Animals in the Desert

Does the solitude of the Hermit in the Desert preclude relationships with animals? Or might the fact that the Hermit has, to some extent, moved to the “margins of the human” offer an increased relationship with “other creatures”?
In relation to the Desert Fathers and the Celtic Hermits, the definitive study is “Beasts And Saints” by Helen Waddell (originally 1934, subsequent edition with woodcuts by Robert Gibbings 2010).
beasts and saints 2
“These stories of animals and saints, taken from the Desert Fathers and the Celtic saints, were first translated and made available by Helen Waddell more than half a century ago. Ester de Waal now introduces these personages to a new audience that will be equally beguiled by the world they evoke. Readers meet a range of creatures, from lions and hyenas, otters and hares, to a mouse, a fly, and a frog. All creatures, whether they be big or small, beautiful or not, are given their own voices, and, in reading about their relationships with saints such as Columba, Jerome, Cuthbert, and Simeon Stylites, readers are taken back to the early days of the Christian heritage and the holistic spirituality that belongs to that world – a world in which miracles are commonplace and Christian legend comes to life.”
Helen Waddell
“Helen Waddell was born in 1889, the youngest of 10 children, of an Ulster Presbyterian minister, a pioneer missionary in Manchuria and Japan. She was an extremely intelligent and diligent child, attaining high academic standards at school, followed by equally high achievement at Queens University, Belfast, and Somerville College, Oxford. She chose writing as her career, showing a particular interest and talent for translating works written in the early centuries AD from the original Latin into English, with a unique scholarly sensitivity which guaranteed her immediate success. She became one of the best-selling authors of the 1920s and 1930s, with her novel ‘Peter Abelard’ eventually being re-printed over 30 times and being translated into 9 European languages. Among other books which brought her fame, were ‘The Wandering Scholars’, ‘Mediaeval Latin Lyrics’, ‘The Desert Fathers’, and ‘Beasts and Saints’. Helen Waddell lived an extremely full and busy life both writing and lecturing. She remained unmarried but had a very wide circle of friends and acquaintances, particularly in the world of art and literature. She died in 1965 after a long illness.”

See also and and
living with other creatures
For an interesting exploration of the theme, see “Living With Other Creatures: Green Exegesis And Theology” by Richard Bauckham (2012) which makes reference to Waddell’s work.

Many of the lives of the Hermits – East and West – include references to animals, whether for companionship or food (although, even in that case, for companionship as well).

One famous example is the old Irish poem, “Pangur Ban”:

“Pangur Bán” is an Old Irish poem, written about the 9th century at or around Reichenau Abbey. It was written by an Irish monk, and is about his cat. Pangur Bán, “white fuller”, is the cat’s name. Although the poem is anonymous, it bears similarities to the poetry of Sedulius Scottus, prompting speculation that Sedulius is the author. In 8 verses of four lines, the author compares the cat’s activities with his own scholarly pursuits.
The poem is preserved in the Reichenau Primer (Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1 fol 1v) and now kept in St. Paul’s Abbey in the Lavanttal. A critical edition of the poem was published in 1903 by Whitley Stokes and John Strachan in the second volume of the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus. The most famous of the many English translations is that by Robin Flower. In W. H. Auden’s translation, the poem was set by Samuel Barber as the eighth of his ten Hermit Songs (1952-3).
pangurban 1
The page of the Reichenau Primer on which Pangur Bán is written
pangur ban 2
A 15th century manuscript that got walked on by a medieval cat — who left his inky pawprints all over it

“I and Pangur Ban my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill-will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry task to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way;
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our task we ply,
Pangur Ban, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.”
pangur ban 4
“Myself and Pangur, cat and sage
Go each about our business;
I harass my beloved page,
He his mouse.
Fame comes second to the peace
Of study, a still day
Unenvying, Pangur’s choice
Is child’s play.
Neither bored, both hone
At home a separate skill
Moving after hours alone
To the kill
When at last his net wraps
After a sly fight
Around a mouse; mine traps
Sudden insight.
On my cell wall here,
His sight fixes, burning,
Searching; my old eyes peer
At new learning,
And his delight when his claws
Close on his prey
Equals mine when sudden clues
Light my way.
So we find by degrees
Peace in solitude,
Both of us, solitaries,
Have each the trade
He loves: Pangur, never idle
Day or night
Hunts mice; I hunt each riddle
From dark to light.”

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