I imagine when people think of Saint Francis of Assisi, they immediately see images of Francis communing and blessing creatures great and small. Perhaps, we have romanticized Francis as the patron of pets. Perhaps we forget that Francis transformed the Church at a time when the Church lost sight of its mission to serve the poor, the destitute, and those whom it would be easy for us to forget.
During the first week of October many churches and Episcopal schools will hold Blessing of the Animals services. I serve a church where people of various faith traditions faithfully attend the service annually. When the liturgy concludes, they joyfully say to me, “See you next year!”
I have to admit that one of my favorite chapel services at The Episcopal Academy is this Blessing of the Animals. For me it is an opportunity to share the life of Saint Francis with young people who know very little about him. Consequently, they grow to love the mystery surrounding him. I see this service as an opportunity to use the Prayer of Saint Francis as a template for righteous living. Yes, Lord, make us instruments of peace…
I approach the Blessing of the Animals as an opportunity to share the reality that we are stewards of creation. I find that students from pre-k through 12th grade better understand than adults that love is not abstract but palpable like the fur of their dog, the scales of their dragon lizard, the feathers of their cockatiel, or the shell of their turtle. They learn that caring for their pet becomes an avenue of gratitude for God who creates all things. Also, if the service emphasizes the blessing in a larger context of all of creation, then they also learn that our treatment of each other become an avenue to demonstrate our love for God. After all, wasn’t Francis’ sole focus to love God and to love others?
I still remember to this day receiving a cat for my third birthday whom we named her Nelly. My mother taught me to care for her; I helped feed her and change her litter box. When I was thirteen, Nelly became very ill. When it was time to euthanize her, my mother and I took her to the SPCA. My mother explained to me the what and why of euthanasia. She also taught me that when we love someone, like I loved Nelly, we stay with them to the end. Our love requires us at times to witness that which we may want to avoid. It may have been one of the great life lessons I learned as a young boy which I carried with me into adulthood: love does not allow us to abandon others during their time of need.
I believe Saint Francis realized love was the key to understanding the mystery of God and God’s creation. Through his love for God, Saint Francis humbly served the poor, the sick, and the marginalized. He lived a life of voluntary poverty so that no worldly riches distracted him from this mission. He preached the Gospel through this sacrificial love, and at times he used words.
In the end, Saint Francis didn’t just reform the Church, he transformed the Church into the Body of Christ. He reminded those around him that Christ’s own sacrifice delivered salvation to all people. Francis reminds us that we follow Christ when we do the work of Christ by bringing light to the blind, freedom to the prisoners, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, and healing to the sick.
Once again, this week we will open our sanctuaries to many animals – goats, cats, hamsters, boa constrictors, turtles, golden retrievers, fish and maybe even horses. We know things may become a bit messy and chaotic. However, each year we live into the chaos and mess because so much joy surrounds the Blessing of the Animals that we welcome the inconvenience and the unpredictable nature of the liturgy. The Blessing of the Animals will bring more people to church; that is true. However, we cannot miss the message that ultimately, we hope to bring more people to Christ. After all, Saint Francis provides us with a road map to come closer to Christ not just to our pets.
[Image Credit: The Episcopal Academy, Newtown Square, PA; Shared with Permission]