Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) AMEN
It has long been a custom in the Episcopal Church to hold Blessing of the Animals services in early October each year, in close proximity with the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, which occurs on October 4. But what is the connection between these two events?
First a bit of background: Francis was born in Assisi, Italy in 1182 to a wealthy family. His early goal in life was to seek military glory, which he failed at quite miserably. Instead, Francis’s repeated encounters with the poor and the sick began to make him question the extravagant life he was living. It was during this time, in his early 20s, that Francis stopped to pray before the crucifix in a county chapel, which was falling into ruin. As he prayed alone he heard a voice say, “Repair my house,” which Francis took as a command not only to rebuild the chapel, but also to rebuild the entire Church throughout the world.
When Francis tried to renounce his past life and lifestyle, in order to take a vow of poverty, he suffered the wrath of his father, who at one point imprisoned Francis in a closet in their home. After Francis was freed, he went before the local bishop to take the vow of poverty. His father appeared and strenuously objected, at which point Francis took off all his clothes and handed them to his father, thus symbolically severing all ties to his family and past life. Perhaps not surprisingly, Francis was considered both radical and crazy by most people of that time, and he was viewed with suspicion by the Church. He spent a great deal of time living alone in the country, before he started to gather a group of followers.
Among many things that Francis became known for, one was his love of nature. He wrote the “Canticle of the Sun,” which praises God for the gift of creation in all its forms. In one famous incident, Francis reportedly preached a sermon to a gathering of birds, an except of which reads:
My brother and sister birds, you should greatly praise your Creator and love God always. God gave you feathers to wear, and wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among the creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air so that, though you do not sow or reap, God nevertheless protects and governs you without your least care.
Francis died at the age of 44 on October 4, 1226. While he suffered scorn for much of his life, Francis was proclaimed a saint by the Church just two years after his death. Over the centuries and throughout the world he has become perhaps the most beloved saint of all time. Thus in his memory each year we celebrate the animals who are part of our lives.
The interesting thing about the phrase “the Blessing of the Animals” is that it actually has multiple meanings, four of them when you think about it. Two involve humans: one, the action of blessing the animals; and two, the blessing of our presence, as we provide food and shelter to these animals. But another two meanings involve the animals: one, the blessing of their presence in our lives, as they provide us with comfort and companionship; and two the blessing they give to us, through the wagging of a tail or a loud purr. Let us bear all these blessings in mind this morning. Amen.