On October 4, many Christians celebrate the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Churches will hold a service of “Blessing the Animals,” in which people are invited to bring animals to church with them for a blessing.
The blessing often takes the form of a prayer such as the following: “Blessed are you, Lord God, maker of all living creatures. You called forth fish in the sea, birds in the air and animals on the land. You inspired St. Francis to call all of them his brothers and sisters. We ask you to bless this pet. By the power of your love, enable it to live according to your plan. May we always praise you for all your beauty in creation. Blessed are you, Lord our God, in all your creatures!”
St. Francis was born in the late 12th century to a wealthy cloth merchant, but after a vision in which God commissioned him to “repair my falling house”, Francis renounced it all and declared himself “wedded to Lady Poverty”. He divested himself of all material possessions and devoted himself to serving the poor.
Francis took literally the words in Matthew’s gospel, “As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food.” (Matthew 10: 7–10)
Francis and his companions freed themselves from the hold of wealth. They determined that their life’s work would be to declare in word and action the love of God in Christ, “using words if necessary.”
At the heart of his mission was a profound respect for all life. He experienced all of God’s creation as sacred. In his day, if one wanted to seek God, the traditional religious way was to turn inward. Monks tried to transcend this world, spending their lives in contemplating God, seeking to know God fully.
Francis chose a different route. Instead of turning inwards, he turned outwards. The world was shot through with God’s glory. Francis discovered God’s presence and love everywhere he looked. God was to be found in the midst of this world, in the everyday moments of life, in the midst of a bountiful and wonderfully varied creation. Rather than fleeing the world to find God, God is to be found right here, in the physical, material world.
The paradox of Francis’ life is that although he gave up material possessions, he valued the material things of the earth more completely. He treasured people who worked with their hands — farmers, craftspeople, artists, bakers — and he valued the fruit of their hands. He esteemed material things not as having intrinsic worth in and of themselves, but because they displayed the immense variety and wonder of God’s creative imagination.
Francis had a remarkable belief in the universal ability of all creatures to praise God. His famous Canticle of the Creatures includes the words, “All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Sun … Sister Moon and Stars … Brothers Wind and Air … Sister Water … Brother Fire … Sister Earth … Sister Death. All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made. Happy those who endure in peace.”
For Francis, life was an interconnected web. We are kin to each other, all creatures joined in the dance of life. Animals, plants, the water and the air, and human beings — we need one another in order for life to be whole and good. A millennium ago, Francis knew what we are only dimly beginning to understand, that all of life is interconnected, and that if we destroy any part of the environment, it also diminishes us. He is quoted as saying “If anyone would exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have someone who will deal likewise with fellow human beings.”
Most of the world’s religions have a sense that respecting animal life is part of the natural makeup of human beings and, indeed, part of the moral sensitivity that makes us human. With our increasing attention to the environment and to ecological issues and ecological justice, Francis’ love for creation takes on a whole new meaning and power for us. If we are all creatures of God, then nothing is expendable.
Christ Church Anglican will celebrate St. Francis on Sunday, October 5, at 2:00 pm. I invite you to join us for our brief annual “Blessing of the Animals” service. Bring your animals and pets with you to church that afternoon for a special blessing. In the spirit of Francis, who called the animals his brothers and sisters, we celebrate the goodness of God, who calls us to live in peace with all creatures, and indeed with the whole of creation, treasuring it as God’s wonderful gift to us.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook