A modern depiction of St Guinefort by L Bower used with permission
Our saint today is so on the edge that he falls off the perimeter of orthodoxy and acceptability for many. He is St Guinefort, the holy greyhound. In the thirteenth century a Dominican monk named Etienne de Bourbon documented, in disapproving terms, the cult of this French furry saint. The story goes that a knight and his family left their dog, Guinefort, in charge of the baby in their castle near Lyon. Returning, they found the nursery in disarray, the child absent and the dog with blood on his face. Everyone assumed the dog had killed the baby and so the knight immediately slaughtered it. But then he heard the cries of his child, upturned his cradle and found him safe, the body of a viper nearby. Realising that his hound had saved his child’s life by killing the viper, the knight buried his dog in a well, creating a leafy shrine there to his honour. This did not prevent the destruction of his castle which some attributed to divine intervention on behalf of the wronged Guinefort. Locals soon began to venerate the dog as a martyr and saint, and he became particularly associated with the healing of sick children. Devotional practices around the saint seem to have been the typical mix of Christian mixed with pre-Christian. Etienne de Bourbon tried to stamp all that out by extracting the holy remains from the well and burning them. But such piety is not easily quelled, and devotion to St Guinefort continued for several centuries, the last known devotions being recorded in the 1940s. In recent decades St Guinefort and his cult have been the subject of a film and a novel and, in 2021 a St Guinefort’ s Day parade took place in San Francisco on the 22 August (his feast day) involving many dogs.
Reading Psalm 148: 7-14
Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command! Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars! Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds! Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth! Young men and women alike, old and young together! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven. He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD!
The thought that an animal could be a saint was preposterous to Etienne de Bourbon. His contemporary, St Thomas Aquinas, had concluded that human beings were the only creatures able to make moral choices and therefore the only creatures capable of saintly acts. But, if we think of saints as those through whom the light of Christ shines so strongly that we feel that we have encountered God in them, then it is not that surprising that some see that light shining through other creatures. The great mystic Thomas Merton regarded the inconspicuous little yellow flowers on the side of the road, the leaf, the lakes, the sea and mountain all as saints, beings through whom God’s glory shines and whose existence is praise of their creator. What some people recognised in St Guinefort was something of Christ’s sacrificial nature. He laid down his life for another and in the process became an innocent victim of injustice. They will also have seen in this canine something of Christ’s concern for children. In a theological context which valourised the rational, and a social context which was hierarchical and oppressive, the local peasants may have also seen themselves in Guinefort a non-intellectual oppressed by the nobility. In declaring this dog a saint the locals were pushing back against a Church which was promoting the mind over body and a social order which impoverished and oppressed many.
Seeing and learning something of God in our brother and sister creatures is an intrinsic part of the Wisdom tradition in the Hebrew scriptures, a tradition in which Jesus was embedded. He frequently drew on non-human creatures in his teachings and referred to himself as a mother hen. Others saw him as the lamb of God.
If all creation bristles with the glory of God and the light of Christ can shine through our sister and brother creatures, this must have implications for the way in which we relate to them and treat them. This is a hard thing to think about because so much of human life is bound up with the exploitation of our non-human siblings. But the holy hound St Guinefort encourages us to think deeply about these questions. What a good boy!
Pray today for all God’s non-human creatures and for an end to their exploitation and cruel treatment and give thanks for all the joy our companion animals bring to our lives.
Dear God, protect and bless all beings that breathe, keep all evil from them, and let them sleep in peace. Amen.
The Rev’d Professor Elizabeth Stuart, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, The University of Winchester and Associate Priest in the Parish of St Matthew with St Paul in Winchester