On the blessing of animals

Illustration by Gertrud Mueller Nelson

A reflection offered at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle with links to some wonderful animal videos

Our family could not have a pet in our tiny Brooklyn apartment because our otherwise wonderful landlord wouldn’t allow it. So during the first months of lockdown at the beginning of the pandemic, we found ourselves looking for other ways to bring animals into our home. We first discovered that beyond the blue jays and woodpeckers that occasionally came to the large sugar maple outside our kitchen window, we could watch all the feathered activity at the bird feeder cam from Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab in upstate New York. Then, my husband introduced me to Maru, a fat, handsome, and curious cat in Japan whose videos have been watched nearly half a billion times. Maru’s favorite pastime is to squeeze himself into various containers: boxes of all sizes and bowls—even a fishbowl! —and tubes and sleeves. You can’t help but laugh. Next, we visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium online each day, which has live cams of long-tentacled sea nettles drifting languorously, and glowing, pulsating moon jellies. They are mesmerizing. There’s also a live sea otter cam, which is perhaps how the internet alerted us to the existence of Baby Joey, the orphaned sea otter who in July of 2020 was discovered off the Canadian coast alone and crying at ten days old and flown to Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Center. Nothing cheered me more than the adorable antics of Baby Joey, who was fed clams in milk from a bottle, swam in a turtle-shaped kiddy pool, and played happily with a shark toy but had a strong dislike of a jelly fish toy. I wasn’t alone—I could see from the ticker running across the screen that Baby Joey had friends from all over the world who loved him as much as I did, and people from at least 30 different countries contributed to his care, which required that a staff member care for him 24 hours a day during a time when the Aquarium had no paying customers. I was more than a bit obsessed with Joey, sleek and smart and sweet. I smiled whenever I saw him, and even when I thought of him. It’s possible that my teenager expressed some jealousy. From across the country, and over a screen, I delighted in Joey and felt a connection to him. Something close to what you feel for your beloved pets.

When you are in a garden and see a statue of a man with animals, it is bound to be Saint Francis of Assisi, whose feast day is October 4th.  He called animals his brothers and sisters, and we have wonderful stories of his interactions with them—the flock of birds to whom he preached, the wild and ravenous wolf he made peace with on behalf of the townspeople of Gubbio, the ox and the donkey who were part of the first live Nativity that Francis staged. In honor of him we bless animals today because they, like us, are children of our Creator. At the end of this service, we’ll sing a hymn based on Francis’s Canticle of the Sun which praises God through all creation. “Your God is of your flesh, He lives in your nearest neighbor, in every man,” Francis once said, and he lived these words through caring for those who were sick, those who were poor, and those whom society pushed to the margins. The gift that Francis gives us still, nearly 800 years after he left this earth, is a deep and profound sense of connection to each other, to our pets, to wild animals, to nature, through the great Love that created us all.  

Blessed are you, Lord God of the universe, for all the creatures you have made. You keep them in your care and not one is lost from your sight. They glorify you, and each in its own way speaks to us of your beauty, your challenge, and your love. May we respect them and cherish them for they are your gift to us; Bless these animals here present, and every creature far and wide, that through them we may better know your will for all Creation. We ask this in your holy Name. Amen.

Read more about Saint Francis here.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents

St. Francis of Assisi

One of the most beloved saints of the Middle Ages and now is Francis of Assisi, patron of animals and the environment. Here’s his story:

Francis was born in Italy in the twelfth century to a wealthy family. He loved parties and fine things like the beautiful brocade and silk fabrics his father bought and sold, and he dreamed of adventure. He became a knight and went off to fight, but he was captured and put in prison. After a year, his father paid a ransom and he was freed. Francis knew then that he would not become a cloth merchant like his father. He found himself in a church that was falling down, and as he prayed, Francis heard God tell him to rebuild it. He sold a bale of his father’s silk to pay for the repairs, which made his father very angry. The bishop told Francis that God would give him what he needed, so Francis gave his father his purse of gold coins—and all the fine clothes Francis was wearing! From that time on, Francis wore only rough burlap and gave up all his belongings to live among and serve the poor and the sick. Francis followed Jesus in his actions, not just his words, and soon he had followers of his own who wanted to live simply and serve God and others as he did. He took special notice and care of God’s creation. He helped people and animals live together peacefully. One of the stories told about him is that he helped a village make friends with a wolf that had been attacking their animals. Even the birds flocked around him as he told them of God’s love. Some churches hold a blessing of the animals on his feast day, October 4. Francis may even have staged the first Christmas pageant, with real animals to warm the Christ child in the stable. Francis died in the same little church that he rebuilt with his own hands. He still inspires others with his generosity, his joy in God’s creation, and his simple, peaceful ways.

In honor of Francis, your family could make dog biscuits or cat toys to give away in your neighborhood or donate to a local animal shelter. Even toddlers can string Cheerios onto chenille stems that can be fastened into circles and hung on a tree branch to feed the birds. You can also make a bird feeder by spreading peanut or soy butter onto a pinecone or ice cream cone and rolling it in birdseed.

Here’s a fun short video to watch, a simple recipe for dog treats, and my favorite picture book about Francis.

Wendy Claire Barrie is the author of Faith at Home: A Handbook for Cautiously Christian Parents