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Animals as Angels

Humans have had special relationships with animals for a long time. Some good. Some not so good. In Biblical lore there was the divisive talking snake in Eden, all the plagues in Egypt, and the big fish Jonah encountered. On the positive side there was the warning from the talking donkey, the bird scout who returned with the olive branch after the flood, the dove that showed up for Jesus’ baptism and the image Jesus used of a mother hen with her chicks to depict his love for Jerusalem.

Many of us have special relationships with animals. Domesticated animals like birds, dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep. Our pets are very significant to us. People in senior housing do better when there are pets around. Even the pets do better when people are around. Horses and dogs are used as therapy animals because of their ability to read people’s moods. Cows are healthier when they have personal names and are loved. What is it about pets that is so important to us that when they die, it is like losing a family member? Is it love, companionship, protection, something to care for, a forgiving presence? Maybe all of the above. One of the most important things we get from pets, I think, is loving attention and touch. Our pets love to be touched and to touch us in return—contact with another living being. We are starved in our culture for non-sexual loving touch. Pretty simple. Pretty core.

Then there are the contacts and relationships we have with wild animals. These contacts are even more intriguing because they are more mysterious and seemingly happenstance. When people are willing to talk about these experiences a lot of soothing stories emerge. One friend, whose daughter Robin died young, encountered a robin at her daughter’s gravesite nearly every time she visited. Another friend who had breast cancer, and who had as her personal story the image that she was emerging from a cocoon, watched as a butterfly landed on her shoulder and stayed for forty-five minutes only to brush her cheek as it flew off.

I have had a lot of memorable contacts with birds. On the anniversary of my co-author’s death a bird sat on my shoulder for thirty minutes. Then a few years later when I was arriving to teach our material at a venue that made me anxious, another bird came and sat on a friend’s hand just a few inches away from me and looked at me for a full minute. Another time when I was on retreat and was making a difficult decision I encountered an owl in the wild for the first time and we just watched one another for about twenty minutes. Coincidences? Could be.

I know this is more spiritual than rational but I like to think that these unusual experiences with animals are little angel appearances. In scripture angels come to deliver messages, to warn, to comfort, to challenge and to call. Women who were powerless in those cultures heard some of the most revered messages. Hagar, Hannah and Mary are good examples. They were all called to be courageous and to enter into a new way of life. Their stories still inspire us.

So our animal contacts, if we think of them as angel appearances, can bring more meaning to the encounter. I’d like to think that the robin in the cemetery is a personal sign of comfort for my friend in the loss of her daughter. I felt the presence of my co-author with both bird experiences. As I walked into that new venue to teach I was calmer and more prepared, knowing he was with me. We’ve all heard other more amazing stories about contacts with porpoises, eagles, owls, and turtles that defy conventional wisdom.

What about the domesticated pet encounters as angel presences? This may seem far fetched but let’s explore it anyway. Take my cat, Mr. Nelson. He, like many other cats, has an uncanny sense of me and other people. He picks up my moods and acts accordingly. When I am sad or grieving he sits on my lap in a certain way so his warm tummy is in contact with mine. It is amazingly comforting to have a pet sit so close to me when I am sad. In the morning during my prayer time, he normally jumps in my lap and eventually rolls over on his back so I will rub his chin, neck and tummy while he purrs. Soon he’s asleep with his soft snoring. Bliss.

But on those days that I am a bit tense, he either doesn’t turn over on his back or he doesn’t even sit in my lap. So now I can measure how calm I am by whether he jumps into my lap, turns over, or does all that and falls asleep. He’s like a barometer for me and he is so honest. He never pretends to be or feel anything other than what he is, so I can trust that. He seems like an angel presence to me, comforting me but also helping me to monitor my moods and get back on track. Each time he comes near my chair, he looks into my eyes and scans them to see what my mood is. It feels as if he is looking right into my soul.

Speaking of looking into people’s souls, when I have clients at my home I can gain additional perspective on their level of anxiety by the way in which Mr. Nelson reacts to their presence. If he just sits next to me on the sofa or on a chair or in another room, it is a sign of calm. But if he noses around them or even nips at their feet, it is a sign to me of their inner stress. I just escort him into another room and take in this information so I can be more compassionate with my client. The same holds true for me. If I am too stressed or wound up or busy he will turn into a warning cat or will even get nippy with me. Sometimes when I’ve been on my computer too long, he will even jump up and sit right on the keyboard so I can’t type any more. I know then, that it’s time to take a break, maybe even follow him to the sunniest spot in the house (all cats know where the sunniest spot in the house is) and take a catnap with him.

Perhaps these deep encounters with pets are simply God’s ways of continually comforting us so we feel connected and loved. That would be enough. But to me a cat’s purr sounds like an angel hummingJ

Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When have you had a pet that you felt knew you at a deep level?

How did your pet affect you?

What encounters have you had with “wild” animals?

When have you felt there was a more-than-coincidence factor with a wild animal?

How do you encounter angels or God’s presence in any of these encounters?

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