with animals.

Several yeamonk with bearrs back I chose to take all of this seriously. My family had once had a dog, but it was the children’s dog, something I tolerated in the house. But during a time of reflection I declared that “I want to be the kind of man who has a dog.” I got a small puppy and began to learn the ways of the wolf. I read books (isn’t everything you need to know in a book?). I googled “house-training” (with every failure). I realized that whatever I did with this animal, the results would be there to praise me or accuse me. I wanted to be a man with a dog. I also wanted to become “the kind of man my dog thinks I am.” (I have not managed that yet).

It has been an intense experience. He is a companion. After my heart attack I had to develop a routine of long walks. His needs forced me to take care of myself.

Human beings, at our best, are capable of pets. At our worst, we are capable of cock-fights and faceless, nameless exploitation. God has clearly given animals to us for food, but He has not given them to us for abuse.

It is said that a society can be judged by how it treats its weakest members. I would add to that the treatment of animals. Pets are not necessarily an indulgence in sentiment. They are a movement towards something right and good. We would do well to think often about this and what it means for living rightly in God’s good world.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



, , ,



76 responses to “A Dog’s Best Friend”

  1. James Avatar

    Not taking anything away from what you write, Father, it also seems pets have taken the place of children in modern culture.

  2. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Two things:
    Pretty much any time a movie or TV show wants to emphasize the unredeemable evil of a character, the script has the evil character kill a dog.

    It is all too easy to put the welfare of animals ahead of human beings.
    In our time such inversion is quite

    Whenever I see some celebrity extolling the need to take care of orphaned and abused animals I can’t help but wonder if they care about aborted children.

    The recent spate of adds by a pet chain directed to “pet parents” emphasizes James’ point.

    Dogs are neat creatures and I definitely share your ideas Father, but does not our repentance take care of the problem?

  3. Byron Avatar

    There are some lines of thought that believe dogs domesticated themselves to us at one time (as opposed to us domesticating them). I always find this very interesting; dogs are wiser than we allow. And more joyful. It’s interesting how the two go together.

    My family is a big “dog family”. We love and care for our pets, we hope, quite well. We still remember, and laugh about, when my brother began eating from a bin of food in my sister’s refrigerator–a mix of chicken, rich, and veggies. When he asked what it was, she told him it was the food she made for her dogs! It has been an ongoing family joke ever since.

    What is truly frightening about animal cruelty is how we misrepresent it. When discussing dog-fighting with others I always have to remind them that the issue is not the value of a man vs. the value of a dog (which is how it is always framed by society). The issue is the attitude of people who think that all other life simply exists for their entertainment. That attitude results in statements of “it’s just a negro”, “it’s just a woman”, or “it’s just a dog”. One of the things that reflects our lack of change over the centuries is that this attitude still exists; we’ve simple redirected it over time to more “acceptable” (in the eyes of society) objects. That it is an on-going, ever-present issue speaks to our distorted nature, I think.

    Just my thoughts. Thank you for a wonderful reflection, Father!

  4. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E

    Father Stephen,

    I thought you might enjoy this.

    My Old Dog Dreams

    How long has it been
    since Canis Lupus
    loped out of the dense boreal forest
    or the wind – seared plain?
    How long did she spend watching and assessing?
    How long waiting?
    And then a decision–
    or was it an impulse
    born when golden eyes
    met brown or blue?

    A slow step forward,
    then several back,
    then forward again;
    perhaps an anxious whimper.
    While the human,
    smelling interestingly of the skins
    of dead things,
    did much the same,
    holding out a scrap of food
    that for once nobody wanted.

    So the partnership began
    as our isolation ended.
    That first gaze,
    when species looked at species
    as something more than food,
    bridged, for each, a chasm.
    Delight trumped terror.

    Today we still find their otherness
    an antidote to mind and
    stress and care.

    Yet as I watch
    my old dog dream,
    I wonder if she dreams
    of chasing cats or birds
    on younger legs,
    or if her dreams
    come from a youth
    she never knew.
    Perhaps she pads back
    down the ages
    to a time her steps
    were chosen by herself,
    and running lightly
    over strange terrain
    she soon reaches the craggy bluff
    where they await:
    her pack, her mate, her pups,
    all running up to greet her
    with the whines and whimpers
    that, for wolves, make up
    the sounds of intimacy.

  5. Laurie E Avatar
    Laurie E


    Very well put.

  6. Greg Davis Avatar
    Greg Davis

    Actually, it all began billyuns and billyuns of years ago.

  7. Wordsmyth Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Funny that you should publish this piece at this time. For the last several months I have been pondering whether animals have souls. Mice, crayfish, bees, etc. It’s easy to imagine a dog having a soul, but what about those creatures we commonly see as vermin?

    I used to think it was a pointless, silly question. But now I ponder how wondrous existence is, and struggle to wrap my mind around how flesh and blood can leave this life for the next. I live in an old farm house that is close to 200 years old. Mice find their way in when it’s cold. I began wondering (really, really wondering) about this after finding a dead mouse in a trap.

    I really do hate death, even when it’s just a mouse.

  8. Psalti Avatar

    I have many regrets. One of them is that I did not discover the beauty and wonder of dogs until later in life.

    All the years I’ve wasted without one! I can’t recount all the things that my dog has taught me. He has made me better. It’s something one cannot understand without experiencing it.

    Children and dogs. The world would be a better place if everyone had them.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    On animals and souls. Yes. The Tradition of the Church teaches that animals have souls. Indeed, one way to ask the question about “souls” is “Is it alive?” If it’s alive it has a soul. Interestingly, the word “animal” is derived from the Latin word for soul.

    The Fathers taught there are three aspects of the soul: the vegetative (which is something like a life force that all living things have); the animal (these are those things about life that we share with all animals – hunger, sexual desire, etc.); and the rational soul (that is, that within us called the “nous” or mind).

    I think we would do well to think long and hard about the fact that all living things have souls. I’ll be writing more on the topic.

  10. AJ Avatar

    Very well said, Father Freeman. We have had dogs all our lives and have two right now. I can tell you from experience, not many things can make a grown man cry quite like the death of his dog.
    This article, combined with your recent comments on the local food movement, makes us wonder if you are familiar with the writings and internet videos of Joel Salatin (and his more traditional approach to farming). This article made me think of “the pigness of the pig”.

  11. Karen Avatar

    I saw that PBS documentary about dogs. They are the only animal that can read the expression on a human face (that looks for cues by looking in our eyes) and that can learn to understand the gesture of pointing (i.e., that will look or go in the direction we point, not just look at our finger). Wolf pups raised in domestication do not learn these things, but these are hardwired in the dog. I grew up with dogs, and we now have one. She teaches us so much. I’m humbled by the love of God expressed through His amazing creatures.

  12. Matt Avatar

    Michael et al.: While that sort of thing is definitely its own kind of idolatry, I don’t think that’s any reason not to highly value animals – it’s just making sure we value them as animals and not an inappropriate substitute for something else.

    Father: Thank you! A particularly timely subject for something I’d been working on this week.

    As a bit of background: this past Sunday we had a minor incident at church where a dead rat was discovered in the building – poisoned, apparently, from the stuff we started leaving around a few months after the neighbours’ cat stopped coming around. One of the children overheard and got quite upset and demanded to know where it was so we could give it a burial. (We ultimately did not accede to her demand – by the time anyone was in a position to do anything about the rat her family had to leave.)

    Later when I was doing a bit of clean-up (and, admittedly, procrastinating as to the rat) I thought about it a bit more and figured something ought to be done, if not a full-on burial that seemed to have been an inappropriate anthropomorphism.

    After failing to find anything relevant in the prayer book I awkwardly mumbled a confused and garbled prayer that I later rewrote as this:

    I do not know, Lord, and am unworthy to inquire, what plan of salvation you may have for this creature. But I beseech You, who in Your unfathomable wisdom have made even Your sinless creation subject to futility in hope of salvation from corruption into Your glorious freedom, to extend all such mercy You have planned for that with which we have had this privilege of sharing Your gift of life.

    [Include this paragraph if we were responsible for its unnecessary death.]
    Forgive us, Lord, in our haste and our brokenness, poor and unprofitable stewards of these Your gifts, and ever guide us to repentance that we may do all things in accordance with Your will.

    Lord Jesus Christ our God, bless this Your creature in accordance with its kind, as it returns to its dust whence it had been brought forth from Your living earth, that all your creation may be restored to the joy of Your salvation, O Resurrection and Life, in Your everlasting mercies with Your unoriginate Father and All-Holy, Good and Life-Giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

    I’ve struggled a bit with the “sinless” wording until I saw this article. The clarity is greatly appreciated.

    On that note… how do we apply this to things like rats (and crows, which I’d caught scattering our garbage everywhere that I had to pick up and put in a crow-proof bin after the rat) which show the beginnings of that humane aspect we see in dogs but relate to post-agrarian man as scarcely more than thorns and thistles from the cursed earth? Is there any moral difference between trapping/poisoning them and getting a cat?

    (Also, would clams and jellyfish be considered to have “vegetative” souls? This came up in a discussion a while back about why the fasting rules only prohibit aquatic vertebrates and whether or not “higher” invertebrates like octopuses were considered.)

  13. Matt Avatar

    (Or rather, do they only have a vegetative soul with at most a very limited animal soul, or should they be considered fully animal for that purpose?)

  14. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, though the manner in which you’ve stated it sounds terribly impersonal. As noted, it’s just fine to eat animals. God gave them to us.

    There is a peculiar perversion of the truth in our culture. I like dogs in spite of PETA.

  15. tess Avatar

    There’s a folk song, “Old Blue,” which I think says in song the truth that you are saying here, Father. Are you familiar? It’s a song that speaks to me both as a lover of animals, and as one who has grieved (for both people and dogs):



    Thank you for the beautiful prayer. May I have your permission to use it with my family?

  16. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The things we fast from have nothing to do with their character as vegetative, etc. To a certain degree, the rules should be seen as pretty much arbitrary. We fast from meat, not because it’s meat, but because it’s heavy and very filling. Same is true of olive oil (the fasting from olive oil had an ancient meaning of “fried foods,” because that’s the oil once used for that. The occasional fish is allowed because we need a little more substance on a moderate fasting day. Shrimp and the like are not on the fasting list, primarily because they weren’t commonly eaten in many places anyway. Jews certainly never ate shrimp (it would have been considered unclean).

    But it is very important to understand that Orthodox fasting is not about a Christian version of kosher. I hear some Orthodox talk about fasting foods as though they were unclean or something. I forbid my catechumens to read labels during a fasting season. Lecithin (a milk by-product) is added to lots of foods in the modern chain. Abstaining from everything containing milk products (thus requiring reading labels) is frankly, too fastidious, prone to Phariseeism, and pretty much beside the point. Just don’t drink milk, eat cheese, etc.

    And the fast is very often adjusted. In many Orthodox lands, fish are eaten in the weeks of Lent after the first week. The “rules” of the fast are essentially monastic rules. Indeed, most of the rules of Orthodoxy are designed for monks. We always state the extreme case and then mitigate it.

    The “Lenten Fast” taught on most popular Orthodox Calendars is not actually accurate. On certain days in Lent, only one meal is prescribed. But these are fasting rules only kept in monasteries with strict asceticism. The laity are not expected to fast in such a manner.

    Learning to fast is to accept the guidelines of the fast, and with the guidance of your confessor, adapt them to a form that can be kept faithfully. And then learn to be a little hungry (push back from the table before you are full).

    And pray. Fasting without prayer is “the fast of demons” (they never eat, but they never pray). And the greatest fast of all is to refrain from sin and pride.

    But back to the point, fasting is not about the nature of the thing we are fasting from. I’ve seen people try to put explanations forward. They’re incorrect.

  17. Matt Avatar

    Tess: Of course! Reproduce and make any edits, corrections or improvements as you wish.

    Fr. Stephen: Thanks for the in-depth response. Lots of food for thought ( 🙂 ) and things I should reconsider in preparation for November… the rules definitely make more sense when I think about them in terms of what certain foods do to us, than anything about their nature unrelated to their culinary role.

  18. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    I once had a wolf who lived in the cabin with me. The wolf never became a dog, and always retained her wild instincts. More intelligent than humans.

  19. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father perhaps I sound impersonal because the ASPCA adds, despite their manipulative form, make me cry inwardly for myself and for all of us about how little care there is for life that we are begged for just a penny to save one small animal life but an add for money to save a human baby from abortion would never be allowed. Or worse, no one thinks to make one.

    The only response I have is to pray for mercy.

    I still find it strange that modern entertainment has more compunction about showing even a fake death of a dog than the death (real or faked) of a human in the grossest ways. Somehow I doubt that were there a tragedy similar to the Hindeburg explosion today that any announcer would cry in anguish: “Oh the humanity!”

    Certainly the 9/11 murders illicited an ideological response more than anything else leading to even greater horrors. It is more than I can deal with– so I become impersonal.

    Forgive me.

  20. Meg Photini Avatar
    Meg Photini

    St. Paisios used to say that we are God to animals. I think about that when my dog sees me: from roaming around the compound looking for edible scraps and amusing herself, she focuses on me and starts running just to greet me, to be with me. If I’m walking somewhere, she follows just to be with me. If I sit somewhere, she lies down close by. I should be like her: when I see God nearby, I should run, frolic, and follow just to be with him. Dogs are wiser than humans!

  21. George Avatar

    On fasting from meat,

    I thought it’s about the blood – not to eat animals that have blood.

    Meat-Eating in the Orthodox Church

    Fasting in the Orthodox Church

  22. George Avatar

    Hey, who’s that old bearded man with the border collie? 🙂

  23. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’ve seen explanations like the one you’ve referenced viz. blood. But this is nowhere in the canons. It’s a way to think about it, but it is also a way that can lead to error. It confuses Orthodox Christian fasting with OT dietary rules. Those rules were based on the Law. Orthodox fasting is rooted in experience. It has some anomalies (viz. fish stuff), but that is what it is.

    It’s about you and the foods, not about the nature of the foods. The foods we fast from are, again, considered heavy, and productive of greater passions. The Fathers speak extensively on the link between certain kinds of eating and the sexual passions. This is the primary reason that monks do not eat meat…it’s a body thing but not a comment on meat.

    I have seen this approach (which is very common – including many monks) but it easily leads to error. You abstain from something thinking that it’s about the nature of what you abstain from. This easily leads to judging someone else who does not abstain. You look at them as though they are doing something wrong (it’s not wrong to eat meat – it’s “not fasting” but, generally speaking, not fasting is not a sin). But to judge someone is to destroy and nullify any benefit you might gain from fasting.

    Not fasting is not a sin. It’s “slackness,” but not, truly understood, a sin. Whether we eat or drink is nothing in and of itself. The “sin” is laziness, or slothfulness and neglect of the soul. But it’s not the eating or not eating.

    Interestingly, many people confess not keeping the fast. But they are mostly thinking about “breaking a Church rule.” This is spiritually shallow. The Church doesn’t have rules for eating and drinking, making eating or drinking in the wrong way a sin. It’s simply not the teaching of the Church. The law of the Spirit is love and it is against love that we sin. When I neglect my soul and do not urge it forward (through our mild asceticism) that’s the sin. God has given us no command regarding food. But we have commandments to love. It is love that presses forward and strains itself towards the prize of the upward calling. To not care about the soul is a great sin – maybe the root of many sins.

    I rarely hear anyone confess to not giving away money (alms). But not giving alms is a far, far greater matter than ignoring the fast. It does far greater damage to the soul. Christ nowhere tells us of dangers associated with food, but He repeatedly warns us about money.

    I personally, following the teaching of my ever-memorable Father in God, Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, urge people to practice the tithe (at a minimum). It is a godly practice, though not a law. St. John Chrysostom says that if the OT required tithing, how much more should Christians give.

    If you use your money wisely (through generosity) you can gain great things spiritually. Why do monks own nothing? It’s a much more important, even foundational part of monasticism. Poverty, chastity, obedience. You cannot be a monk without all three. But notice fasting is not mentioned in the three. All monks fast, but a monk who owns things, or is not chaste or obedient is a contradiction in terms.

    I shudder when I think of those who are wealthy by almost any measure, fastidiously reading labels to abstain from small measure of a milk-product, while giving in a miserly manner. It is truly straining at a gnat and swallowing camels.

    Forgive my morning sermon on such things! But these are foundational understandings – required to tell ourselves the truth. Without such truth there can be no true repentance. God give us grace!

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    He’s an old man who is a terrible sinner and a companion of dogs.

  25. George Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I hear you!

    The same monk said that “ascetical practices, must be tools to help us to repent”

  26. George Avatar

    Gosh… the link again! 🙂

  27. George Avatar

    I think I have used your American “I hear you” expression wrongly…

    I hear you
    1. used for telling someone that you understand their opinion, especially when you disagree with it;
    2. used for agreeing with what someone says. (Macmillan)

    Note: I have used it with the second meaning.

  28. George Avatar

    Perhaps it would have been more honest to say, I’m trying to hear you.

    But I know what you mean about the scruples.

  29. George Avatar

    “It’s about you and the foods, not about the nature of the foods.”

    I think what you’re trying to say is, “If you eat poison by accident, it is not a sin; but if you eat it on purpose, then it’s suicide.”

  30. Diana Welsch Avatar
    Diana Welsch

    Thank you for this Fr. Stephen. I read a book recently by someone who had a life after death experience and he went to a place he assumed was heaven for a bit, and the only animals he recalled seeing there were dogs.

  31. Lukas Avatar


    Your comments on fasting were immensely helpful… mind blown. Anyhow, I’d love to hear more!

  32. George Avatar

    I have realized that my last comment is probably the exact same thing that you’re criticizing.

    Honestly, I don’t fast much, with the exception of not eating meat on Fridays. It’s probably thus, because meat was very valued in the old days. Fasting is about giving up on the things that you like, no?

  33. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No. Fasting is not about giving up things we like. That would imply that liking things is a sin. It’s very much more like a runner who changes his diet in order to run better. It’s quite physical. We pray better when we fast and we struggle against sin more effectively when we fast. Fasting doesn’t have to make us unhappy or surround us with things we don’t like. It’s about not eating certain things, and eating less of others, in order to sharpen us. It is very, very much like an athlete in training.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    A note to commenters. Comments that have bogus email addresses will be deleted. Attempts to disguise identity is an attempt to stay in the darkness. Please be forewarned.

  35. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fasting is about trying to temporarily eliminate something from our daily “diet” that isn’t good for us anyway. In that vein I’ve heard of people fasting from getting angry or impatient with others during Lent. This is really no different than abstaining from a food that is ultimately not the best thing for your body or impedes you in some way.

  36. Dino Avatar

    If I may add to this most illuminating elucidation of Father Stephen (and please correct my mistakes Father) that I think that fasting contains something of the greatness contained in monastic obedience and spiritual vigilance. Its fruits are somewhat related to these two practices (which shine light from the monastic experience on to the life lived in the world). Especially for the layperson (whose fasting contains a greater intentionality and commitment than that of the coenobite whose food choice is a given). And just as obedience is not necessarily to what I agree with and rationally comprehend, nor is spiritual vigilance only against what I perceive as ‘evil thoughts’ but is towards all ‘logismoi’, so too, looking for logical explanations for why these foods are eaten during a fast and not those misses entirely the point. The Christian ‘lives’ rather than ‘analyzes’, we are not commanded ‘know thyself’ but ‘watch thyself’.
    Fasting, (just the crude bodily kind) especially the continuous curbing of our indulgence (according to one’s measure), has paradoxically a proven track record of thousands of years for being the one ‘preconditional’ basis of all other ascesis and of the whole of the spiritual life.

  37. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    Over the years I’ve learned that it’s wise to anticipate the lengthy fast which is part of Lent. I don’t wait until Clean Monday. I start the week before, getting my living space in order and preparing for the one-dish meals which, for me, have become a staple of the fast. Like a lot of people I felt a certain anxiety over the favorite foods I was going to have to give up. Then I stopped and asked my self “Why?” Why should this trouble me? I wasn’t going to starve. The meals, though reduced in portions, were nutritious and healthy. Getting used to smaller portions wasn’t particularly hard to do. So what’s the problem? Then I realized that the Lenten diet isn’t gratifying. When I looked at the “forbidden” items, I realized that they constitute or are a major component of what we call “comfort foods”. Of course, we call them comfort foods because when we’re depressed or discouraged or sad or otherwise stressed out, we often turn to these foods for comfort, for consolation. Often as not, we’re not actually hungry.
    If one of the functions of the Lenten experience is to reveal to us how much we need Christ then the fasting discipline, which asks us to give up gratifying comfort food, is distressingly helpful. I say “distressingly” because the revelation that I am emotionally or psychologically dependent on food (among many other things) for comfort and consolation, as opposed to Christ God who is my Comforter, then I do indeed have a problem.
    Meg Photini– I have a dog story as well but I’ve used up by brain battery on this comment. As soon as it’s recharged with a good dose of Haagen Daz Chocolate Chocolate Chip ice cream and a nap I’ll share it.

  38. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    No. Fasting is not about temporarily eliminating something that isn’t good for us. Meat is good for us. More cheese if you please. Milk is very good for you, etc. and all are blessed of God. Not everyone eats like an athlete. But in times of fasting, we endeavor to eat like an athlete.

    It is exceedingly important to understand that in food fasting there is nothing about the food that causes us to fast. Just as a man training to run a race practices running every day. But there is nothing wrong with walking.

    It is true that we sometimes use the word “fast” when we talking about trying not to do something, but the analogy is only about the struggle to abstain. No food is like anger or lust or impatience.

    The point is absolutely critical, so I’m being a bit of a bore, it is not about the food. It is not about the food.

  39. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I don’t think the answer is quite as clear cut as you put it. While I agree that there is HUGE obsession about the food in our culture which likely needs to be balanced out by statements like yours, I think it’s important to recognize the utter connectedness of the body, soul and spirit. What we eat affects our moods. What we watch affects our mental outlook. What we dread affects our nervous stomach. And so on.

    Perhaps the problem in this situation is with the word “good”. You mentioned that monks stay away from meat, indicating that it tends to fuel the sex drive. By the same token professional athletes deal with food in an objective, utilitarian way: I need this for carbs, this for protein, etc. all according to what my sport calls for.

    So perhaps it is not about what is good vs. bad, but rather about what is best in the situation. And, though to a much lesser degree than we consider it, that does involve food. Even the meat, the cheese and such are “good” for us – but they are not “best”. God is best. Man cannot live by bread alone, but he can live on God alone. And that I believe is our ultimate goal.

    Please let me know where I’ve erred in the above assessment so I can correct my thinking.

  40. George Avatar

    Fasting is about dying, isn’t it?

    “We fast so that we may live like a dying man, and in dying we can be born to eternal life.”

    Why We Fast

  41. Brenden Link Avatar
    Brenden Link

    I thought this poem by Lee Duncan appropriate, written for his beloved German Shepherd Dog:

    Alert and ready for my slightest word,
    Rin Tin Tin I so often watch you stand;
    Eager to serve me for that high reward-
    A smile, or just a light touch of my hand.

    Deaf to allurements of those standing by
    when I am near, and deaf when I’m away.
    Forever overjoyed at my return
    However brief or lengthy is my stay.

    Believing in me always, tho I fail,
    Your trust you gave but once, and that to me.
    Your’s are the qualities that men hold high,
    Strength and pride and love and loyalty.

    Wherever led my path you’d walk my way.
    And gladly give your life my own to save.
    Enduring pain and hunger, heat and cold-
    And broken hearted die upon my grave.

    A real unselfish love like yours, old pal,
    Is something I shall never know again;
    And I must always be a better man,
    Because you loved me greatly, Rin Tin Tin.

  42. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The point is understanding that we fast for the sake of fasting, not because of anything about the food. Of course the food relates to the body, etc. And, using some kind of yardstick, we can say this is “good” for you. But what I am concerned about here is to make a break in people’s minds of thinking that there is some inherent reason for not eating a particular food in the fast. That line of thought always leads to the wrong conclusion and wrong thinking. It is much like Dino says – we eat in obedience in the fast. The obedience is the point. The self-denial is the point. Slight hunger is the point. Eating in a manner to help focus prayer and repentance is the point.

    I beating this drum because I think the average Orthodox Christian does not understand fasting. This is shown especially in that they do not link it to prayer and almsgiving. They think it’s about “forbidden foods,” etc. So. The problem is not the food. The problem is in ourselves. And its not the food’s fault.

  43. Dino Avatar

    All who have fasted joyfully even once, know the power of it and how it places one upon the path that Moses, Elijah and even Christ first walked.
    Also, the true “Neptics”, who walked the path of hesychasm and know inner stillness -better than we know how to type a comment here-, realize that fasting is required for it; (and like the manna which took a different taste according to person) it can also impart a distinctively different (spiritual) vigor to diverse spiritual acts.
    They have also recognized deeply that food (even when partaken with gratitude) is like scissors that can cut the rope that keeps the incessantly watchful practitioner of unceasing prayer united to God alone.
    It might sound severe, but it is undeniable intelligence that runs throughout the tradition – even more so of anchoritism.

  44. George Avatar

    So, let me see if I understand this correctly:

    Fasting is about giving up on the good, even healthy food – it’s about being hungry.

    Dieting is about giving up on the bad, poisonous food – stuff that shouldn’t be eaten anyway.

  45. Dino Avatar

    I would say that fasting is even more about being ‘obedient’ (which is actually a ‘technical term’ of the spiritual life). It forms part of the training of the ‘gnomic’ will (cutting off of the selfish will) in order for God’s will to abide richly in me; it is, in other words, the age-old way to ‘ecclesiastically’ speak to God about our desire for Him. He is the one Who gives the manner in which it’s done -through the Church (just as it was directly given by Him at first in the paradisial Garden).

  46. JD Avatar

    I have only ever known one dog I did not like (not mine), and I have had a dog, usually two or three, all of my life. I love dogs so much I am suspicious of people that do not own one. I would say the qualities they display, in their own manner, are grace and fidelity. They show us love without condition, an eagerness to forgive, and how to be content merely with the presence of another (meaning you – or as it is with our current puppy, my wife). Then there’s the famous Mark Twain quote, “Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.”

  47. drewster2000 Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I see. Point well taken. The kinds of food a person eats in everyday life should be tailored to what is best for them, but this has nothing to do with fasting.

  48. Denise LoGiurato Avatar
    Denise LoGiurato

    Laurie E.
    Who wrote that lovely poem “My Old Dog Dreams” and may I post it on my vets Facebook page?

  49. Chris Avatar

    Hi Father,
    Do you know if there’s ever been speculation (in our Tradition) about perpetual vegetarianism in the Garden had the human race never fallen? It seems to me that the death of animals for human consumption, albeit blessed by God, is a consequence of the fall. Thanks for your thoughts.

  50. Dino Avatar

    I have read this in many Saints too. Even that it was only after the Flood (taking Genesis literally on this) that man started to include meat in his diet is a common belief.
    I really do not know enough on this though. I am not sure who does or who could, in fact…
    St Paisios recently claimed that even the animals that had a carnivore’s characteristics would have been seen to only eat the recently deceased other animals (from natural causes), e.g. the eagle would seek out the dead and clear them. Obviously this creates many problems once we analyse it but it can be reminiscent of what we see in an enclosed farm of domesticated animals -even if that farm is in the middle of the wild jungle.
    Theologically it seems to suggest that man would have witnessed animal death, as well as the potential -however- of not necessarily having to succumb to it?
    Just speculating.

  51. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, it would seem that animals are eaten after the Fall. I would assume that we won’t be eating them in heaven…although there is this pesky evidence to the contrary: Christ ate fish after the resurrection.

  52. Catherine Avatar

    Father, bless.

    Thank you for sharing with us. Such a beautiful picture of your grandfather among his cows. It’s a blessing to witness such scenes. I hope I may live on a small farm too, and this article addresses some of my questionmarks.

    What would you say about that seeming contradiction between being a loving cowherd and then slaughtering that same animal? Often also with your own hands when it’s bunnies etc., and not because you need to do it or there is no food on the table.
    Of course, if you do eat meat anyway, that is better than buying meat which comes from factory farming. And you might become more sensitive to the Life behind the piece of meat if you have raised it yourself – opposed to the de-personalised meat at the store. Still I am wondering, does slaughtering them harden the heart? Is it against our conscience? I have heard from men who have grown in a village, that when they were little, they were sad and angry at their parents for slaughtering the animals, they wanted to free them. Isn’t this closer to the state before the Fall? Do we let our conscience harden growing up? Should we return to what the child says? Or is this too “PETA-influenced”? Then there is the evidence with Christ and the fish. God forbid that I would try to be “more” true and loving than Him.

    I do “sense” that the loving cowherd and the slaughtering doensn’t have to be a contradiction, but I would value hearing from you. Indeed you don’t have to “know”, you have to “live”, but…
    I’m sorry, I took the chance to write it all out!


  53. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think the cowherd and the slaughtering are the contradiction of sadness in this world. We eat, and it’s not free. But a child and the man have to learn to do the sadness without hardening the heart. Life will give us loads of sadness, but it cannot become the way of our lives. Therefore, God has taught us to give thanks for all thing. We give thanks for the cow and for its life. We give thanks and pray that His kingdom will come. The Utopians refuse to accept legitimate suffering, and in so doing always create much unnecessary suffering.

  54. Frdcn Dennis Milligan Avatar
    Frdcn Dennis Milligan

    This happened last year:

    Boomer turned 6 today. For some reason I don’t understand, he has become the clearest sign to me of ‘the end of things’. Not only that he will end, although he is the more precious for that, but more: that he has become a kind of portal through which the whole vast phenomenon passes through to me, making it more immediate and accessible. We got him when he was 4, and now he is 6, and it has occurred to me over the last couple of weeks as I pondered his upcoming birthday, that we first met him when he was 28, and now he’s 42…in just 2 years. Every day is a week for him; he gets a year older every 52 days. I am 67, he is 42; in 4 years he’ll be 70; in five he will be older than me, and from there the increasing distance will accelerate. It is hard to express the depth of feeling this has invoked. As unlikely, even absurd, as it may sound, it has been one of the most profound experiences of my life. I have been living with its increasing intensity for over two weeks, meeting for the first time, sights and images so dear that it practically breaks my heart. So what am I to make of it when, just two nights ago, I pick up a book on a living room end table in a house in which I am a guest for the evening…a book of poetry by an author of whom I’ve never heard…and I come across this:

    A Dog on His Master (Billy Collins)

    As young as I look,
    I am growing older faster than he,
    seven to one
    is the ratio they tend to say.

    Whatever the number,
    I will pass him one day
    and take the lead
    the way I do on our walks in the woods.

    And if this ever manages
    to cross his mind,
    it would be the sweetest
    shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.

  55. Matt Avatar


    Your comments on this article contain some of the most helpful insights and reminders respecting fasting I’ve read in a long time. Thank you.

    On something closer to the original article, though: How do we apply this to animals that seem for all appearances to engage in all sorts of broken, fallen behaviours that would be clearly evil if engaged in by any human being, especially where the animals in question are considered to have much of the “higher” cognitive functions? Just part of the being subject to futility, or a reflection of the Fall itself?

    I ask after being reminded of the considerable amounts of rape and infanticide engaged in by dolphins (to the point where they frequently target e.g., pygmy whales) – and of course the numerous rape-like behaviour seen throughout the animal kingdom (ducks, chimpanzees, of course the notorious bed bug, etc.).

  56. J Clivas Avatar

    I don’t believe the Fathers were anthropomorphic.

  57. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a very good question. I think it would belong to the question of animals eating each other, and the violence involved. It belongs to the futility of their state, but does not involve a drive towards non-being (which is the character of sin). Sex between animals seems to lack the aspect of permission we know as animals. It is more a matter of necessity similar to eating. Fasting, in that light, should be seen as a peculiarly human undertaking.

  58. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Care to elaborate?

  59. Christopher Avatar

    “It is all too easy to put the welfare of animals ahead of human beings.
    In our time such inversion is quite common. Whenever I see some celebrity extolling the need to take care of orphaned and abused animals I can’t help but wonder if they care about aborted children. ”

    I kept coming back to something similar when thinking about this article. The sad fact is, there are more “save the baby whales” and “spade your pets” and “who rescued who” stickers (and sentiment) in our culture than “save the baby humans”.

    I grew up with dogs, and will always have one no doubt. My dogs are trained (my uncle was a natural “dog whisperer” and taught me how). They don’t run out the door when I open it (they wait for my command before they can come in or out), I have a functioning come command and I can walk them without a leash because they heal – even in the presence of my neighbors untrained animals. This training/behavior is part of our relationship and contributes to its virtue.

    One day about 6 years ago, I was walking my dog off leash (as I often do, even though it is a violation of the local leash law), and a neighbor was walking his dog on the opposite side of the street. Actually, the dog was walking him – a large and unruly boxer. It was growling, barking, and trying to pull him across the street to get at my dog. In his frustration, he started yelling at me in anger. He said “I don’t have control of my animal”. I literally laughed out loud (I know, I should not have), because the situation was so comical. Leash laws are part of the madness that is a modern persons attitude toward animals.

    About a year ago, a patients family brought a “service dog” into my wife’s hospital (she is the medical director of the local rehab hospital). It was unruly, would growl at the staff, and relive itself. The hospital asked the folks to remove the animal. They said they did not have to, it was a “service animal”. The hospital asked to see its paperwork, and the family then said they did not have to – and the fact that the hospital was asking to see the paperwork was itself illegal. The hospital lawyer looked it up, and the family was right. The animal was in the hospital for about 2 weeks, and it eventually bit another patient (only a scratch). I am not making this up.

    Unfortunately, the “pet”/human relationship in the modern mans hand is as insane and diseased as is his relationship with everything else (it is even reflected in law – kill an unborn child, get a government subsidy, kill an unborn puppy, go to jail). The inhumane exploitation is obvious, what is less obvious is the the unvirtuous (I would say demonic) understanding of “pet” modern man has…

  60. Dean Avatar

    Catherine. ..thank you for ” taking the chance.” I’ve often thought about the things of which you wrote. And Christopher, what you wrote resonates with me also. I’ve been on some u tube sites looking at some videos of animal abuse. I’ve also read some linked literature. A couple of problems arose for me. In the middle of an article on animal abuse, up would pop a positive blurb about the LGBT movement, or other liberal causes. And the abuse shown, while real in certain circumstances, is overstated. Here I’m mainly thinking about the filthy conditions that some dairy cattle were in. I live next to Tulare county, I believe which has more dairies than any other. What I’ve seen of them is orderly and clean, well managed. . The farmers want their cattle to be content to give a greater yield. I am happy to see though that some states have outlawed the pens that calves are kept in. Their movements are so restricted they can hardly move. This seems very cruel to me just so our veal is made more tender…. And Fr. Freeman, thank you too for the comments on fasting. Some of the best I’ve seen too.

  61. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I take it to be a sad thing that it is impossible to say something theologically true viz. animals without provoking comments that are simply the products of our politicized culture. What PETA and other bleading hearts think about animals and human beings really is beyond my control or yours. But if our take on the truth is gauged by being in reaction to the various demons in our culture – then the demons are actually in charge.

    And, from my point of view, it also hijacks the conversation.

  62. Christopher Avatar

    “And, from my point of view, it also hijacks the conversation.”

    Ooops, I forgot – it’s all Alexandrian around here all the time. I will crawl back into the wider world where I belong…

  63. Karen Avatar

    I’m sure you realize, too, Christopher, Fr. Stephen speaks truly when he says when everything is a reaction to the demons, they truly are in charge. I’ve noticed there are plenty of blogs that hash culture war controversies (or ecclesial controversies) ad nauseum. I’ve not noticed much change resulting from that (the cultural slide into chaos continues unabated). There are no human solutions to those problems. What we need are Saints.

    At this blog we have a chance to turn our attention elsewhere–a more life-giving elsewhere in my experience if we choose to attend to Him. (Give me “Alexandrian” any day if that’s what this is). My own inner life with God is something I may actually be able to do something about if I can manage to focus on Him instead of life’s many storms swirling around me for more than a nanosecond at a time (a challenge for this ADHD old gal!) Philippians 4:8 is more than a suggestion it seems to me–it is medicine.

  64. Dino Avatar

    Indeed Karen, in this day and age, irrigating the benevolent blossom is far more constructive than extricating of the malignant bristles… I need to keep reminding myself of this constantly.

  65. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s not Alexandrian. It’s just that the same old same old about everybody else is just boring. When was the last time you read an Orthodox meditation on dogs, or animals?

    But when was the last time you ran across and dwelt on a rant about PETA and the nutters? If being able to actually engage a little theology is called Alexandrian, then count me in. It’s just that I’m weary of that road of complaint. There are more than a few posts on this site that engage the culture. In fact, I think I do it as least as much if not more than most. What on earth is my incessant critique of modernity? But when there’s positive content to be engaged and it’s quickly turned into something else, it’s like watching Fox News. Just let it go, breathe and go deeper.

  66. Christopher Avatar

    Karen, I have noted the heavy and leaky bucket of an “Orthodox Universalism” you have attempted to carry on these “controversial” blogs. Storm indeed.

    I never said anything about “Fox News” or such, I just noted how I relate to my pet verses my immediate neighbors and those whom my wife serves at work (and by extension myself as I work for my wife) relate to theirs. Your right, it’s boring….

  67. Matt Avatar

    When was the last time you read an Orthodox meditation on dogs, or animals?

    For what it’s worth, there’s an entire Tumblr blog dedicated to it.

  68. Karen Avatar

    Christopher, then you will have also noticed that, with rare exceptions, I tend to confine my comments on that controversial issue to blogs where I can comply with the expected rules of engagement. I’m not overly fond of having something I write challenged either, but it happens–and in my case who’s to say it shouldn’t, eh?

    I know from reading your comments, you and I have very different formative experiences, which shape which concerns capture our attention. I know you have some good reasons for raising many of the issues you do.

  69. Shane Avatar

    Some of you may be familiar with a small book called Kinship With All Life by J. Allen Boone. Although written from a non-Orthodox perspective, it echoes much of the same understanding and communication between humans and animals sometimes seen in Orthodoxy such as the stories of St. Gerasimos and the lion or St. Seraphim of Sarov and the bear. For those who have had similar experiences, the connection with animals and the rest of creation will never be the same.

    Matt – thank you for the link to the beautiful orthodoxy and animals blog.

  70. Karen Avatar

    Christopher, what you describe in your post about your and your wife’s encounters with dog owners behaving badly only rankles to the extent that it appears calculated to put you in an altogether different light and class than “those” boorish people. I am, however, quite admiringly envious of your dog training skills, but I reckon your dog’s good behavior has very little to do with his fear of shame or punishment and much more to do with the way you understand, respect, and express his language and the confidence with which you lead. Am I right?

  71. Christopher Avatar

    ” I reckon your dog’s good behavior has very little to do with his fear of shame or punishment and much more to do with the way you understand, respect, and express his language and the confidence with which you lead”

    This is right. “punishment” is not efficacious for the unfallen (it is our lot however, eternally and with great torment, if we are not careful – according to the Gospel of Christ 😉 ). With a dog, it is 90% establishing the natural hierarchy, 10% reinforcement = 100% loving and virtuous (and even saving) relationship.

    Ceasar Millan’s show on the National Geographic channel is the best explication I have ever seen in popular form. Schutzhund training is more explicit on the underlying principles…

  72. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I liked that program as well. My experience is similar to yours on dogs. It is interesting, within clergy conversations, the difficulty of “service dogs” is being discussed. Seeing-eye dogs have long been recognized and welcome in Church (canons normally forbid all animals other than cats – on account of their mousing abilities – I like to think of them as enforcing the canonical prohibition of mice in Church). But, there is a growing use of dogs for other things. An epileptic companion is a good example. In most cases, clergy take the obvious approach. In some, however, the definition of service dog is getting stretched and proving to be a bit of a head-scratcher for clergy. Hasn’t come up in my parish yet.

  73. Dino Avatar

    I thought it peculiar and quite interesting that Saint Paisios once exclaimed (from personal experience, no doubt) that although all animals naturally respect a Saint and even have a natural respect for all loving and calm persons, there’s an exception for dogs… He said that, through their long association with humans, unlike all other animals they had acquired a ‘human policeman’s mentality’ and were the only animal that might remain suspicious of (what they might perceive as an) intruder, even if it was a holy priest carrying the holy mysteries for the dog’s dying master, which he claimed would be naturally respected by the rest of the animal kingdom.

  74. Catherine Avatar

    Father, may I ask what breed your dog is? He looks so nice!

  75. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Springer Spaniel (mostly).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

  1. Matthew, Generally speaking, in Orthodoxy, when we speak of “obedience” (I don’t anyone who speaks of “submission”), we are speaking…

  2. Matthew, Just to confirm, I’m not suggesting we are self-made. I hope I didn’t make that impression. And yes, I…

  3. Dee, I really like your description of the effects of humility. The description helps me understand humility better. Thank you.

  4. Thank you Michael. Yes … it is not easy making the transition, but it (Orthodoxy) being of the heart makes…

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast