5th Oct, 2008

St. Francis of Assisi Festival Sunday

by Fr. Mark D. Stuart

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

He works like a dog. She acts catty. He gets my goat. They let out a wolf whistle which really embarrassed her, since she is timid as a mouse. Trying to organize a group of teenagers is like herding cats. She eats like a bird. He is strong as an ox and stubborn as a mule. Look out for him; he’s cunning as a fox, but she’s a foxy lady. And sometimes you can put lipstick on a pig… Where would we be without our animal friends? For one thing, our figures of speech would be far less rich and descriptive.

Animals have been intimately connected to human life since creation and in the Church by the ancient tradition of rogation observance, crops, orchards, and animals were blessed by the parish priest. All the domestic animals were blessed in appreciation for their part in providing sustenance and as a reminder of the farmer’s responsibilities in caring for them who, like us, are God’s creatures. Now in modern times with urbanization, the emphasis has shifted to the blessing of our animal companions, no longer beasts of burden or sources of food, but beloved members of our families and households. Since we city- dwellers no longer adhere to the agrarian observance of Rogation Days, it has become appropriate to attach our annual blessing and liturgical recognition of animals to the Feast of St. Francis (10/4), the beloved holy man whose impassioned love of God embraced all of Creation.

Holy Scripture is full of stories of animals and the natural world. Biblical authors proclaim that in the beauty and diversity and complexity of the natural world, we see the hand of the Creator. The Bible includes our animal friends in the blessings and covenant we share with God. In the Book of Genesis God says to Noah, “I will make a covenant with you and with all living creatures.” Jesus in turn commands His disciples to “Go in to all the world and proclaim the Gospel to every living creature.”

The creatures with whom we share the earth and the skies and the seas, also share in the fortunes and misfortunes of human life; largely from our own mishandling of the sacred duty entrusted to us as stewards of creation. Their fortunes are effected by pollution and oil spills, gill nets and clear-cutting, population growth and pesticides, war and global warming… We too often forget that God made the world and gave it to all creatures.

God made us – the most complex of all creatures, the most self-conscious of all creatures, the freest of all creatures – not to lord our power over others, not to exploit them, but so that in tending creation, in caring for it, we can show our love for God, the One Who made it. In this beautiful passage from the Book of Job we read:

Ask now the beasts and they shall teach thee, And the fowls of the air, and they shall teach the, And the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In whose hand is the soul of every living thing. (Job 12: 7 – 10)

Meister Eckhart wrote,

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar – I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.

Since I don’t happen to know a caterpillar I asked my girl cat Mardi Gras if she would mind writing this sermon for me today, and she told me “yes she would mind” because her schedule was already full of important feline duties like safeguarding her naptime and anyway why do human beings always want to analyze everything and act so self-conscious all the time?! But she did deign to give me some bullet points she said I should be sure to include, so I will share them with you:

• When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
• Thrive on attention and never pass up the opportunity to have your chin scratched and your ears rubbed – let people touch you.
• Take plenty of naps.
• Don’t get caught drinking out of the toilet or licking your privates in front of company, humans are funny about these sorts of things.
• No matter how old you are always make sure to have time to play.
• When it is in your best interest practice obedience, plus it makes your human guardians happy believing that they are in charge when you know otherwise.
• If you get scolded don’t buy into guilt and never hold a grudge.
• Eat with gusto and enthusiasm and never complain about having the same menu served over and over…remember all the homeless alley cats across the city and stay grateful.
• Stop when you’ve had enough.
• Be loyal always.
• Never be reluctant to show your feelings and purr often – it relaxes you and those around you.
• Don’t worry about tomorrow.
• Never get tired enjoying the natural world – the wind in the trees, whiffing the air, watching birds, bugs, and squirrels and the cloud formations over the hills – a much more worthy pastime than all the time humans spend in front of one-dimensional TV and computer screens.
• Never pretend to be something you’re not. She had a few more, but couldn’t recall them offhand and with a great yawn proclaimed I had taken enough of her time with my human questioning and then curled up with her tail over her nose and dozed off…

Mark Twain once quipped that humans are the only animals that blush… or need to. If we embraced the Native American spiritual practice of regarding animals as our relations, interacting with them mindfully, compassionately, prudently, and responsibly, we would have less reason to blush. By their loyal companionship and extravagant giving of affection whether we particularly deserve it or not, our animal companions also call us to a more morally conscious position in the world. Living with a “fur person” puts us closer to what Albert Schweitzer called “reverence for life.” They represent to us on a daily intimate basis the natural world. We live with the delight of our animal friends’ presence: how can we but admire their absolute comfort with themselves? We love our animal companions – they ask so little. They respond to the simple pleasures of life with such fullness of spirit.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that here at St. Thomas, we who are becoming a strong parish committed to Christian stewardship, are also devoted to our animal companions. What more tangible example of stewardship is there than our love for the animal companions in our care? Abraham Lincoln said, “I care not for a man’s religion whose dog and cat are not better off for it.”

In the blessing of the animals we celebrate every year here at St. Thomas, we acknowledge, bless and confess the myriad and complex relationships between humankind and animal kind. In blessing the animals we praise the Creator for the gift of creatures who have offered innumerable service to humans since the world began and who, in the words of St. Francis, are indeed our brothers and sisters. Today we welcome and bless them; but of course it is really they who bless us.





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