Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
(Blessing of the Animals)
October 2, 2005
Sermon preached by Fr. Mark D. Stuart
Lord, make us instruments of thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This year we have embraced the prayer of St. Francis as our Parish Stewardship theme, because it so aptly expresses what the Christian life, vision, and responsibility is all about. St. Francis is a very fitting patron of stewardship, after all. Many of us look romantically at the little holy man of Assisi living peaceably with the animals and environment. But what many don’t realize is that St. Francis’ ability to live in such peace and harmony with the natural world arose from previous decisions in his life that most of us would not want to make! He gave up a very comfortable and privileged life style which many of us might envy. In fact, he shunned all material possessions in his decision to follow Christ in literal Gospel faithfulness: even the very clothes on his back!
No, most of us are unable or unwilling to imitate Francis that fully. But we do want to do what is right, and that is what stewardship is all about – it’s about doing what is right! Yes, we do want to live a life of peace in the kingdom of God. Yes, we do want to experience the love of God. Yes, we do want to share Francis’ profound respect and appreciation for creation that will lead us, also, to the Creator. Yes, we do want to be of loving service to our fellow brothers and sisters most in need.
Francis challenged his time and ours to simplicity of life and humility before God. He worked tirelessly to care for the poor, the neglected, and the abandoned – most expressed in the plight of the lepers of his day and his initial act of conversion was to embrace a leper – one of those he had previously regarded with such aversion and disdain. Thousands in his own time were drawn to his sincerity, piety, and joy. To this day, St. Francis remains one of the most beloved of all the saints of the Church and this Fall at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish, we will seek to even more consciously follow his example by praying his prayer at every Mass and asking his intercession on our endeavors here and by asking each and everyone of you to whom we have sent a special prayer card, to join us every day no matter where you are, by praying that prayer, as well.
Why are we blessing our animal companions in church on this St. Francis Sunday? Doesn’t the Christian vision involve human beings only – our search for meaning, our self-examination of our actions, our values in life, and our ultimate destiny? So, if the Christian religion is solely about human purpose, then there’s only one justification for blessing animals. And that is in terms of how they serve us and why for centuries traditional blessings speak only of an animal as something for us to use: as food, as a beast of burden, for our sport, or for its practical contributions to the domestic environment. But what if our Christian vision were far bigger than that?
What if God in Christ invites us to a view of life as big as the whole creation and as venerable as our ancient earth? What if humanity is not the whole picture? What if our private religious and ethical dramas make more sense as part of the whole story, but not the whole story? Actually, if we were more like Francis and saw things like this; we would be a whole lot less anxious, since we would not always be at the center of everything and would not have to take ourselves quite so seriously.
Blessing animals, especially our animal companions, is a reminder that God is bigger than just us and that God’s purpose takes in all creatures. We bless them today to recognize their importance in their own right – that their being and their end is part of God’s plan. Blessing animals is a sign of humility and respect on our part, an admission that we humans are not always the center of everything.
Moreover, the animals we bless today are our companions. They are part of our lives and share our homes and our most intimate private moments, along with our joys and our sorrows. They greet us joyfully when we come home ( Like my girl cat Mardi Gras who has tuned her ear to the sound of my Jeep arriving in the drive way and waits for me until I open the door – then she begins chattering away in her happy tones and in inflected meows will answer all my questions, telling me how her day went: about the bug she caught in the garden; how she saw a new hummingbird at the feeder; that her favorite toy mouse which was lost for weeks, she discovered by accident under the credenza; how she got the better of her younger brothers who tried to bushwhack her at the top of the stairs; and, oh yes, the glorious long nap she had in the bedroom window, dozing in the sun… but by the sounds of her soft purrs, her happiest moment was when I came home!) Our animal friends not only greet us; they sit expectantly by our dinner tables; they take an avid interest in our activities; many sleep with us; and they accept us exactly for who we are and never carry resentments or grudges.
Because they are our companions, our friends, we are reminded that friends aren’t there to be used. Friendship is one of life’s great unmerited gifts and a sign of God’s care to us. Friends are the tonic of life, and our animal friends are no exception. Since our blessings today are an act of love, of friendship and of thankfulness, we do them in the context of the Mass, the great Sacrament of God’s friendship and love. And, of course, if our Eucharistic Feast is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet, of the new creation, then this liturgy today with our animal companions is a reminder that heaven is for all creations, not just for humans. St. Francis had a deep devotion to the Eucharistic Presence of Christ, which for him focused all the spiritual insights he had received throughout his life. Just two years before he died Francis said: “I beseech all of you, by whatever charity I can, that you show reverence and all honor to the most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, because in Him all things, whether on earth or in heaven have been pacified and reconciled with Almighty God.”
St. Francis was a lover of life. He knew about God and he knew about animals. He knew that animals had much to teach humans. He watched the way they interacted with their world and he learned from them: Faithfulness, for instance. Faithfulness has a lot to do with being true to yourself, the “self” created and loved by God. It is an expression of our very spirituality, after all. Animals know how to be faithful to their spirituality of play, generosity, loyalty, and goodwill.
I want to direct my next few comments to our special companions here today (the “fur persons” as I call them); but you humans can also listen in: I urge you to continue to be faithful as a sign to us; we need that desperately. Also, continue to have fun, let go and be yourselves, celebrate life without human encumbrances like embarrassment and guilt. You teach us humans that play is a part of natural spirituality and needs no justification. You “fur persons” have much to teach those of us without fur about listening, openness, touch, and sensitivity. That’s right, you must have guessed that many of us humans are drawn to you by our desire to touch and hold you, to hug and stroke you! And even our rational human world that seems so very silly and unnecessary to you, has proven to those of us with animal companions that we actually can have less stress and live longer because we have you with us… thanks, guys, for taking care of us! I also want to thank you for allowing us to show love without being self-conscious or embarrassed, and for often letting us feel freer with our feelings than when we are in the company of our own species… thanks, guys, for inviting us to be open and free like you! You also seem to know our complex human emotions better than we do with each other and you instinctively know when we are fearful, depressed, sad, or not feeling well… thanks, guys, for your sensitivity to our feelings…
Now, back to you humans: I shared the following ditty the last time I preached on this day, but for those of you who weren’t here, allow me to repeat it:
If you start your day without caffeine, If you can be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains, If you can resist complaining and boring people with your problems, If you can understand when loved ones are too busy to give you time, If you can overlook it when people take things out on you, If you can face the world without lies and deceit; If you can eat the same food day-after-day, and be so very excited and grateful for it; If you can conquer tension without medical help and can relax or have good time without alcohol or drugs; If you never have any problem sleeping… If you can do ALL these things then you have to be the family Dog or Cat, because you sure aren’t like any of the humans I know!
As good Anglo-Catholic Incarnationalists, we firmly believe that God created the whole world and saw that it was good. All His creatures, particularly those created to be our companions, are given us as precious gifts. I believe that God uses them to help us learn about the higher nature of ourselves, which was created in His image. From our animal friends we learn mercy, compassion, patience, and understanding – and we also learn what it means to receive unconditional love.
If they are an important means by which we are taught about love, can we assume that once we have learned the lesson, we must be forced to lose them forever? Can we correctly assume that God, the Author of love, has so little compassion for us that He first gives us animals to love and then tells us we can never see them again? Would heaven be a wonderful place – would it truly be a “paradise” if animals were not there too, especially the ones with whom we have shared our lives? I don’t think so, and neither do any of you who have ever had an animal companion.
I don’t think St. Francis believed that either. He knew that God gave us a wonderful partnership with our furry friends. Together animals and humans can respond to the invitation to be faithful… To be faithful to the divine Spirit that flows through all creation… To be open to the possibilities of a better world where all humans and all animals receive the respect the Creator intended. Animals have so much to teach us… about God… about ourselves…about the responsibility of stewardship to one another, our community of faith, and the world. St. Francis knew that – which is why our stewardship campaign and every member canvas invokes his name – and why we are called to imitate his wisdom.
O Divine Master,
grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.
Posted by: The Parish