I have this story from Debra K. Farrington from the foreword of her book, All God’s Creatures. “A few years ago one of my cats jumped up on my lap while I was saying morning prayers. After I pushed him away I realized I’d done something quite wrong. ‘Come, Lord Jesus,’ were my words, while my actions said: ‘but don’t sit on my lap!’ Now, … I know my cat isn’t Jesus. But I do believe that if God created everything…that I’m just as likely to encounter God’s presence in a cat, dog, or some other animal as I am in a human being.
Centuries ago a frog taught St. Benno the same lesson. This wise bishop was walking in the fields praying, …but a noisy frog kept interrupting him. Finally Benno ordered the frog to be quiet, and the frog ceased his croaking. … As he walked in silence, …Benno began to wonder if God might not find the frog’s song just as, or more, agreeable than Benno’s own, and so he commanded the frog to sing again. The air was filled with the prayers of the priest and the frog, and God was pleased. …St. Benno’s struggle to let the animals be all that God intended them to be, instead of viewing them as lesser creatures, is still ours today.
…those who love the church wonder why I think animals should find a place in our life and prayers. … church historian Roberta Bondi writes, ‘our tradition is also very clear that it isn’t only human beings who reflect who God is. All of creation, every bit of it, expresses God and points us back to God.’” End quote.
So, why not include our animals in our spiritual life? They are our friends through thick and thin. They love us when we are mean and grouchy and they love us when we are nice and happy. And, so does God.
Over the last few months, I was aware I would be speaking today and there were a few things I did that reminded me of St. Francis. First, I went to the San Diego Zoo--one of my favorites. These days when we go to a zoo, we don’t see exotic animals in barred cages. We see the same exotic animals--if they decide they want to be out where we can see them--in a habitat that thoughtfully mimics their environment if they were living in the wild. And, that is a good thing.
Another thing we encounter at zoos, is information about wild habitats and often about its destruction and the dwindling numbers of animals in the wild. Or, we find, like my second encounter with St. Francis this summer at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, we find statistics on increasing numbers in the wild that have resulted from breeding programs at those same zoos. In this case, the red wolf population. They had five pups the last time I was there. And, just to get a plug in for the Point Defiance Zoo, they now have two young clouded leopards and a baby Sumatran tiger--go visit!
For my third Franciscan encounter, on Thursday, I went to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle wearing street clothes and a priest’s stole to participate in the first ever St. Francis Day Blessing of the animals. It was the most awesome visit I have ever had to a zoo! We started at the Savannah viewing area--there were three giraffes, zebras and impalas. As we began our service, the animals moved closer and we were treated to that rare occurrence at the zoo which is seeing all the animals in their habitat rather than finding they have hidden from view. It was as if they knew we were praying for them, for their health, for their relatives who live in the wild and for the environment: that we were apologizing for destroying their homeland and promising to do more to keep the world healthy for them. At several of the habitats, we maintained a time of silence to just BE with the animals. Orangutans and gorillas looked us right in the eye. A grizzly came from way back in the habitat to right up close to look at us and kept coming back to look at us again. He was magnificent! Every creature cooperated except the river otters--not a one in sight but we blessed them anyhow. When we saw the arctic fox, we stopped to bless her even though we had not planned to stop there. The docent who joined us at the penguins, told us she had only seen the fox three times, including that one.
Wearing funny clothes to the zoo to bless the animals and to be blessed by them and really thinking about those wonderful and beautiful creatures was fun. As we walked together, we humans talked about animals we had known and loved, we talked about the animals we had seen and what we liked about them. Some of us pulled out our phones and showed pictures of pets.
One thing I really enjoyed about this day was something in what we said at the first stop: thank you for refusing to be domesticated and remaining wild. I hadn’t thought about the fact that some long ago animal ancestor had a choice to either live with humans or avoid them. It’s something to think about. Because here are all these lovely companions who descend from an ancestor who chose to live with humans.
How many of us have felt that our animals picked us? I ended up with a beagle when I was ten because a beagle came to our house when she got tired of rabbit hunting and asked to be let in. I was in love! She was the most wonderful dog I had ever seen! When my uncle came to collect her, he said, “Why she has a litter of pups that are ready for homes!” And, Buster became mine. I was 24 when he died, had moved here to Washington State with my family and my parents still had Buster in Indiana. He was such a good rabbit dog other people would bring their beagles to train with him. He was gentle with little kids and other animals--even my pet rabbit, Mr. Grabbit! And, he was gorgeous--my mom always said he had Elizabeth Taylor eyes because it looked as though he had applied eyeliner. He was my friend through thick and thin and he loved me no matter what mood I was in. And, I loved him.
So, it is our responsibility to take care of our companion animals--these creatures who choose to live with us instead of being wild. It is our responsibility to care for creation so the wild animals that are so magnificent have the right to continue to roam the face of the Earth. God is here with us and we can see God in all the creatures we encounter. So, kitty come join our morning prayers!