St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” (Part Four)

St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” (Part Four).

Icon of St. Basil.

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To read the earlier portions of this work see Part One (here), Part Two (here) and Part Three (here).

N.B. The following text in this blog-post St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” Part Four is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Tessa (1999-present). Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.


The subject of this series of posts concerns the claim that two prayers called “Their Guileless Lives” and “Our Brothers the Animals” come from St. Basil the Great, the fourth century Eastern Orthodox church father. In particular, it is often claimed that one or both prayers come from the Liturgy of St. Basil (see English language translations of the Greek Orthodox version here and here and also here; the Slavonic-Russian version here; the Coptic Church Liturgy here; the Ethiopian Church Liturgy here).

In the first post I reproduced both prayers as they appear in Richard Newman’s anthology Bless All Thy Creatures, Lord. I pointed out that after searching through the different versions — Greek, Russian and Coptic versions of the Liturgy of St. Basil that no such prayers exist. I also had a negative result in finding either prayer in St. Basil’s writings.

I demonstrated in Parts Two and Three that many authors both academic and popular have failed to provide an unambiguous and direct citation from any of St. Basil’s works or from the Liturgy bearing his name. Instead a somewhat circular trail of foootnotes exists where authors cross-quote each other. This rather dubious and very lazy habit reflects poor information-retrieval work.

This habit of cross-quoting each other lends itself to the creation of a top-heavy literary house of cards when the original source is not what the writers have come to believe in. It marrs the quality and cogency of publications about animal ethics and theology. In the case of the two prayers I am examining this cross-quoting signals to me that perhaps very few have any idea when and where the prayers were originally composed.

This is another long post that carries forward points made in the previous post. It is a demonstration of the weak evidence presented by various Christian authors in the Roman Catholic tradition.

Mummy sunning herself on the window sill. Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.


In the last post I began discussing various Christian authors within the Evangelical tradition. Now in this post the focus turns to Christian authors from the Roman Catholic Church. Once again, as stated in previous posts, I am not attacking any of the authors but underscoring two things: (a) the problem of not checking quotes, and (b) documenting the absence of any primary source evidence that the prayers come from St. Basil.


(B). Roman Catholics

Matthew Scully

Matthew Scully is a Roman Catholic lay-believer and is also a prominent behind-the-scenes figure in conservative politics in the United States of America. He served, for a while, as the speechwriter for President George W. Bush, and had a brief association as a speechwriter with the 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Scully’s book Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002), is a very readable work by a Roman Catholic layman who expresses a deep and genuine concern about animal suffering. His book is well-worth reading.

Scully’s ethical stance on vegetarian diet and the treatment of animals puts him at odds with people who might otherwise have affinities with his political values. His ethic runs counter to those who support industrial farming, the allied meat and poultry industries, and the hunting-gun lobbies.

In regards to St. Basil, he states on page 13:

I was amazed to come upon this prayer from Saint Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, circa A.D. 375.

Scully then quotes “Our Brothers the Animals”, although his version lacks the opening line from Psalm 24:1 (as in Newman’s version), and lacks the last thirty-eight words found in Newman’s version.

Scully jots down in his footnote that the prayer is found in volume 8 of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. What might go unnoticed by some readers is that Scully does not give any page reference for Basil’s collected writings in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. As I pointed out in Part One of this post, neither “Their Guileless Lives” or “Our Brothers the Animals” can be found in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.

Nelson barks at neighbour’s flock of homing-pigeons in full flight. Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Scully’s footnote conveys to me at least two impressions (but I am also being mindful of the point: who can tell if he intended to make these impressions?).

The first impression is that the footnote might have been hurriedly inserted because Scully had mislaid or forgotten where he had originally read the prayer. So we have a documented source made “on the run” as he was out of time in the publishing schedule to find the true source.

The absence of a specific page reference is interesting. It might deflect a reader’s attention to detail so that Scully’s footnote is accepted at face-value. However, when one checks volume 8 in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers it is very hard to avoid the conclusion that Scully has not read St. Basil’s works that are collected in that volume. One might infer then that Scully does not really know where the prayer comes from.

The second impression, which could equally apply to several other authors previously mentioned, is that this is a bibliographic equivalent of the children’s tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The majority of writers realise that the Emperor is naked (i.e. the prayer is not really from St. Basil) but nobody is willing to openly admit that he is naked (i.e. we know deep down there is no early church source but because we love the prayer and want to maintain a cherished view about early Christians expressing concern for sentient animal life that we don’t want to have to openly admit that the prayer isn’t found in the Liturgy of St. Basil).

Deborah Jones

Deborah Jones is the general secretary of the Catholic Concern for Animals. She holds a doctoral degree in theology for her dissertation on developing a Roman Catholic theology for animals. In 2009 her book that is based on her doctoral work was published as The School of Compassion: A Roman Catholic Theology of Animals (Leominster, Herefordshire: Gracewing, 2009). Her book represents a highly commendable attempt at exploring existing and diverse Roman Catholic attitudes toward animals, as well proposing the development of a substantial Catholic theology of animals. I propose to review her book in a future separate post.

Similarly, her more popular writings in the Catholic periodical The Ark are to be commended. Her role in Catholic Concern for Animals is admirable and inspiring for other Christians. So my criticism below needs to be understood in light of these preliminary comments.

For the purpose of this blog-post I merely wish to refer to what she has written about St. Basil’s prayers (The School of Compassion, p 61):

But he goes far beyond Augustine in his empathetic appreciation of the animal creation — predating St Francis of Assisi in his language of kinship with animals — as is demonstrated in this prayer from the Russian liturgy, ‘for a deeper sense of fellowship with all living things’, the first recorded expression of shame for human cruelty to animals:

The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom thou hast given the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to thee in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live, not for us alone, but for themselves and for thee, and that they have the sweetness of life.

His Liturgy still in use today in the Orthodox Tradition, contains another prayer which speaks of God having saved both man and beast, ‘We pray thee, O Lord, for the humble beasts … and for the wild animals, whom thou hast made, strong and beautiful; we supplicate for them thy great tenderness of heart, for thou hast promised to save both man and beast …’

Jones continues her discussion beyond what I have quoted and refers to yet another prayer which she claims is found in the Liturgy. I will not pursue that particular claim here.

Nelson reclines. Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Weak Chain-Link in Footnotes

In the above paragraphs Jones has three footnotes (numbered 42-44, p 88) which appear as follows:

St Basil, Liturgy; cited in Charles D. Niven, History of the Humane Movement (New York: Transatlantic Arts, 1967), p. 27.

See Psalm 36:6, ‘Man and beast thou savest, O Lord’ (RSV).

Liturgy, cited in Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah (1997), p. 84; also Sorabji, Animal Minds and Human Morals (1993), p. 202.

Arwen (1997-2010) & Mitten (1999-present). Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Although she states that both prayers come from the Liturgy, as used in the Russian Orthodox Church, she does not give a direct reference to a published translation of the Russian text of the Liturgy. In other words, there is no way that a reader who relies on her footnotes can easily cross-check her quote with the primary source.

In anticipation of Part Six, the literary evidence does not take us back to St. Basil in the fourth century, nor even to the Liturgy that bears his name. “Our Brothers the Animals” does not have the “exotic” origins of coming out of the Russian Liturgy. The prayer has been uplifted out of context and circulated by many writers. It comprises the second paragraph of a three-paragraph prayer published in 1910  and that was actually authored by the liberal Baptist, Walter Rauschenbusch. While “Their Guileless Lives” emerged into print around 1915, and it was merely one litany in a sixteen-part set of litanies used by the Bishop of London Arthur Foley Winnington Ingram for an Easter service held on the Western Front during the First World War. It is this latter prayer which was ascribed to being part of a Russian Litany, and arose at best in the context of World War One.

The basic issue is that her actual quotes for the prayers are derivative being drawn from Niven’s book, and Linzey & Cohn-Sherbok, and with an added allusion to Sorabji. Critical remarks have already been made about Sorabji in Part Two, which need not be repeated here. All that needs to be noted is that when Jones directs attention to Sorabji she does not strengthen but weakens her literary evidence.

Using Niven, Linzey & Cohn-Sherbok

If Jones’ reliance on Sorabji represents a weak chain-link, then is her case improved by using Charles Niven’s History of the Humane Movement (New York: Transatlantic Arts, 1967)? I will be discussing Niven’s book in Part Six. However, it can be noted here that Niven does not provide a direct quote from a translated text of the Liturgy of St. Basil. The version that Niven quotes lacks the last thirty-eight words found in Newman’s version. He specifically takes his quote of the prayer “Our Brothers the Animals” from C. W. Hume who in turn (as will be discussed in Part Six) relies on yet another source. In other words, by the time Niven reproduces the prayer the chain-link is already third-hand. Thus, when Jones reproduces what Niven has quoted, her chain-link to the sources via Niven is at best fourth-hand.

Mitten (1999-present) concentrating on arm-chair. Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Jones’ other source is the jointly authored theological text After Noah: Animals and the Liberation of Theology by Andrew Linzey [Anglican] and Dan Cohn-Sherbok [Jewish Rabbi] (London: Mowbray, 1997).

Chapter four of After Noah is entitled “The Christian Tradition: Christ and the stories of Christ-like compassion.” Within this chapter Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok discuss stories about Christ and animals in apocryphal writings, and selected stories and acts of various monks and saints. In a section “A sacramental world” the authors discuss a sacramental understanding of God’s creation in relation to the Trinity. That section discusses Teilhard de Chardin, Sebastian Brock, Ephrem the Syrian and St. Basil the Great. In that section St. Basil’s book on the Holy Spirit is quoted and discussed but there is no reference to The Liturgy of St. Basil.

In the final section of chapter four called “The goal of redemption”, Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok discuss the renewal and redemption of creation. After referring to the Pauline hope of the redemption of all things (Romans 8), the authors then direct attention to Psalm 36:6 “Man and beast thou savest, O Lord”. They go on to say that the thought expressed in Psalm 36:6 is one “that provided the inspiration for the famous prayer attributed to St. Basil the Great” (p 84):

We pray thee, O Lord, for the humble beasts who bear with us the burden and heat of the day, giving their lives for the well-being of their countries; and for the wild creatures, whom thou hast made wise, strong and beautiful; We supplicate for them thy great tenderness of heart, for thou hast promised to save both man and beast, and great is thy loving-kindness, O Master, thou Saviour of the world.

The bibliographical reference that Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok supply makes no mention at all of The Liturgy of St. Basil. Instead their reference reads (footnote 106 on page 90 but numbered footnote 105 on p 84):

St Basil the Great, cited in Eric Milner-White and G. W. Briggs (eds) Daily Prayer (London: Oxford University Press, 1946), p. 79 .

The only mention that the authors make of St. Basil’s Liturgy occurs in chapter five and this does not entail quoting either of the two prayers “Their Guileless Lives” and “Our Brothers the Animals”. They write (p 95):

… and the liturgy of St Basil speaks of the limitless majesty of God ‘holy in all your works’.

Their footnote (number 16) for this quote reads:

Eucharist of St. Basil; in Bouyer, op.cit., p. 288.

The full reference for this book that they are using is Louis Bouyer, Eucharist: Theology and Spirituality of the Eucharistic Prayer, ed. and trans. C. U. Quinn (London & Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968).

Mummy & Mitten lounging around. Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Jones vs. Linzey & Cohn-Sherbok’s Caution

The passages in chapter four of After Noah when read in context take a different direction from the bibliographical inference drawn by Deborah Jones. In chapter four they do not make any reference to the Liturgy. Instead the prayer they quote comes from the 1946 anthology Daily Prayer. Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok say that the prayer is “attributed to Saint Basil the Great” but they do not claim in the passage that it is definitely a prayer by him.

Contrast this with Jones’ footnote (number 44):

Liturgy, cited in Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok, After Noah (1997), p. 84.

One other textual point for comparison is to note that the version of “Their Guileless Lives” that Linzey and Cohn-Sherbok quote contains an important verbal difference from other versions I have referred to in these posts (including Newman’s version in Part One and the version found in the Linzey & Regan anthology Love the Animals see Part Two). Notice this clause, “giving their lives for the well-being of their countries”.  The allusion to “their countries” should spark off a reflection: is it likely that a fourth century monk and bishop would offer a prayer about animal lives being sacrificed “for the well-being of their countries”? The language is decidedly modern, and as I will show in a subsequent post that is because the prayer comes from World War One and not the fourth century.

Arwen (1997-2010). Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Lastly, if one reads the periodical The Ark (no 112, Spring 2009) one will find that Jones has reused some of her material on St Basil and adapted it for that popular format. Obviously no documentation in the magazine article is supplied for her quotes from the Liturgy of St Basil.

Messenger of Saint Anthony

The Messenger of Saint Anthony is a popular Roman Catholic periodical that honours the Franciscan St Anthony of Padua (1195-1231). From time to time the magazine features articles about animal issues. The November 2011 edition carried as its cover story “Cruel Beauty: Cosmetic Testing on Animals” (pp 16-19). Within that article the lay Catholic author Ellen Teague remarks (p 19):

On the whole, few in the Church extend its vision of social justice to the total Earth community. This is rather surprising since a tradition of creation-centred theology has been present within the Church over the centuries. For St Francis of Assisi, every creature in the world was a mirror of God’s presence. St Basil prayed that God “enlarge within us the sense of fellowship will all living things.” Hildegarde of Bingen spoke of the entire world being “embraced” by the kiss of the Creator.

While one does not expect bibliographical references in a popular periodical, Ellen Teague’s article is one example of how the St Basil prayers are accepted as genuine at face-value and kept in constant circulation.

Another example is found in Victor Parachin’s article “Paws That Heal”, which appeared in an earlier edition of the Messenger of Saint Anthony. Parachin quotes an “ancient prayer from St. Basil” and reproduces a shorter version of “Our Brothers the Animals”. Again, no reference to the source of the prayer is given.

Jesuit Missionaries: Roland Lesseps and Peter Henriot

Penelope and Nelson on the beach. Photo Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.

Roland Lesseps is a Jesuit scientist serving at Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, Lusaka Zambia. Peter Henriot is Director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, Lusaka Zambia. In 2003 they presented a co-authored paper Church’s Social Teaching and the Ethics of GMOs at a seminar convened by The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace (November 10-11, 2003) on the theme GMOs: Threat or Hope?

In their paper Lesseps and Henriot remark (page 3):

An example of this same appreciation of creatures,  coming from an early Father of the Church, is this surprisingly modern prayer of St. Basil: “O God, enlarge within us a sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers and sisters the animals, to whom you gave the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised high dominion with ruthless cruelty, so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to you in song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone but for themselves and for you, and that they love the sweetness of life.”

Lesseps and Henriot do not supply any footnote or bibliographical citation as the source for this prayer. However, a few points emerge from their paper. The first is that they seem to harbour some suspicion about the authenticity of the prayer. They express amazement that it is a “surprisingly modern prayer.”

The next point is that the vocabulary has been modernised with words being changed like “thee” and “thou” into “you”. The text has been adjusted for inclusive language. The more widespread version of the prayer says “our brothers the animals”, whereas in this text they are now called “our brothers and sisters”. The clause “we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty” has been altered  so that “of man” drops out and the text becomes “we have exercised high dominion with ruthless cruelty”.

The last comment I wish to make is that given their suspicion that this prayer reads like a “modern prayer,” why did Lessep and Henriot not confer first of all with a Catholic expert in Patristics to check on the prayer’s authenticity before choosing to quote it at this seminar?

The paper by Lessep and Henriot has been published as chapter five in Siphiwe F. Mkhize, Towards Hope and Challenge: Agricultural Biotechnology and The Catholic Social Teachings (Arcadia, South Africa: MaVovo kaKaKa Publishers, 2004). The prayer appears on page 47, and again there is no bibliographical reference supplied.

For more discussion see Part Five.

<end of Part Four; see next post for continuation of this discussion>