Angels and Whales
used with permission
We've all seen, at one time or another, the bumper sticker that reads "Save the Whales", and we might have witnessed at some point in the past a protest against the killing of seals for pelts. But have you ever wondered why we never see bumper stickers that implore us to "Save the Cows", for instance? Perhaps this is due to the fact that cows are not an endangered species. Or, perhaps the reason is that cows are fat, ugly, dumb, and smell bad. How else explain the fact that nobody seems to care that every day they are shot in the side of the head, dragged forward by hooks, and split in two by an electric saw? But why do people care about seals and whales? Because they are cuter?
Consider the commercial for Marineland in Niagara Falls, in which a giant killer whale emerges from the water and kisses a young girl on the cheek of her face, or carefully snaps a fish dangling from the fingers of a marine biologist. Recall the seal that claps its flippers and balances a beach ball on its nose, as entertainment for children. Have you ever tried talking to a cow? It'll chew its cud and stare you down with eyes that evidence not the slightest or remotest light of intelligence or understanding. At least a dog's ears perk at the sound of "walk", but the cow will give you nothing along these lines.
What does this mean? It might not mean anything at all, or it might mean a great deal. In book ten, chapter seven, of his great classic The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says the following:
...the activity of our intelligence constitutes the complete happiness of man,...So if it is true that intelligence is divine in comparison with man, then a life guided by intelligence is divine in comparison with human life. We must not follow those who advise us to have human thoughts, since we are only men, and mortal thoughts, as mortals should; on the contrary, we should try to become immortal as far as that is possible and do our utmost to live in accordance with what is highest in us.
Now this is a remarkable passage in many ways. For one thing, Aristotle did not believe in the immortality of the soul; yet he exhorts us to try to become "immortal as far as that is possible", and this means to "live in accordance with what is highest in us," namely intelligence. In other words, instead of setting our hearts on pleasures, or even social standing, we should strive to live a life that, as far as possible, approaches that of the gods.
Now we don't believe in the gods, but we do believe in angels. Imagine someone who did not believe in eternal life imploring us to live a life that approaches, as far as possible, the life of the angels. That would indeed be remarkable. And Aristotle was clearly a remarkable man. Today we are likely to see the reverse, namely, those who believe in eternal life, yet who settle for an Epicurean lifestyle that is based almost exclusively on pleasure and enjoyment, and who encourage others to do the same.
Nevertheless, what does all this have to do with whales and seals? I submit that the reason that many of us delight more in whales and seals than in the fat and smelly cow is that in the former, for instance, the killer whale that kisses the young girl on the cheek, we see behaviour that seems to exhibit the human virtues of gentleness and kindness. The seal also appears to exhibit some kind of intelligent play, kindness and innocence. Of course, this is not literally so, but these two animals in particular seem to approach that level of the hierarchy of being that is directly above them, namely, the human level. The cow does no such thing, but appears to be a brute animal pure and simple.
Let's take Aristotle's advice and strive to approach, as far as possible, that level on the hierarchy of being that is directly above us, namely, the angelic level. Angels are invisible, and they do all their good works without any recognition whatsoever. They have a pure and undivided love for God. They intercede for us always, and they continually praise, adore, and glorify God.
Whales remain whales, even when they seem to behave with virtue, and we will remain human beings even when elevated by grace. Holiness does not require us to deny our humanity. Instead, grace sanctifies our humanity. But the angels will delight in those who approach their likeness as you and I delight in the animal that seems to approach a human likeness. But there is a difference. Although an animal will never surpass a human being in nature and dignity, a human being is capable, through divine grace, of surpassing the holiness of an angel. Mary is the Queen of Angels, and Joseph surpasses all the angels in holiness.