But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being.
Most of my time in seminary, I worked at a Methodist church in New Jersey as a youth director. I can’t remember why, exactly, but a friend of mine and I both had the first Sunday of October off in 1985, and neither of us had ever been to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in upper Manhattan. So we decided to worship there that morning.
We weren’t aware of anything special happening that day (it’s amazing the ignorance we all lived in before the advent of the internet), and since we were coming from relatively far away and didn’t end up needing the cushion we’d given ourselves, we got there quite early. Everything seemed normal—or at least as normal as it could be at one of the world’s largest churches. But the worship bulletin promised Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia (Earth Mass) and a blessing of the animals. That would explain why some of the other early arrivers brought their dogs with them. Soon it was not just dogs but cats in carriers, birds in cages, hamsters, etc. As the massive nave filled up, it appeared that my friend and I were the only people present without a house pet. By the time the service began, we were surrounded by barks, howls, meows, chirps, and every other kind of imaginable sound from the animal kingdom.
And then came the processional. It’s something (I hope) I won’t forget till my dying day. It seemed like normal pomp at first. Crucifer, candles, choir, clergy… but then came the animals. Normal animals at first—the ones we might see every day—then a few farm animals, then increasingly exotic ones. By the time the small elephant came marching up the aisle I just gave up even pretending to be worshiping.
The liturgy was beautiful, I’m sure (I remember absolutely none of it). The music was ethereal (I remember little of it, but when I listen to recordings of it, I know that I was, in fact, there to hear it). But I’ll never forget the animals—especially the processional. And now that we’re doing our own animal blessing service in October, I can’t help but remember the glory of the one in New York.
The reason we do a blessing of the animals in early October is because October 4 is the Feast Day of Francis of Assisi. Francis was born in the late 12th century in the central Italian town of Assisi while his wealthy father was away in France on business. His noble mother had him baptized as John, but when his father returned, he took to calling him Francis, because he’d been in France at the time of his birth.
As a young man, Francis became a soldier, but in his early twenties he had a spiritual conversion. Before he was thirty, he had founded a preaching order of men that lived in poverty, and another for women. His lifetime of service to God was remarkable not only because of his love for humans of every rank, but also because of his commitment to the rest of creation—including animals. This is why the tradition of blessing animals developed on his feast day, and is now so popular that many Protestants (who know next to nothing about saints’ feast days) have come to observe the tradition in worship.
When we have our own blessing of the animals on October 9, therefore, we won’t actually be venerating a saint. But we will be honoring him for teaching us something important. And that something is connection—connection with other people, even (especially) the least among us, connection with the earth, and connection with the animals that are part of our lives.
Our own service has migrated as we’ve gotten more comfortable with the idea of this practice. We started out processing during the service from the sanctuary to the patio for the blessing of the animals. The next year we worshiped in the social hall. And finally, this year, we’re going to hold the entire service in the sanctuary.
In more liturgical churches, people bring their pets forward for individual blessings by a clergyperson. It seems more appropriate in our case, however, for all to say a prayer of blessing together while we lay a hand on our own animal friend, saying in the midst of the community how thankful we are that they are part of our lives.
So, no matter who you are, where you are on life’s journey, or what species you are, you’re welcome to be part of the Congregational Church of La Jolla (United Church of Christ) at 10:30 AM on October 9, 2016. We’ll sing hymns about creation, say a prayer of blessing on our pets, and close with the prayer that begins, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…” Whether you’re alone or have your best friend(s) in tow, we hope to see you at this year’s Blessing of the Animals.