Blessing of the Animals
A few years ago I wrote a book titled The Bible According to Noah. Like our reading this morning about the creation of pets, it’s a rewrite of familiar stories from the scriptures. I was inspired partly by my daughter, who took the Bible Stories course offered in our Sunday School back when she was in fourth grade. In one of the first sessions, students are asked, "What would you do differently, if you were God and creating the human race, and had it to do all over again?" Holly answered that she would give people a good warm coat of fur a nice long tail for keeping balance. And really, who could argue that fur coats make a lot of sense here in New England? I think I would only add that, if I were God, I might give human beings a little more of the serenity and patience and playfulness that other animals seem to have in such abundance. That and the ability to scratch my left ear with my right leg would make my life, I think, just about complete.
The Bible does say that when Adam was first formed out of the dust of the ground, God saw that he was by himself, and God said, "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make a helper for him as his partner. So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air …." At least as originally intended, we’re told, animals were made to be our companions—our partners and not our possessions. They’re ours to enjoy, but not ours to exploit or abuse, at least not in my version of holy write. Animals can be soulmates, who touch our hearts in very warming and healing ways.
Sometimes the stories of healing are quite remarkable. One spring, for instance, the adult education committee at the church I served sponsored a program featuring the Therapy Dogs of Vermont. We had three German Shepherds in the building along with Steve Reiman, their trainer, who takes the dogs into pediatric wards of hospitals around the state, where there are children who are sick or gravely injured. One of those youngsters was a fourteen year old girl who had been flown into our medical center from New York when an aneurysm ruptured inside her brain. She’d arrived on a Friday night and the following Wednesday she was still in a coma, unconscious and unresponsive to the world around. Nothing the doctors tried seemed to be able to bring her back to life. Her mother had briefly gone out of the room to get a bite to eat when Steve happened to stop in with his Therapy Dogs. And by the time mom came back, her daughter had gotten out of bed and was sitting up in a chair, smiling and looking around the room. One of the dogs had actually climbed up on the bed with the girl and sprawled across her chest. May the pooch even applied a little miracle dog slobber to her face. But as soon as the girl felt the weight of that big dog and the soft fur against her skin, her arms, that had lain limp and unmoving for over five days, rose up and circled round that big friendly mutt. It was an act of pure puppy love that did what modern medicine couldn’t do.
Animals are natural helpers and they make excellent chaplains, too. I became aware of this at a clergy meeting where other religious leaders were invited to talk about their pets, and the answer to the question, "Who ministers to the minster?" became clear. For many of my colleagues, animals provided the unconditional acceptance and appreciation that we associate with the best pastoral care. Animals never preach. They have absolutely no use for theological arguments. But they do listen, they can keep a confidence, and at least seem to understand.
It makes me wonder if there shouldn’t be more ‘dog chapels’ like the one that Vermont artist Stephen Huneck created on his farm named Dog Mountain. Huneck explained that the vision came to him when he was forty-five years old and narrowly survived a life-threatening illness. He had to literally start over: learn to walk again, talk again, recover the ability to take a bath and brush his teeth. For him that brush with death was a wake up call that it was either time to settle down and get serious or do something absolutely wacky with his life, and fortunately he chose the latter. "I wanted to create a chapel," he said, "one that celebrated the spiritual bond we have with our dogs and that would be open to dogs and people of any faith or belief system." Outside the door is a sign: "All breeds, all creeds, no dogmas allowed." The chapel itself is styled like an old-fashioned New England meetinghouse that looks a lot like this one, except that a Labrador Retriever sits atop the white steeple, swinging in the wind, and the windows are stained glass, each one a doggy diorama graced with legends spelling out canine virtues like Faith, Trust, Simplicity and Joy.
But of course you don’t need a special chapel to honor the bond with share with other creatures. And the idea of dogs (or any other animal) going to church is probably a little misguided. A friend of mine who’s Hispanic tells me the story that she heard from her abuelo (or grandfather) that was passed down from his own padre. And according to that story, dogs did long ago attend church on Sunday with their masters. As they entered the cathedral, the men would remove their sombreros and hang them in the cloak room. They dogs were also in the custom of taking off their tails and hanging them there also. Then one day a fire broke out in the middle of the sermon. The men all raced for the exit, grabbing their hats on the way out. The dogs also scurried for the door, but in the hurry and confusion, many of them grabbed the wrong hind part. And that’s why dog’s sniff each others derriere’s to this day. They’re looking for their own, proper tail. And after that, dogs didn’t go to the sanctuario any more.
Now the animals only come into the sanctuary for occasions like these. And Blessing of the Animals ceremonies do have a long and ancient history. But animals don’t really need our prayers or consecrations. They got along fine for millions of years before human beings ever arrived on the scene. So our purpose in gathering today is not to give, but to receive the blessing of the animals, and to give thanks for all the ways they contribute to our lives.
One of the best that animals do is tickle the funny bone. Garrison Keillor notes that "cats are intended to teach us that not everything in nature has a function." Robert Benchley says that "a boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down." I once called my dog Chinook my spiritual guide, but Smokey, the Chow-Chow who replaced him, was more a wise guy than wise companion. If he taught me anything, it was not to take my own philosophizing too seriously, because he certainly never paid attention to a single word I said.
I do miss Smokey and Chinook. They were choice companions and I wish they might have been here this morning. I loved those good old dogs, as you undoubtedly love your pets. And it’s through love that we glimpse the holy in every living being.