Animal Blessings

“Animals Are Blessings,” Susan Ryder

 On this first Sunday of October, the closest day to the Feast of St. Francis, some congregations observe a “blessing of the animals” service. We participated in one a few years ago at the Unitarian Church, and our youth led animal blessing services the last two years. Bob and I enjoyed bringing Daisy to be blessed last year – and so appreciated the leadership and liturgy from our young people. This year we decided that instead of blessing the animals, we would reflect on how animals bless us. How many of you currently have a pet of some sort sharing your life and home? How many of you don’t have a pet now but had a pet in the past? How many of you have never had a pet animal in your home? Have you ever experienced a blessing from an animal? Let’s hear a couple of readings – one ancient and one modern …

READINGS
Genesis 2:18-20
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, is a novel that takes the form of a letter or journal that a dying, elderly Congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa, writes to his 7-year old son in 1956 – written so that one day the boy will know something about his father’s life and character.In this passage (pp. 24-26), Rev. John Ames reflects on a moment from his own childhood.

Now, this might seem a trivial thing to mention, considering the gravity of the subject, but I truly don’t feel it is. We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats, just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all except avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress — there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unsaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks… We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a great deal. So I finally asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable, what exactly what happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained. I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.

REFLECTION
When my parents brought me home from the hospital in August 1960, my big brother David, and my big sisters Betsy, Lady, and Coco were there to welcome me. David was a nine-year-old towheaded boy who had little time or patience for a new baby. Betsy was a six-year-old brunette who thought I was her baby. I’m not sure how old Lady and Coco were – I do remember Lady was a redhead – a Pomeranian, and Coco a cross-eyed Siamese cat.

From the time I was born until the day I left to venture out on my own, our little house on Groton Street had either a dog or a cat – often both. Lady, Coco, Katrina, Lucy, Charlie Brown, Spook, Dorkie, Sunshine, Sammi – my canine and feline siblings grew up alongside me and nurtured my love of animals. I probably have as many childhood photos taken with them as I do with my human siblings. They did not live as long as the people in our family did, and my heart broke each time we lost one. While we did not baptize them, we did have funerals for them all, and buried some in the garden outside our kitchen window, where a beautiful pink camellia bush flourished for many years up until my mother died and we sold the house. I hope it’s still there, and that the new family who lives there still enjoys it. I also hope they don’t do too much digging or replanting – they’ll be in for a bit of a shock!

It was only natural that as soon as I was on my own between college and grad school I would find a place to live where I could have a pet – within days of moving into my guesthouse on top of a mountain in Ojai California I brought puppy Jake home from the Humane Society. He was my best friend and companion for two years, until I moved across the country to Princeton, NJ. I left him with my landlords, who loved him as much as I did, and though they told me to come back and get him when I graduated, he thrived under their care. So I left him on that mountain where he lived to the ripe old age of 17. A seminary dormitory meant no pets, so I found someone to marry me so we could move into married student housing, where pets were allowed. Upon returning home from our honeymoon Bob and I brought an elderly hospice cat named Grisbella into our small apartment, where she lived out her remaining year and a half of life. Dugan joined us as a kitten in our first apartment in Sioux City – pets were not allowed but our landlady liked us – “a nice young minister couple, of course you can have a cat!” Sheba, our gorgeous white husky mix followed 18 months later, mere days after we moved into our first house. Kayla and Daisy joined our family in Normal.

Animals have and continue to enrich my life in so many ways – and I know they do for many of you as well. Whether you currently have a pet or not, you know of what I speak when I say that they, more so than any human in our lives, endure our shortcomings with such calm acceptance and never-ending forgiveness, as they teach us something of our humanity, and even manage to show us how to love and be loved. Occasionally I recite all of their names in my mind – a litany of remembrance – each one recalled with amazement that my heart could be broken so many times and still manage to hold just as much love for yet another pet – not to take its place, but to reside next to it. My heart is quite full of that love, with room for even more. Perhaps that is why, of all the Catholic saints, I am most drawn to Saint Francis, patron saint of animals and ecology, whose feast day is observed on October 4.

Francis was born into a wealthy family in Assisi, Italy around the year 1182. He was the son of a cloth merchant who received little formal education and during his youth was mostly preoccupied with having a good time. As a young man, it is said he was popular, charming – the life of the party. When armed conflict broke out between the men of Assisi and a neighboring city in 1202, Francis volunteered for the cavalry but wound up getting captured after the first big battle. Francis returned to Assisi after spending a year in captivity and was considered a hero, but unknown to his friends and family he had undergone a transformation during his captivity and began to question the meaning of life and the reason for his existence. After much contemplation, including vivid dreams and mystic visions, he turned away from the pursuit of all worldly pleasures, sold all of his property and donated the money to the Church. He then began a lifelong passion of caring for society’s castoffs, the sick and poor, even lepers. His wealthy father reacted to his son’s odd new lifestyle by disinheriting him. Thus Francis lived in utter poverty and even went without shoes at times. But his humility, extraordinary kindness, and love for humanity attracted the attention of other young men and even some women, and they also chose to give up worldly pleasures to follow him to spread the gospel and serve the poor. Eventually, as their group grew, its members traveled to other parts of Europe to preach, including France, Germany, Spain and England. The brothers became known as Franciscans, and later a separate order for women was formed, now known as the Franciscan Nuns.

Francis believed in the sanctity of life, including all of creation. He loved nature, and spent most of his time in it, believing it was through creation that the Creator communicates with us. He considered animals to be his brothers and sisters, and there are legends that wild animals had no fear of Francis and even came to him seeking refuge from harm. There are several stories in which Francis intervenes directly with nature. One involved a wolf who was terrorizing a village. Francis is said to have called the wolf to him, where he asked the animal why he behaved so badly. The wolf reclined at Francis’s feet, and replied that it is only because he was hungry. Francis then negotiated with the townspeople to feed the wolf, and the wolf agreed to leave them alone. He became their pet, and protected the village.

In another story, Francis delivered a sermon to the birds of the forest, who were assembled in great numbers. “My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple raiment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feeds you, and gives you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clothed you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loves you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God.”

What made St. Francis unique was that traditional Christianity tended to treat animals and creation itself as “less than.” In the hierarchy created by the church, God was at the top, with men coming in right after the angels. Women, children, and animals were beneath men, of course. And though called upon to care for the least of these, those who needed compassion and care the most – the lepers, the poor, the sick – were at the bottom, along with the rest of creation, which men believed they were to subdue. But Francis believed people had a duty to protect and enjoy nature as both stewards of God’s creation and as creatures ourselves. So he and his followers, both men and women, tore down that hierarchy and lived within a level field of play, which included care for all creatures great and small, infirmed and healthy, impoverished and wealthy. Would that more people follow his example in this day and age.

In the reading I shared from Gilead, the narrator’s father reminded him, after hearing of the cat baptisms, “that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect…” He countered that they “did respect the sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing… There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is one of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.” The baptism of those cats seemed like a mutual blessing – for the cats and for those children.

Have you experienced a blessing from an animal, or a mutual blessing like what occurred with the children and the kittens on the occasion of their baptism? When my father was dying in the Fall of 2002, I went to California for several weeks to help my mom and sister care for my father in home hospice. I took Kayla with me, so I wouldn’t be so lonely without Bob, and because we knew she would be a comfort to me. She ended up taking care of all of us, and the nurses even referred to her as our hospice dog. On the afternoon he took his last breath, my mother, sister Betsy, niece Laura, and I sat in a circle around his bed, Kayla calmly at my feet. It was such a sacred moment for all of us, and Kayla’s presence with us was a mutual blessing – for us and for Kayla and even for my father. Bob and I did the same for Kayla, holding her in our arms as she breathed her last breath. It was truly holy ground – heart breaking, sob enducing, mysterious, life affirming holy ground.

Have you experienced a blessing from an animal, or a mutual blessing like what occurred with the children and the kittens on the occasion of their baptism?