Three weeks ago today was the Feast of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals, which always falls on October 4. It feels like forever ago, but I, along with many clergy around the world, blessed my fair share of animals the following Sunday. Weirdly, I've been hearing pet related stories ever since.
One woman who stopped for prayer last week told me that God had miraculously woken her up at 2:00 a.m. the night before so she could save her dog's life. She found the dog in the kitchen with his entire head stuck inside his treat jar, which would have suffocated him had she not been there. Another woman told me how her dog saved HER life by showing loyalty, love and affection during a dark time, and also giving her a reason to live, which was to care and provide for her dog. I spoke with a man who had the name and image of a pet snake tattooed on his arm, and a woman who’s cat charm on her necklace represented a beloved pet who had died. I've found that in NYC, people can be extremely invested in their pets, especially if they have a pet who is their primary companion. As one cat lover told me, "They just crawl into your heart."
Yesterday I saw a friend and former colleague from a church nearby, and I remembered a Blessing of the Animals service we did in Central Park together many years ago. An onlooker thought it was a dog wedding (ha!) before coming over and joining in the service. Then he wrote a hilarious article for an online magazine here. During the service that day, my colleague quoted a late liturgical scholar who said, "To bless something is to say something nice to God about it." This isn't the only way to define blessing, but it's a good one. The church has a long tradition of blessing people, places, objects, occasions, and of course animals. Blessing any one of these helps me to see what is good about it and praise God for it.
When it comes to pets in particular, I think in refreshingly simple terms, much like I do when drilling down on basic doctrinal truths for the purpose of teaching children. It always comes back to childlike faith, and it always comes back to love. The unconditional love we receive from our pets helps us better understand God’s unconditional love for us.
So here’s my favorite activity to include in a Blessing of the Animals service, especially when there are children present. Ask them why their pet loves them so much. You’ll hear answers about feeding and walking and playing with pets. Then get an owner of a very friendly dog to let the dog off the leash. Kneel down and the dog will come running to you. You have not fed or walked or played with that dog, but it will show you love and affection for no reason at all aside from your posture of welcome. It's a beautiful image for how God is always seeking to shower us with love, no matter who we are and no matter what we've done (good or bad).
If you have a pet, perhaps take a moment to offer this prayer:
Lord God of the universe, in your infinite wisdom you blessed us with all living things. I especially thank you for entrusting me with my pet, my friend who brings me so much happiness and whose presence very often helps me get through trying times. Please bless my pet and make me a responsible steward of your creature. As my pet trusts me to take care of it, help me remember to trust you to take care of us, for in so doing we share in your love for all creation. In the name of the One to whom every creature belongs, Amen.