Last month we celebrated in our church calendar the life of the person who is probably the most beloved of all the saints – Francis of Assisi. There are several wonderful stories about his life. But he is surely best known today because those stories have resulted in our present-day service in which we bless animals. I’d like to devote my column this month to that topic. Let me lead into it, though, with an episode from my own history.
Before priests can be ordained in the Episcopal Church, not only, with certain exceptions, do we have to complete seminary training that usually takes three years, but we also have to take the much dreaded GOEs, the general ordination exams. Perhaps the most interesting of the four days of exams is on the last day – the so-called coffee-hour questions. A Catholic priest friend of mine tells me that in his denomination they couldn’t have coffeehour questions, since hardly anyone stays for coffee hour. In his church they’d have to call them parking-lot questions! They’re questions that someone might put to you over coffee and a cookie – you know, the sort of thing that the questioner expects a 25-word-or-less answer to, but that to answer properly actually requires a good deal of thought and explanation.
Well, the most intriguing question that I remember from my exams was this: An elderly member of your parish comes up to tell you that, since he became a widower five years before, his sole and constant companion has been his faithful, but also elderly, dog. And now his vet has informed him that his precious dog has cancer. “Will you come to my home and anoint my dog with healing oil?” he asks. So, priest to be, what will you say, and do?
My answer was that I would point out that anointing traditionally is to mark a person in some special way for something special –“Christ,” for example, is the Greek word for the Hebrew word “Messiah,” which means “anointed.” Anointing is for people. Not animals. It is a way of calling down the Holy Spirit on the one anointed. Kings are anointed, to set them aside and mark them for a special office. Also, in the context of healing, anointing has a sense of forgiveness of sins, since in order for healing to take place a person must no longer be slave to sin. Think of healing stories in the Bible, where Jesus says something like “Get up; your sins are forgiven you,” as an adjunct to healing. So to anoint the dog doesn’t really make much sense. The dog isn’t the Messiah, or a king in the making. And we don’t have to absolve a dog of sin because dogs are innocent, not capable, except perhaps in our imagination, of sin. However, I would explain these concepts to the petitioner even as I actually anointed his dog. A pastoral response to the man’s pain is certainly far more important that theological punctiliousness.
Pets aren’t really big in the Bible – I suspect because in the sort of marginal agricultural economy that existed in Israel there simply wasn’t much demand for them. One of the few references that come immediately to mind was the complaint by the Syro-Phoenecian woman that even the dogs get to eat the scraps of food that fall under the table. Of course, that people in that world owned dogs doesn’t necessarily mean that the dogs were what we would today think of as pets, rather than working animals, such as sheepherders. But we all know how important they have been to us in our own society. Whether you have a dog or cat or fish or parrot or hamster, or whatever, can you even imagine a world without pets? Would you really want to live in a world without pets?
Admittedly, not all animals are pet material – people friendly. Heck, not all pets are people friendly, as we sometimes discover when we open the daily paper to another tale of someone being mauled or even killed by a family pet dog. Or, for that matter, when we watch a television program like “My Cat from Hell.” But that is not because the animal in question is intrinsically evil. It is because he is an animal and either acting as he was bred or trained to act. He is not acting immorally! Animals are absolutely innocents because they lack any sense whatever of moral teachings. They don’t just live in nature. They are nature. Indeed they are a wonderful demonstration of the glories of God’s creative genius!
And that is why the stories of St. Francis delivering a sermon to an attentive flock of birds, or making a pact with wolves, have such an appeal for us. God made the animals and declared them to be good. And we instinctively recognize that that is true. Even when they act in ways that we would prefer that they not act, they are still good. Francis is what, in our hearts, we all at some level aspire to be – a human being who instinctively recognizes the truth that God’s creation is very good indeed.
And we affirm that insight on the day we commemorate the life of St. Francis not by anointing animals to free them from the bonds of sin, but by blessing them to recognize their innate goodness, to which we can each in our own language, whether human or animal, add our own “Amen.”