The difference between men and fish

Canon Leslie Virgo (src)

I’ve recently picked up a book edited by the Revd Canon Leslie Virgo, the late rector of St Martin of Tours, Chelsfield (a parish not far from my house). In addition to his long parish ministry, Canon Virgo had a wider role as Advisor on Pastoral Care and Counselling for the diocese of Rochester, and the book he edited, First Aid in Pastoral Care, was on this topic.

My main reason for buying this book was to attempt to reconstruct a talk I heard Canon Virgo give a couple of times in the early 2000s, my notes of which I have since lost; this may end up as a blog post in itself if things work out. But for now I wanted to quoted a fascinating passage from Virgo’s opening essay on “The Biblical Basis” for pastoral care, which he sees in terms of the practical outworking of God’s blessing.

Virgo argues that the key difference between humanity and the animals lies in the subtly different blessings that God gave to each, as described poetically in Genesis 1. Virgo quotes Nehama Leibowitz as follows:

Man, as soon as he was created, received a special divine blessing. However, he was not the first creature to be blessed by God, but had been preceded by the fishes. The content of both blessings is similar but a very significant difference can be detected. Compare the blessing accorded the fishes:

And God blessed them, saying, be fruitful and multiply

with the blessing received by man —

And God blessed them and God said unto them, be fruitful and multiply.

The fish do not qualify for a special address to them by God. They are merely granted the power to be fruitful and multiply. This is their blessing. Man, however, besides being given the power to be fruitful and multiply, is especially told by God to be fruitful and multiply, and is conscious of his power to do so. What is merely an impersonal fact with regard to the rest of the animal creation is a conscious fact with regard to man. (pp.14f.)

As Canon Virgo observes:

The blessing of the fishes carries the substance that it is God’s presence in life and growth. The blessing of man involves him in a privilege of care in response to the grace of God. Through this response we become most fully human. (p.15)

In other words, the difference between humanity and the animals is that he has not only spoken a blessing for us, but spoken it “unto” us, in a way that both demands a response and creates the capacity for that response. And the nature of that response is found in our conscious involvement in care for other people and for creation, “with and in the God who blesses” (p.16). As Virgo concludes:

All who enter into this perspective of blessing will see themselves as pastoral carers in the broadest possible sense. (p.15)


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