Sunday, October 5, 2008

Who is Blessing Whom?

“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! Amen.”

Today, we are blessing the animals – but the truth is, the animals do not need our blessing, do they? Are they not deeply blessed already? And do they not bless us every day?

Our religion is not like some religions, including other versions of Christianity, that say that the material world and all that is in it is fallen and corrupted. No – Anglicanism tends toward a “greener” theology, if you will – we tend to believe that all the world is, as Genesis says, “Good.” God created this world, with all its fishes of the sea and birds of the air and declared it to be good. Very good, in fact.

So we might bless our animals; but only in recognition of how our animals bless us.

Archbishop William Temple said, “Christianity is the most materialistic of all the great religions.” I think Judaism would argue, but the point is that the material world is not, for Anglicans, a place of darkness and evil but a place brimming over with the presence of God. And we have no better example of that than our pets, who every day show us what it means to be unselfconsciously alive in the Kingdom of God.

My Bernese Mountain Dog Penny is a great example of that for me. Every morning when she hears me coming down the stairs, no matter the hour, she gets up and greets me with tail wagging. And from that moment to the moment I climb the stairs at night to go to bed, she prefers to be by my side more than anything else.

If Penny had to choose between love and food, she would choose love. If we're gone too long from home, she simply won't eat.

And isn’t that true for most of us? When I visit shut-ins or folks in nursing homes, people who are very lonely, so often I find people who have simply lost their appetites. Without love, we lose our will even to eat.

Our pets show us what it’s like to live in unity with the Creation, and to live completely for love. They are examples to us of what life in full communion with God might be like: they do not carry the stain of original sin; they are not fallen; they have not disappointed God’s divine plan; which is why when we are with them we feel their blessing on us.

This quote has been attributed to several people in various iterations: “The more I know about people, the more I like dogs.” (Gloria Allred) But St. Francis would never have said that, would he? What’s amazing about St. Francis is that the more he knew about God, the more he loved people, and dogs, and birds, and cats and dogs.

This is perhaps the best testimony to his saintliness – not that he loved animals, but that he loved humans just as much.

St. Francis was in love with everything – all of creation; all of the animals; all of the humans – even the leper, whose face he kissed when he was still a rich young man. Even the Sultan of Egypt, Malik-al-Kamil, the proclaimed enemy of the civilized world, the Osama Bin Laden of his day. While the rest of the Christian world was launching its crusade against the Muslims, Francis walked across enemy lines, fully expecting to be martyred, in a bid to seek peace and understanding.

What prevents us from falling in love with everything, just like St. Francis? Why can’t we be more like him, arms outstretched, in communion with all of nature all of the time?

Well, if we were to ask St. Francis that question, we might not like what he says. Because the depth of St. Francis’ love is linked with his love of poverty. “Sister Poverty” he called her, whom he took as his wife. For Francis, as well as for Jesus, poverty was not something to be feared but rather to be welcomed.

Given the economy these days, we might find some comfort in this – to know that what we fear most might actually draw us toward a path to the deepest joy we will ever know.

But the economy is worrisome. I was in the store the other day looking for dog food and noticed that a can of Alpo has gone up to a dollar. ...And you know, that’s $7 in dog money...

But seriously, folks...

Maybe we are not all called to the same level of poverty that Jesus and St. Francis were called to. But we can take some comfort in knowing that poverty is not the worst thing that can happen to us – and in fact, according to our saints, might even be God’s way of getting our attention and leading us into our deepest joy.

And if we are not aspiring to absolute poverty, we can at least aspire to spiritual growth. I love that bumper sticker: “Lord, help me to become the person my dog thinks I am.”

After all: To err is human; to forgive, canine.

Somebody say... AMEN.

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